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When their state of denial lifts, they are often wracked with remorse for what they've done.
The final circumstance that Resnick lists is uncommon but not unheard of among mothers who kill their children: spousal revenge. Though this is rare among women, one recent case that highlights it is the case of an Ontario mother, Elaine Campione, who drowned her two daughters in the bathtub, allegedly to keep her ex-husband from getting custody and to inflict intense suffering upon him. She even made a video only minutes after the murders, asking her ex-husband if he was "happy now" (CTV News 2010).
With all of these circumstances potentially leading parents, especially mothers, to murder their children, legal prosecution and defense of these cases can be difficult -- at times, heart-wrenching. In the cases of mothers who have killed their children, the great majority of the defenses center around pleas of insanity. However, understanding of psychoses, especially postpartum psychosis, is still a long way from complete, and medical experts do not always agree on what constitutes insanity in the context of postpartum physical and psychological stresses. In the case of Andrea Yates, for instance, she was initially found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. However, after the prosecution's only medical expert admitted to having given inaccurate testimony, her conviction was overturned and she was granted a retrial. By then, 4 years had passed and much more was understood about postpartum depression and psychosis, in part thanks to the attention brought to it by her initial trial. In the second trial, her insanity plea was successful and she was released from jail and committed to a mental facility.
Given the many circumstances that prompt maternal infanticide and the murkiness surrounding questions of rationality, mental health, and culpability, it is difficult to determine how best to prevent these crimes. There are some resources, however. Medical science is learning more every day about the mental and physical stresses associated with postpartum depression and psychosis. Studies have found, for instance, that women suffering from postpartum depression who attempt suicide have a 1-in-20 chance of trying to kill her children too (Szavalitz 2011). Recognizing suicidal thoughts as a possible indicator of infanticidal thoughts allows mental health professionals to more accurately diagnose and treat mothers who may become a threat to their children.
As for the other circumstances that may lead to a mother killing her child, many resources exist to help mitigate and/or eliminate them. There are a number of organizations dedicated to breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect that can lead to altruistic infanticide, psychotic breakdowns, and fatal batterings, the United States Department of Health and Human Services runs the Administration for Children and Families. This program provides a wealth of services and information for parents and extended families about how to recognize child abuse, how to report it, and how to help prevent it. One part of this program is the Child Welfare Information Gateway, an initiative designed to put high-quality information about support, child welfare, and abuse prevention into the hands of the professionals who deal with abuse cases and also into the hands of the families themselves.
The Child Abuse Prevention Network serves as a global online community of professionals dedicated to the eradication and prevention of child abuse. Through their website, one can find information on the causes of abuse, the symptoms, the dangers, and possible solutions for families and communities. They provide an invaluable survivors' discussion board that offers the victims of abuse a safe place to start a process of healing that could prevent them from becoming abusers themselves.
While the prevention of abuse in important in breaking the cycle that may lead to maternal infanticide, so too is the prosecution of child abuse. The National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse is a program created by the National District Attorneys Association dedicated to ensuring the proper legal response to cases of abuse, neglect, and child fatalities, including infanticides. They maintain a comprehensive database of child abuse case law, court reforms, and statutory initiatives.
Even with these programs in place, the most important component in preventing mothers from killing their children is support, understanding, and communication. The more families are educated about postpartum symptoms, the more readily they can recognize when danger arises. The more society opens its mind and its arms to young mothers who are scared and potentially ill-equipped to handle parenthood, the more likely those mothers will be to seek help instead of fleeing from their pregnancies and killing their newborns. In the end, the qualities of protecting and nurturing that we expect from the mothers in our society may be the very qualities that we must offer to them to prevent these unspeakable tragedies in the future.
Child Abuse Prevention Network. http://child-abuse.com/. Accessed 1 February 2011.
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Meyer, C., Oberman, M. And White, K. (2001). Mothers Who Kill Their Children. New York: NYU Press.
National Council for the Prosecution of Child Abuse. http://www.ndaa.org/ncpca_home.html. Accessed 1 February 2011.
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Spinelli, M. (2003) Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Szalavitz, M. (Feb. 1, 2011). "Psychiatrist Phillip Resnick on Why Parents Kill Their Own Kids." Time. http://healthland.time.com/2011/02/01/psychiatrist-phillip-resnick-on-why-parents-kill-their-own-kids/
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