Friday, June 20, 2008

Mothers Who Kill

by Lucy Puryear, M.D.

I can imagine few things more horrific than a mother killing her own child. Mothers are warm, kind, nurturing people who would rather die than have anything happen to one of their precious children. But as we know all too well mothers do kill, and unfortunately it's all too frequent.

There are mothers who kill because they want
revenge against their boyfriends or because they are desperate to keep the man they love. These women, like Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her two children in the lake while they were asleep in their car seats, are criminals. Although women like Smith (pictured right) may have many mitigating circumstances that make them feel desperate and alone, all of them have alternative choices besides killing.

There are some women who, feeling trapped in an untenable situation, decides that the only way out is suicide. But before they do this, they take the lives of their children. This sounds illogical to you and me, but consider the tragic case in Texas where a mother hung her four children before hanging herself. She was a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant, who had a restraining order against her common-law husband for domestic violence. She was working at Wendy's in order to support herself and her family. She was depressed, financially in crisis, and away from her extended family.

It is believed that this was an example of
altruistic filicide, motivated by a mother's love and her belief that her children's deaths were better than leaving them in this world without a mother. Were this woman to have lived she would have been tried for murder, but is she the same type of criminal as the examples above?

Today is the seventh anniversary of the Yates children's death at their mother's hand on June 20, 2001. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison with the option of parole after 40 years. Due to non-factual testimony by Dr. Park Dietz, the State's highly paid expert, Andrea Yates was given a new trial five years after her original conviction. This time the jury found her not-guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to a maximum security state psychiatric facility in Vernon, Texas. She was no longer a criminal.

What few realize is that Ms. Yates remains under the jurisdiction of the courts. Although no longer in maximum security, she will remain in a state hospital until a judge determines that she is no longer a danger to herself or others. Even if she were well this is unlikely to happen.

So why rehash the Andrea Yates case? Yes, I testified that she was psychotic at the time of the drownings (hearing voices speaking to her from the TV, believing that she was invaded by Satan and that he was trying to ruin her children through her and send them to hell) but I've had many arguments with others who believe that although mentally ill, she was responsible for the killings and should be punished. I'm not going to continue to try to change the minds of others about this particular case.

I do want to talk about postpartum psychiatric disorders, which are real and treatable. In the case of postpartum psychosis, if recognized and treated, mother's and children's lives can be saved. Andrea Yates is not an isolated case. There were two more incidences reported in Texas within a few years after the Yates tragedy. Those are just the cases that made the news and only in Texas. These were also women who heard God or Satan speaking to them and believed killing their children would somehow save them or save the world. Putting these women in jail or executing them will not stop maternal filicide from happening.

It is estimated that between 1 and 2 women per 1000 deliveries will develop postpartum psychosis. This is a psychiatric emergency. The psychotic thoughts revolve around the baby and often include thoughts of harming the child and themselves. The only way to treat these disorders is through prompt diagnosis and medical treatment. A mother who is psychotic should never be left alone with her child.

Criminologists and forensic psychiatrists are desperate to understand why people commit crimes and how to prevent them from doing so. Many criminals have been so damaged in childhood that changing their character and behavior is impossible. But postpartum psychosis and infanticide is preventable.

Andrea's treating psychiatrist took her off her anitpsychotic medication two weeks prior to the drownings. She was seen by him two days before the drownings. Although mute and catatonic he sent her home. She had been hospitalized twice, and despite medical records that doccumented she was still paranoid and ill, she was released. It is not noted in the records that at any time anyone asked her if she had thoughts of harming her children.

On June 4-7, 2008, Houston was host to the 22nd annual conference of Postpartum Support International. Supported by the Yates Children's Memorial Fund (YCMF) of Mental Health America of Greater Houston (MHA) and Texas Children's Hospital, over 300 attendees heard lectures about about postpartum psychiatric disorders, their recognition and treatment. The more we educate health care providers, mothers, and those who love them the more lives will be saved. The more we talk the more mothers will feel safe to speak out loud the confusing feelings they are experiencing. The more we destigmatize postpartum psychiatric disorders and make it safe to ask for help, the fewer tragedies will end up on the front page of the newspaper.

Andrea Yates was not a woman destined to be a killer. She came from a good family, was highly educated, and loved her children enormously. It could have happened to you or me or to any other woman who delivered a baby. Society let her down. Doctors let her down. Our criminal justice system initially let her down.

We can't stop every mother from taking the life of her child. There are those who do so that we can find no explanation for why they made that choice. And those mother's should be punished. There are many who say that Andrea Yates got away with murder, that she should be punished and suffer for what she did. She does, every day when she opens her eyes and remembers Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary, and remembers how they died.

12 comments:

Diane Fanning said...

Terrifc post, Lucy. A sad reminder of a heart-wrenching tragedy. I hope someday that the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental illness will disappear from our society. When it happens, many lives will be enriched and many others will be saved.

Kathryn Casey said...

I'm waiting for the blog to catch on fire when Pat weighs in! LOL.

Interesting post, Lucy. I, too, believe the second verdict in the Yates case was the correct one. I spoke with Andrea's mother before that second trial, and she told me that when Andrea was in Galveston, at the prison medical facility after a suicide attempt, she talked often of the children, reminiscing about the good times with them, before she became so ill. Very sad case.

Andrea's attorney, George Parnham, has told me that she'll never be able to maintain outside of a hospital. At the time of the trial, Andrea's mother agreed. But perhaps they were posturing for the jury pool, trying to get the message out that one way or the other, Yates would be confined?

In all honesty, I'm not sure what I think about her being released. I didn't believe she belonged in prison, but I'm not in favor of Andrea as a free woman. The killings were just so terrible.

Left on their own, folks can go off psychiatric meds. What do you think, Lucy? Should Andrea ever be released? Could she become delusional and homicidal again?

Leah said...

What I wonder about is how mentally ill she is/was beyond the postpartum psychosis. I agree that there are already too many mentally ill individuals that live freely and regularly stop taking meds becuase they think they don't need them. Andrea certainly doesn't need to be free to be able to have more children.

Lucy Puryear said...

I only know of one case when a woman who killed her children due to postpartum depression did not kill herself when released from prison or a hospital. This woman keeps going by telling her story and being an advocate. Andrea was mentally ill before and after the killings. Hormonal changes after delivery triggered the psychosis about killing the children. This would not happen again unless she were to have more children. She is not biologically able to any longer. She is content to stay where she is now. She is being treated well and on appropriate medication. It is a safe place for her to be.

katherine scardino said...

What has always burned me about the sad case of Andrea Yates was her husband. I always felt it was quasi-criminal that he knew she had serious mental problems (remember the psychiatric hospital shortly prior to the children's deaths) and still left her with the children. Don't get me started on him!

TxMichelle said...

I agree Katherine. He always struck me as a real piece of work. Not only did he leave the children alone with her, she was showing symptoms after the third child (if I remember correctly) and STILL they had more children. That is just so wrong. If he was in his right mind (which I happen to think he was and it was a controlling mind) he would never have let her have more children in her state. Let alone leaving them with her unsupervised.


Oh and the other thing I wanted to say. If I were to suffer from the same mental issues as these women and I murdered my children, should I live, I would not want to get well again. What would be the point? How do you go on living after something like this?

TxMichelle said...

I agree Katherine. He always struck me as a real piece of work. Not only did he leave the children alone with her, she was showing symptoms after the third child (if I remember correctly) and STILL they had more children. That is just so wrong. If he was in his right mind (which I happen to think he was and it was a controlling mind) he would never have let her have more children in her state. Let alone leaving them with her unsupervised.


Oh and the other thing I wanted to say. If I were to suffer from the same mental issues as these women and I murdered my children, should I live, I would not want to get well again. What would be the point? How do you go on living after something like this?

Pat Brown said...

I am only commenting for Katherine's sake! ::lights match::

Many of you know I am a strong disbeliever in postpartum depression or psychosis. I believe what these women are suffering from(and the men who beat their babies and older children to death are suffering from)is "I can't believe I am stuck with this kid" syndrome.

I remember being tired as heck with my first child, nursing constantly, and living away from any other help(except my husband). I remember a moment when my baby wouldn't stop crying when I had a quick vision of grabbing my daughter by the ankles and whacking her against the door frame. I remember saying to her, "You are lucky I think you are so cute and I love you." And then I picked her up and got out of the house and took a walk.

Some mothers decide to actually smash the baby into the doorframe. It isn't chemicals, but getting fed up with one's situation and the brat or brats. Maybe they weren't really wanting to be moms and dads in the first place. Maybe they are already psychopaths and just had kids that got in their way.

I don't understand why it is necessary to give these women a break when they coldbloodedly off their children. I think Andrea Yates remembering how her kids died is nothing compared to what horror these kids went through whule their mother was murdering them. They also don't have lives while their murderer still gets to go on living (and getting attention and sympathy and craft time).

I say we have laws for a reason and "Thou Shalt Not Murder" should be pretty clear.

Depression is no excuse for murder. Yates have every opportunity to leave her children with others or to walk out of the house to get help. She killed those childen because she wanted to and that pretty much makes a case for Murder One.

TxMichelle said...

Pat,
That was sort of my point without starting a raging war. I have always found it interesting that they are ill enough to kill their children, but not themselves.

When men commit this sort of crime they are automatically tried as murderers, but women are given the PPD out.

The ones that kill all of the children and then themselves I would say are really severly depressed and or mentally deranged. At least it seems that way to me. I am just a layman though. That is why I said if I were to get better I wouldn't want to live with what I did. How could anyone?

TxMichelle said...

Oh and I forgot to add. I still find him just as culpable by the sheer fact that he knew she was having issues yet continued to have children and left her alone with them.

jill said...

I agree with Pat B. 110%. Finally someone who makes sense to me on this topic. No offense to anyone else, just my opinion.

Pat Brown said...

Thanks, Jill, for the support! I think folks generally have a really hard time believing mothers can kill their children for reasons other than insanity. Yet, when Coleman decided recently to strangle his wife and two boys to death after taking care of them for a decade, no one thought he was insane; they just believed he was really a coldblooded selfish creature who didn't really didn't love his family after all.

Women can be just as evil, just as uncaring, and just as mean. Can we get to a point where the ones we professed to love become people we hate? Sure. Even nonpsychopaths can grow to dislike, even despise, their children. Regardless, we don't not murder because we are disgusted by them. If this were true, my hit list would have been reduced by now!