The Death Of Maleah Davis And The Phenomenon Of Homicidal Stepparents

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I worry about my son in a way many other single mothers can likely relate to. It extends beyond the general concern a mother has for her child’s wellbeing and borders on fear. The fear that one day I’ll love a person who doesn’t share that same love for my child.

When a 4-year-old Houston girl was identified as the subject of a missing persons manhunt, the city mourned what was presumed to be a tragic loss. As details were revealed in the case, casting doubt over stepfather Dereon Vince’s account of the child’s disappearance, public opinions came crashing in like a cold Christmas chorus. “Stop letting your boyfriends babysit your children,” people protested. “Single mothers shouldn’t even be thinking about dating, it’s too dangerous,” one reader rationalized. And everyone seemed to miss what should’ve been the bigger commandment: “Step-parents, stop murdering your children.” Ironically, even though the assumption had already been made that the stepfather was guilty of the horrendous crime that would later be uncovered, the responsibility seemed amiss from the conversation. Have filicidal men and women– parental figures who kill children — become the norm in blended families?

I suppose before I had a child of my own I hadn’t questioned why society normalized the evil stepparent persona. Sure, we’re still slightly sensitive to the loss of young life but we’ve all but embraced the idea of abusive step-parents. We call this The Cinderella Effect. This phenomenon in social psychology seeks to explain the higher occurrence of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of stepparents. And if you’ve seen the Disney classic, then you’ve seen this dynamic at work. The realities of The Cinderella Effect may look a little different than the evil stepmother we’re accustomed to, especially since stepfathers are statistically much bigger culprits, but across the board, children who live with non-biological parents live with a much greater risk of abuse than their peers. Based on an analysis of homicide data in Canada and the U.S., evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and the late Margo Wilson discovered that children who lived with a stepparent were anywhere from 40 to 100 times more likely to be murdered or maimed than children living with two biological parents. Another study out of the Journal of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Women indicated that abuse was most common in homes with a stepfather or boyfriend, with 80% of the abuse occurring between birth and age 4. Repeated findings of this phenomenon led Steven Pinker to argue that step parenthood was “the strongest risk factor for child abuse ever identified.”

Don’t get me wrong, parental favoritism is a real thing. Even biological parents tend to show favoritism to children who are more intelligent, more attractive, and more talented than their siblings. As parents, we take care of our children because of the love we have for them, but science says much of that love is based on their contribution to our evolutionary success. Of course, most parents shy away from identifying a golden child in the bunch but their behavior often tells a different story. It’s not uncommon for parents to invest more time and resources into the child they believe will leverage those investments into something greater. In other words, subconsciously, we benefit from caring for and investing in our children because, in the long run, we expect there to be some return. We may benefit financially by investing in their athleticism, we might benefit socially by investing in their academics, and we can certainly benefit generationally by investing in their social maturation and ideology. But in one way or another, our care for our children is linked to the protection and betterment of our lineage, and evolution says that alone is worth the investment. Now when we strip away our capacity to benefit, for some, the investment becomes less alluring. Sure, a stepparent can invest in a child that isn’t biologically theirs and have access to some of the same benefits through their spouse but eventually, those long term benefits will cycle back to the original genealogy. So for people who see children as property from which we benefit from, healthy step-parenting isn’t worth the extra effort, this is what’s known as Discriminative Parental Solicitude. But not being particularly stoked about the prospect of raising someone else’s offspring isn’t the same as carrying out their murder. Other factors make these step-parenting situations twice as risky, one of the main factors being our Mate Value.

Mate Value, a concept borrowed from Darwin’s theory on sexual selection and evolution, is defined as the sum of traits that are perceived as desirable, representing genetic quality and/or biological fitness. The higher the mate value, the more desirable the individual, and the more desirable the individual, the more mating options available to them. On the other hand, a low mate value means fewer mating options and how we derive these values varies greatly, especially when it comes to gender. For men, factors such as income, education, family background, and social disposition come into play. A man with a lower income will be assessed a lower mate value due to his inability to provide household stability. A man with a criminal past will be assessed a similar grading due to the many ways in which a criminal past can affect one’s freedom within society. And a man with a problematic social disposition, (ie. aggressive, violent, angry, etc), will also be assessed a lower mate value because decent men are safe and safe men aren’t unpredictable. Since evolutionary success is always the goal, men with a low mate value will pursue and mate with women they have the most reproductive luck with, women with equally low mate values. But when we look at who society says those women are, they’re not equally violent women or women with criminal records, they’re women over the age of 30, single, unwed mothers and divorcées with children. What does it say about a society that would assess violent men and women with children the same social grading?

Maleah Davis was laid to rest on June 22nd in a private ceremony in Houston, Texas. She joins 5-year-old Alex Malcolm who was punched to death in a London park by his stepfather after losing his shoe, 10-year-old Emani Moss who was starved to death by her stepmother, and Isabella and Maria Perez, 14- and 15-year-old sisters who were killed in a murder-suicide by their stepfather. There are tons of cases like this, tons of stories of children losing their lives to people who were entrusted to care for them, do we seriously believe this issue is resolved by guilting single mothers into abstinence?

Nuclear families will always be the safest environment within which to raise children but two-biological-parent households are no longer the norm and haven’t been for quite some time now. We need to know that we can talk about the painful reality of the changing modern family without losing sight of what would be better for us, and that’s not necessarily a “traditional” family but definitely a stable, loving one. This is no attack on single motherhood or fatherhood because even single-biological-parent homes fair better than the blended ones, but it is an acknowledgment of the fact that children are being directly impacted by our relationship instability. Children shouldn’t be eight times more likely to be abused simply because their single parent has a live-in partner or boyfriend, but since that’s the ugly reality we’re dealing with, let’s tackle it and let’s start by addressing the systematic pairing of vulnerable women with dangerous men. If we continue to make like bearable for men and women who make life unbearable for innocent children, how are we any better?

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