Parents who kill their Children
Almost 1,500 children a year are killed by their parents, those we know of anyway, and of this number at least 15% or over 200 are killed by their mother. The case of the missing Florida 2-year-old Caylee Anthony has thrust her young mother, Casey, into the sights media as a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance and now presumed death. The recent discovery of human remains believed to be those of Caylee has once again caused many to ask out loud, “How could a mother kill her own child?”
History, as statistics indicate, is marked with many examples of maternal filicide, the killing of a child by its mother. A study by the US Department of Justice found that mothers were responsible for a higher share of children killed in their infancy, while fathers were more likely to have been responsible for the murders of children age 8 or older. Many years before Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub of her Texas home, and years before Susan Smith strapped her two young sons into their car seats and rolled her car into a lake, Diane Downs was convicted of killing her 7-year-old daughter and wounded her 8 and 3-year-old children, then shooting herself before driving to get aid. Downs, like Susan Smith, was believed to have killed her children because they got in the way of her relationship with a man. In 1991, a New Jersey mother reported her 5-year-old son missing from a local carnival. Almost one year later the young boy’s remains were discovered in a discarded vehicle tire in a local creek. Due to advanced decomposition, his cause of death was not determined. The child’s mother, who told varying stories about her son’s disappearance, and who faked her own kidnapping for which she blamed FBI Agents, has always been the logical suspect, but has never been charged to date.
Other cases of maternal filicide include Kenisha Berry, who, in 1998 at age 20, placed duct tape across the body and mouth of her 4-day-old son, put him in a black plastic bag and left his body in a trash dumpster, resulting in his death. Then there was the case of Berry’s fellow Texan, Frances Newton, who was just 21 when she murdered her 7-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter, and her husband shortly after she had taken out life insurance policies in their names. She used her new boyfriend’s gun to kill her family and was herself eventually executed in 2005.
Why Parents Kill
If 1,500 children are killed by their parents each year, that figures out to be about four children per day that die at their parents hands. Andrea Yates knew she should not continue to have children, but her husband kept impregnating her anyway. Yates would wait until her husband went to work and her mother-in law was absent from their home before she killed her five children, starting with the oldest first, perhaps to insure that the older children couldn’t fight her to save themselves or their younger siblings. Some mothers, like Yates, are emotionally challenged, while others indicate that God told them to kill their child, or that they wanted their child to be in a better place. I witnessed this with the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, when parents, when mothers either allowed their children to be shot by fellow cult members or simply let their children, along with themselves, perish in the flaming inferno that consumed their common home. Yet others, like Susan Smith and Diane Downs, found their children to be a simple inconvenience, something that interfered with their social and love life so they removed the blockage to love by killing their children.
Some anthropologists report that the deliberate filicide is not observed in wild animals, but we know humans are especially adept at this. The number one cause of death for children under four is homicide. Parenting is the most challenging and most important job in the world today, but it is also one that most of us are untrained and unprepared to assume. Throughout the centuries men have used pregnancy as a way to control a woman and for some of these women; they will do just about anything to escape that type of control, to include killing their own child. Andrea Yates was over her head with five children, but lacked the marital support that many thought she should have received. After killing her children she called her husband and told him what she had done. Now he hurt like she did.
Motherhood is not for every Woman
Not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Many choose not to have a child or if they become pregnant, they choose to either abort the child (1 in 3 women under age 40 has had an abortion) or they may carry the baby full term and then place the child in an adoptive home. For some women one child is simply too many, while other women can balance a marriage, a professional life and multiple children. We speak of the maternal instinct as if it is part of the DNA of every woman in the world. While most accept the responsibility that motherhood carries; others reject both the responsibility and the child as either something they do not want or something they are totally incapable of dealing with.
When we say “how could she kill her child,” we are asking from our own frame of reference and not that of the accused killer. Some children die of neglect ,while others die of abuse at the hands of their mother or become a victim when their mother does not intervene to stop the abuse of the child by another. Some mother’s just don’t know how to deal with a child, while others refuse to do so. Some deaths are truly accidental in the sense that the mother didn’t want the child to die, but just to be quiet, or simply to care for itself so not to burden the mother.
The Insanity Defense
In the case of Casey Anthony, I doubt that she will ever accept full responsibility for her daughter’s believed death, not, that is, unless she believes it to be in her best interest. And even then we will probably hear some type of insanity defense offered up to mitigate her believed actions. American juries, though, do not like insanity defenses and, therefore, they are offered in only 2% of murder cases. Twenty-nine-year-old Brenda Drayton, then five months pregnant, suffocated her 2-year-old daughter, who she said was “the devil’s baby,” after her family indicated she stopped taking her medication. Ten years earlier her then 6-week-old son had died of dehydration and malnutrition. Drayton was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was hospitalized in 1997, this after a psychological case manager noted she was delusional and believed there were snakes in her body.
Christina Miracle was 25 when she killed her 6-year-old son, this after she too allegedly stopped taking her psychiatric medication. The county coroner said the boy had a pattern of bruises on his back consistent with a beating. Prosecutors said he was suffocated. The mother was eventually indicted on charges of murder and involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors said the boy died in a bizarre religious ceremony in which his mother thought she was bringing her dead brother back to life and baptizing her son.
The above cases, and many more, appear to be women who were truly mentally ill and not simply the recipient of some trumped up “the devil made me do it” legal defense. Any defense that suggests that a child got in its mother’s way when all she wanted was drugs, sex and rock and roll and instead had to change diapers will probably not fly with most juries today. While we may be sympathetic to single mothers and to women who work as hard as humanly possible, but simply cannot meet up to the challenge of parenthood, well, the “there but for the grace of God” defense may possibly sell to some jurors. The 12 citizens who sit on most juries, though, will need to be convinced that someone is truly mentally ill and, therefore, incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. Casey Anthony, by her many lies and inconsistent statements, appears to understand what she must do in her own defense. And simply because someone is a pathological liar does not automatically give them a “get out of jail for murder card.”
Parenting is not Easy
No one should ever suggest that parenting is easy; for it is not. In the case of Casey Anthony, the young mother who referred to her daughter as “the little snot head,” had she not wanted to be a mother there were others avenues for her to consider, adoption being one. But then there reports that indicate her mother would never have allowed this. Parenting is a lifelong commitment, one that gives you great satisfaction and equally great challenge. While some mothers would do anything, easily sacrificing their own life to save that of their child, others make terrible decisions, many times under stress and mental illness that can cancel out the life of their child. A child who had the potential to cure the common cold, save the environment, or maybe just be a good citizen and parent when she grew up. Caylee Anthony was one of these children.