In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 4

Other mothers murder their children because the children are not wanted or are resented. One such mother, Susan Smith, strapped her two small boys, a fourteen month old and a three year old, into the backseat of her car, rolled up the windows, and pushed the car into a lake.

She first claimed her two sons were taken in a car jacking by an unidentified black man. Smith concocted elaborate lies in the national media, pleading for the safe return of her two children. Later, Smith told police she intended to kill herself, but changed her mind at the last minute and jumped from the car.

In fact, her father had committed suicide, and Susan had attempted suicide at least once in her life. Her stepfather sexually abused her, with whom she continued to have a sexual relationship once she was an adult. Smith also had an affair with her boss and craved a relationship with him. When he ended the affair because he did not want the complication of children in his life, she became desperate to rid herself of her children.

Susan Smith was convicted of two counts of murder. However, on July 28, 1995, a South Carolina jury rejected the idea of sentencing a young mother to death for drowning her two sons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment instead.

As these widely publicized maternal filicide cases illustrate (see earlier Filicide is Different posts), juries show mercy by avoiding the death penalty where a manslaughter charge is not available.[24] Even though this country does not officially recognize that filicide is significantly different from other homicides, one U.S. study of filicide found that local district attorneys prosecuted only 64% of 171 cases over a 30-year period. [25] Of those cases that are prosecuted, juries as well as prosecutors are aware of the mental and emotional mitigating factors that make the death penalty disproportionate and inappropriate in cases of filicide and infanticide.

Even the vast majority of homicidal child abusers are convicted of manslaughter rather than of murder. [26] Perhaps because women kill their children in "gentler" ways than men, such as drowning or suffocation, often sedating the children first, [27] fathers are more likely than mothers to be charged with murder than manslaughter.[28] Similarly, more fathers than mothers convicted of manslaughter are imprisoned; convicted mothers are more likely than fathers to be hospitalized or treated rather than imprisoned. [29]

[24] Janet Ford, Note, Susan Smith and Other Homicidal Mothers - In Search of the Punishment That Fits the Crime, 3 Cardozo Women's L.J. 521, 530 (1996).
[25] McKee, Why Mothers Kill, supra, at 12.
[26] Ford, supra, at 525.
[27] Linda Cylc, Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide, at 7
[28] Yarwood, supra, at 1.
[29] Yarwood, supra, at 1.

In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 2

Subsequent studies agree with Resnick's Classification of Motives in Maternal Filicide Cases

Subsequent studies have agreed on a commonality of motives in cases of maternal filicide.[8] These motives are: (1) the mother's mental illness, often seen as "pathological," "acutely psychotic," or "mentally ill" killings, (2) lack of bonding with the child, manifested as "neonaticide," "unwanted child," or "ignored pregnancy" deaths, and (3) inadequate parenting, resulting in "accidental," "discipline-related," or "neglect" deaths.

Recent Studies Look Not Only at Motive, but at the Nature of the Mother-Child Relationship

Recent studies focus on more than just the motive, but on the nature of the mother-child relationship. Forensic psychiatric evaluations of women criminally charged with the deaths of their children found the following characterizations of the mother-child relationship: abusive / neglectful mothers, psychotic / depressed mothers, retaliatory mothers, psychopathic mothers, and detached mothers.

Abusive, Psychopathic, or Retaliatory mothers

Abusive / neglectful mothers are unable to set normal behavioral bounds with their child, vacillating from excessive discipline to no discipline. Retaliatory mothers are similar to Resnick's spousal revenge category. The psychopathic mother has an insensitive relationship with their children, using the child to fulfill their own needs.

The detached mother

The detached mother category reflects mothers that have not developed a bond with their child during pregnancy. Researchers talk about the "massive denial" of these women who kill their child. Typically, these mothers deny their pregnancy, often to the point where physical symptoms do not manifest until the actual "surprise" birth. The detached mother may deny the pregnancy out of resentment of the child, a lack of communication within her social network, or a fear of rejection by her family or friends. Interestingly, the families and support systems of these women do not notice the changes in the young woman.

The mother may actually have a dissociative event during childbirth, not remembering the birth or even killing the child at birth. [9] Neonaticide, the killing of a child in the first day of life, may occur if these women give birth in an isolated area or alone. These women were later horrified to find out what they had done.

The psychotic / depressed mother

The psychotic / depressed mother perceives her child through the lens of her particular illness. The illness may be a previously diagnosed clinical disorder, such as schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, or bipolar disorder. The mother may be suffering from a personality disorder, defined as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of an individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and lead to distress or impairment." [10] Three personality disorders relevant to filicidal mothers are dependent, antisocial, and borderline personality disorder. Impulsive actions, poor judgment, and instability in personal relationships and self-image characterized borderline personality disorder.

Just as the families did not notice the pregnancy of denial mothers, the families of young women suffering from clinical or personality disorders often ignore "the elephant in the living room" and deny the problem. [11] The result is that these young women are often at risk because they do not get the diagnosis, treatment, and help that they need due to unacknowledged or unrecognized mental disorders.

Mothers with Bipolar Disorder

One such clinical disorder that may go undiagnosed is bipolar disorder.[12] Bipolar disorder usually begins between ages 15 and 30, and some forms are more common in women. [13] Symptoms of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, are extreme mood swings ranging from manic highs to intense lows. [14] Because these mood swings are on a continuum, and may even not appear at times, some people may go undiagnosed because they don't seek treatment, their condition is mistaken for depression, or because their symptoms don't meet current diagnostic criteria. [15] Complicating the picture, bipolar disorder frequently is accompanied by other disorders. [16]

The mood swings may last for weeks, months, or even years. [17] In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, the signs and symptoms include: extreme optimism, inflated self-esteem, poor judgment, agitation, risky behavior, spending sprees, increased sexual drive, decreased need for sleep, and a tendency to be easily distracted. [18] During the depressive phase, it is easy to see how signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder may masquerade as depression: sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts or behavior, anxiety, guilt, sleep problems, appetite problems, fatigue, loss of interest in daily activities, problems concentrating, irritability, and chronic pain without a known cause. [19]

Continued, in part 3 ....

This four-part series of posts "Filicide is Different" continues next Friday, as part of Friday's In Depth Look / Friday's Legal Memo. The third part of the series discusses progressive postpartum depression and the Andrea Yates case.

[8] Geoffrey R. McKee, Why Mothers Kill, A Forensic Psychologist's Casebook 28 (2006).
[9] Oberman, supra, at 53.
[10] Oberman, supra, at 71.
[11] Arlene M. Huysman, A Mother's Tears 52 (1998).
[12] Mayo Clinic, Bipolar Disorder, at 4, available at disorder/DS00356/DSECTION=symptoms.
[13] Id.
[14] Id., at 1
[15] Id., at 4.
[16] K. Cauldwell, Living With Bipolar Disorder: One Woman's Journey Through Diagnosis, Understanding, and Acceptance, at 2
[17] Id.
[18] Mayo Clinic, supra, at 2.
[19] Mayo Clinic, supra, at 2-3.

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