March 31, 2009

Postpartum psychosis stirs Texas controversy

A proposal to carve out a reduced penalty for a very limited type of infanticide is causing quite a furor in Texas.

The law being proposed by two state legislators would make postpartum disorder a legal defense for women who kill their children in the first 12 months of life. The defense would not come into play until after a conviction. Then, at the sentencing phase, jurors could hear mitigating expert testimony about the mother's mental state that could reduce the sentence to a state jail term.

Similar laws are on the books in 29 nations -- including Britain, Australia, and Canada -- but this would be the first in a U.S. state.

Currently, postpartum psychosis cases are very disjointed under the law; some women are found insane and go to mental hospitals, while others with almost identical crimes are found guilty of murder and go to prison. Women may still attempt an insanity defense if this law is passed, but it is difficult to prevail under the narrow legal theory of insanity.

It will be interesting to see whether the modest law passes. If it does, that will be a sign that the Hang 'em High state is becoming a kinder, gentler place.

It won't come easy, though. Since the legislation was proposed last week, Texas talk radio and the internet have been abuzz with amateur pundits who fear a wave of mothers murdering their children if they know they can get away with it.

What a joke. Most women who kill their children while in a state of postpartum psychosis or severe depression are so overwhelmed with guilt when they regain their senses that they can barely go on. Many commit suicide the first chance they get.

Readers will recall that Texas was the site of probably the most high-profile case of filicide in recent years. Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in the bathtub in 2001, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains psychiatrically hospitalized.

After that came Dee Schlosser, who in 2004 killed her daughter by cutting off her arms. Police found Schlosser soaked in blood and humming a hymn; she believed her deed was an offering to God. She too was found insane.

The Schlosser case may be making Texans especially prone to outrage at the moment. Just a few months ago, they learned Schlosser is being released from a state mental hospital, and some equate that to "getting away with murder." But as Lucy Puryear, MD, an expert witness at Yates' insanity trial, commented over at Women in Crime Ink:
Dee Schlosser will never live a carefree life. She must live with the knowledge and memory of killing her child. She will no longer be able to care for or have contact with her other children, and her marriage ended in divorce. What kind of life will she have? Can you imagine waking up every day to that horror?

She is no longer psychotic, she is on medication, she will be monitored by a psychiatrist to make sure that she remains well. So why should she remain in the hospital; just so our sensibilities are appeased? That's a waste of money. Her being in the hospital does not protect you or your children. Dee Schlosser has no intention of coming to your house to cut off the arms of your child.
Puryear makes a good point. And probably most people would agree, when they think about it, that women like Schlosser and Yates aren't much of a danger to society. The problem is that people don't think. A mother killing her child triggers such visceral rage that the only color people see is red.

Grits for Breakfast

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J. Brent Bullock said...

What are your thoughts on preventing filicide? I agree that the reduced sentence does not create an increased threat from those that have already committed the act of killing their own child; The question is does the stiffer sentence reduce the probability that a parent would commit the act in the first place; if not, what would?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Bullock,
This is an excellent question. In my review of the literature, I am not aware of any cases in which a mother who has killed a child and been punished has gone on to kill another child at a later time, so prevention at the level of that individual parent is not an issue. Rather, prevention needs to focus on the next potential tragedy down the line. And that type of broader prevention is difficult because of the low base rate of filicide. In other words, there are many, many depressed mothers and fathers, and extremely few kill their children. With that said, we do know a bit about the backgrounds of filicidal mothers in particular. Many had troubled childhoods in which their own mother was present physically but was emotionally abusive toward them. As a result, they never developed the skills necessary to become good parents themselves. More broadly, the key to prevention is better support systems for parents. Parents need someone to turn to in times of emotional crisis, and someone needs to be there who can notice and intervene when things start going wrong.