Penn State researchers say education, treatment key to averting child homicides

Mothers who suffer from serious bouts of postpartum depression and psychosis often don't get enough help before killing their children, but jailing them is not necessarily the answer, say two Penn State researchers who are publishing a new book: "Child Homicide: Parents Who Kill," with CRC Press, in August.

This week, Andrea Yates convicted in 2001 of killing her five children in Texas was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a second trial. An appeals court overturned an earlier conviction and opened the way for another trial.

Lita Schwartz and Natalie Isser, professors emerita at Penn State, note, "Often, these mothers are in situations where they're single parents or they don't get much support from their spouse, and they become overwhelmed with the situation that faces them. "These are serious illnesses if not treated. If the mother's OB/GYN would take some time during the first neo-natal visit to test these mothers to ensure they're not suffering from post-partum issues, these tragedies could often be averted," they note.

The Yates case is a good example of the pressure these women face. Yates was raising five children and had suffered with depression for years before the birth of her last child. She had been on medication for her condition but, despite warnings from doctors, she went forth with conceiving another child with the encouragement of family and a trusted pastor, according to the book. For some reason, Yates also had stopped medication for her depression. She suffered from postpartum psychosis and drowned all of her children.

"That she should have continued on medication is a given," said Schwartz, distinguished professor emerita of educational psychology. "However, we came across in our research something called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. If Yates had been given this test, her doctor would have had all the confirmation he needed about the depth of her postpartum condition." As professor emerita of European history, Isser says women like Yates often have limited control of their actions when suffering postpartum illnesses, and that in many cases, they would be better off getting mental health treatment instead of going to jail. Eventually, they could spread the message on the dangers of postpartum depression and psychosis.

"We are not excusing these women for their actions, but we do think that the punishment needs to take the circumstances into account. What good does it do to take someone like Andrea Yates and throw her in jail for the rest of her life?" Isser asked. "What good is she going to do anyone there? Our prisons are fast becoming the place where we put those in our society with mental problems, and they will never get the treatment they need there to become rehabilitated and contribute something to society."

While a majority of women suffer from "The Baby Blues," or mild depression after finally giving birth, 10-15 percent suffer from postpartum depression, which may last for a couple of weeks, and 1-2 percent battle postpartum psychosis, a very serious mental illness that can last a year or more, said Schwartz.

In addition to the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale, women need to be educated on the difficulties in raising a child well before they have them. They need to get a feel for how grating a baby's cry at 3 a.m. can be, after it's been fed and changed and there's no apparent reason for the tears.

"There needs to be more education earlier for kids to know what to expect from baby's behavior, so boys and girls don't shake the baby, for example. It's not too soon to do it when they're 12, given the age some girls are having babies nowadays," said Schwartz. "For single mothers, they need to be made aware and take advantage of support services and practical nursing that help moms cope and learn. They may not be living near family and feel isolated, and we're seeing more of that over the last several years.

"If you want to drive a car, you take a driver's test and then you get a license. If you're going to have a baby there's no such requirement, but you certainly need education. Any inexperienced caregivers, including babysitters, can benefit greatly from this," she added.

Those who suffer from postpartum mental illness need ongoing doctor's care to monitor the seriousness of the condition and make sure it doesn't worsen. The authors applaud so-called "Safe Haven Laws," which allow parents to drop their unwanted children in various places without penalty-and for the immediate good of the child.

In 2000, Schwartz and Isser published a similar book titled, "Endangered Children: Neonaticide, Infanticide and Filicide," This book differs, however, in that it addresses in greater detail the father's role in these tragedies, as well as Shaken Baby Syndrome. In fact, the authors say the father's role in these tragedies is rarely examined in the research.

"Many times, even if the father doesn't kill the baby, he has some role in the baby's death, even if it's simply indifference. Also, fathers are more likely to shake the baby than the mothers," said Schwartz. "Sometimes it's perceived as playfulness, other times it's because baby won't stop crying or baby wants attention and daddy is trying to watch the football game.

"In either case, it's important for both parents to be aware of the detrimental effects that can result from shaking a baby. There seems to be a perception in much of the research that mothers are supposed to be devoted, of 'how can they do that?' Fathers are not perceived as as intimately involved," she noted.

In the current book, the Penn State researchers examine many of the well-known cases of infanticide and filicide, including the case of Margaret Garner, a black woman and slave in the 1800s who sacrificed her children so they wouldn't be forced into a life of slavery. They also look at cases of conjoined twins and children with serious illnesses, where parents believed, in their mind, that they were committing euthanasia, as well as cases where the religious beliefs of the parents were at issue.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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