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USF professor studies why children kill parents

Each case leaves an impression on her.

Since she was an undergrad in college, criminology professor Kathleen Heide has studied kids who kill. A few of the cases dealt with parricide, when kids kill their parents.

But as a licensed mental health counselor and clinician, Heides research methods involved more than delving through police reports and studying motivating factors. Heide meets with the alleged murderers.

She wants to hear their stories.

One of the cases involved a boy who she said had been severely abused by his parents. Floridas social services agencies had removed him from his home to take him away from the abuse, but returned him home. While trying to escape, he killed both his parents.

He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. His attorney advised him to plead guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. The same judge who oversaw his child abuse case saw his murder trial. He sentenced him to two terms of life in prison.

But when Heide got a call from him, years later in prison, she knew she had to do something. What she didnt know at the time was that shed spend more than the next two decades evaluating several more such cases and becoming an expert in the field of parricide.

Though she said she approaches each case as a scientist looking for answers, each case strikes her as sad.

All cases are sad, no matter what the dynamics are, she said. This at one time was a family unit, and the family unit is forever changed. The best thing is to prevent it, and that could be done in some cases if intervention came earlier.

The reasons kids kill, she said, tend to fall into four categories. Some are abused and kill to end the abuse. Others kill because theyre severely mentally ill. Others act out of unresolved anger that erupts into rage. Only some act out of purely antisocial reasons, she said.

She remembers one case particularly. Local media had portrayed a 17-year-old who killed her dad as the rich girl who had everything.

But that wasnt the story, the truth, at all, Heide said. The facts of the case were horrible, but the reality was the girl was abused by her dad. She was physically, sexually, psychologically and verbally abused by him. I talked with the mom for several hours, who had left the father and divorced him because of abuse, and there was a lot of corroboration that he had been a violent man.

The girl was sentenced to 17 years in prison and served about six or seven before being released, Heide said.

She became an assistant manager at a sports facility and got out of an abusive relationship, Heide said. She married later in life, and recently had a baby.

Shes done great, Heide said. She worked hard. That makes me feel good that she had a second chance.

Heide keeps in touch with many of the kids she meets in prison. Some are sentenced to life without parole, and may never see the outside world again. Others, like the boy who called her from jail, have their cases taken on by other attorneys and are later released from prison.

Theyre not kids anymore, Heide said with a smile. I think of them as kids because thats how I met them. Theyre grown up now. I do hear from several who still write to me. I value that. I know them at different phases of their lives … (When I meet them), I want to get to know them as a person. (The killing) is like one moment in time. The whole thing could have happened in less than a minute. I want to know about them in terms of their lives school, work, girlfriends, boyfriends, activities, drugs, alcohol, mental health history, goals, future aspirations.

In her fourth book, Understanding Parricide: When Sons and Daughters Kill Parents, which was published recently, Heide said she hopes some good can come from it.

Michelle Ingraham, a junior majoring in psychology, said she emailed Heide in July after reading about her research and now works with her on a research project. Shes read Heides latest book.

It is very well written and I was never bored with it, Ingraham said. You really get the inside look on some of her cases that you would not have otherwise. It has been said to be the definitive work on parricide, and I would have to agree.

Ingraham, who said she is interested in the topic of parricide and juvenile homicide, hopes to work with juveniles in the criminal justice system.

Heide said she hopes her books spreads awareness of early intervention, which, she said, could have prevented many of the occurrences.

Sometimes a state social services agency dropped the ball. Sometimes having firearms in homes where there was a history of violence was the game changer. Sometimes bringing in mental health professionals could have helped.

The topic of parricide has been considered taboo for hundreds of years, and it is, Heide said. When you read the circumstances, it becomes understandable, and when you understand something, you have a much better chance of preventing it.