Leslie A. Burtz
Ivy Tech Community College
A parent is one who gives birth to, or nurtures and raises a child; a father or a mother (Dictionary, p. 992). Every child born into this world depends on their parents to protect and keep them from harm. Children need to be cared for and nourished by those who love them. Parents are to provide guidance and raise that child to the best of their knowledge until that child is old enough to venture out on their own and be an adult. Parents have a duty to that child. When does it become necessary to protect a child from their own parents and why would a parent want to cause harm to their child. There are many cases of parents killing their own children; one case in particular is that of Andrea Yates, who drowned all five of her children in a bath tub. Many parents end up pleading insanity after murdering their kids. One would think a parent would have enough self control over their own actions and thoughts to not cause harm to their offspring. Many of these parents committing these horrific crimes have been dealing with a mental condition or illness. The big question is why would a parent want to cause harm to their own child? In 2006, Andrea Yates of Houston Texas was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the drowning of her five children. She suffered from severe postpartum psychosis and, in a delusional state; believed Satan was inside her and was trying to save them from hell (McNamara M., 2006a, p, 1). In 2001 Yates filled the tub with water and began with the drowning of her three youngest sons, then her only daughter, and last her first born son who was seven years old (Montaldo, 2010, p. 1). The evidence in this case seemed to show both that Yates knew what she was doing was criminal and she thought she was actually saving her children from punishment from beyond. In other words, some evidence suggested that she be treated as a murderer, while some suggested that she be treated as an insane person (Vatz R. E. and Weinberg L. S. 2002, p. 49). Typically woman who are depressed after child birth experience “baby blues” and some are diagnosed with postpartum depression. Yates was diagnosed with an extreme form of postpartum depression (McNamera M. 2006b, p. 1). Symptoms of postpartum psychosis include confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and attempts to harm yourself or the baby (The Mayo Clinic, 1998-2010a). These symptoms usually develop within the first two weeks after delivery. Physical, emotional and lifestyle factors may all play a role in postpartum depression (The Mayo Clinic, 1998-2010b). Many researchers conclude that postpartum psychosis is strongly related to the bipolar spectrum. Indeed, one theory is that new mothers who have psychotic episodes and dramatic mood swings are actually experiencing their first bipolar episodes, with the manic-depressive illness having been "dormant" beforehand and triggered by childbirth. In fact, for 25% of women who have bipolar disorder, the condition began with a postpartum episode (Sharma, A. and Mazmanian, D, 2003). Generally people tend to not understand why a mother would kill her children. You often hear them say that the family seemed happy. These families may be suffering from marital or financial problems. Theresa Riggi from The Early Show on Saturday Morning states there are five reasons why parents might take the lives of their offspring. Altruism refers to a parent who kills a child to relieve the suffering of the child. This may be because the parents becomes depressed and doesn’t want to leave their child behind in such a terrible world, or because they either perceive the child to have a syndrome that would cause them to suffer, or they may have a real syndrome that causes them to suffer. Acute psychosis would be a parent who is mentally ill and there’s really no alternative, rational explanation for the death of the child. An unwanted child is self-explanatory. The parent feels the child is a hindrance and gets in the way of the parent’s goals. Child maltreatment involves “accidental or fatal child abuse. The parent through the course of physical abuse goes too far. And spousal revenge, which is the rarest form of filicide, the murder of a child by a parent (CBS News, 2010). On one side, some say that the insanity plea is a defense tactic intended to keep guilty defendants from being given the death penalty or serving time in prison and it should not influence their punishment. They tend to believe that most of those that plead insanity will get released form mental institutes much sooner, than if they were serving lengthy prison terms. Others say the insanity plea is a valid legal defense. Parents who kill their children should be given the opportunity to declare insanity. Society wants criminals to be punished for their crimes, yet also understands that those who are ill should receive the treatment they need. The insanity plea is a touchy area for the criminal justice system. Typically those parents who kill their children do know it was wrong, yet at the time claim they have no control over what they were doing. The defendants in these cases have typically been seeing a psychiatrist or have been on medication for prior illnesses. There are problems that have led up to the crimes they commit. It seems as though some of these children could have been removed from the environment before the situation got out of hand. One can wonder if our justice system is doing enough to help these children. The book states that under the Durham Rule, an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect. Disease is used in the sense of a condition which is considered capable of improving or deteriorating, Defect is used in the sense of a condition which is not considered capable of either improving or deteriorating which may be congenital or the result of injury or the residual effect of a physical or mental disease (Schmalleger, 2009a, p. 242-243). The book states that this new rule was intended to simplify the adjunction of mentally ill offenders yet has resulted in additional confusion. The link between mental illnesses or conditions and criminal behavior is far from clear (Schmalleger, 2009b, p. 243). Some people fight against mental illnesses all of their lives and never commit crimes, others going through the same thing are habitual offenders. Many people tend to fake mental illnesses to keep from going to prison. Because of this several states have created the guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) verdict. The book states this is a finding that offenders are guilty of the criminal offense with which they are charged, but because of their prevailing mental condition, they are generally sent to psychiatric hospitals for treatment rather than to prison. Once they have been cured, however, such offenders can be transferred to correctional facilities to serve out their sentences (Schmalleger, 2009c, p243). Even if a degree of mental incompetence was present a person can be held accountable for a particular criminal offense. Schmalleger states that a jury must return a finding of GMBI if (1) every statutory element necessary for a conviction has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, (2) the defendant is found to have been mentally ill at the time the crime was committed, and (3) the defendant was not found to have been legally insane at the time the crime was committed (2009d, p. 244). So, in this case, a defendant can still plead insanity and get the help they need, but will serve their prison term if they are deemed mentally stable again. No one really knows why parents kill their kids. Their will always be those out there that no matter what kind of treatments they get or support they will still be evil. There is no simple solution as what to do when parents commit these crimes. We as a society do not feel it is human nature to want to commit these terrible acts. We have put the job of trying these parents into the hands of jurist and must trust that they will make the right decisions. Criminologists and psychologists have tried to and will continue to come up with theories and solutions as to why parents kill their children.
CBS News (2010), Why Some Parents Kill Their Kids – The Early Show, Retrieved September 20, 2010 from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/08/07/earlyshow/saturday/main67
McNamara M. (2006a-b), By Reason of Insanity; Will Be Committed To State Mental Hospital, Retrieved October 3, 2010 from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/07/26/national/main183748.shtml
Montaldo C. (2010), Profile of Andrea Yates, Retrieved October 3, 2010 from http://crime.about.com/od/current/p/andreayates.htm
Schmalleger, F., (2009a-d), Criminology Today: An integrated Introduction, (5th ed.) New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall
Sharma, A. and Mazmanian, D. (2003). "Sleep Loss and Postpartum Psychosis." Bipolar Disorders 2003, 5, 98-105.
The May Clinic (1998-2010a-b), Postpartum Depression, Retrieved October 3, 2010 from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/postpartumdepression/DS00546/DSECTION=causes
Vatz R. E. and Weinberg L. S., Murderous Mothers: A challenge for the insanity defense, USA Today; Nov 2002; 131, 2690; Research Library, pg. 48-49a-b.