Intended for healthcare professionals


Children who kill

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 13 January 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:61

They can and should be reclaimed

  1. Sula Wolff, former consultant child psychiatrist,
  2. Alexander McCall Smith, professor of medical law
  1. Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh EH9 1LF
  2. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL

    Juvenile delinquency, including violence, is increasing, but homicide committed by children remains rare.1 While the acts and features of children who kill are heterogeneous, all these children are seriously disturbed, with high rates of neuropsychological abnormalities, poor impulse control, school failure, and truancy. All have experienced severe family adversities: domestic violence, neglect, child abuse, substance misuse, maternal depression, and absence of fathers.24 Because homicide by children is so rare, population approaches to prevention are not realistic.5 But the evidence, though limited, is that with good care and psychiatric treatment the children do well and do not reoffend in later life.2 This fact should govern the way that they are treated by the criminal justice system.

    In Britain recent interest in child homicide followed the killing of 2 year old James Bulger by two boys aged 10. This case, which occurred in 1993, aroused what amounted to a national panic, resulting not only in excessive sentences for the children concerned but in more coercive juvenile …

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