Two recent cases involving the deaths of 5 children once again raises the urgent need for the public to focus on providing ample and early attention to the mental disorders of mothers or fathers who kill their children. Experts tell us when acts of Filicide (the intentional killing of a child under 18 in general), Infanticide (when the act takes place during the first year of life), and Neonaticide (during the first 24 hours of life) occur, certain motives may be present. Such motives might include: Revenge (such anger at a spouse for infidelity or over custody issues); Scenarios where the children simply are not wanted; A sense of altruism (The belief that the child would be better off in heaven, for example); or situations where the person is psychotic. Often, the parent believes she is saving the child from something. Recent statistics reveal that over 450 children are killed every year by their parents; often the parent then commits suicide with men doing so far more often than women (although women attempt suicide more).
England and many other countries have long recognized that acts of Infanticide should be considered something less than murder; The “England Infanticide Acts” were enacted in 1922 and 1938. It was thought (and still is) that women had not fully recovered from the effect of giving birth when they killed their child; normally, there had to be some degree of mental illness attached to the defense. In the U.S., such defenses are not recognized as such, rather a lawyer might argue that his client was suffering from diminished capacity or was mentally ill at the time of the acts. Manslaughter might be the goal is some of these cases. In those cases where the murderer is suffering from severe psychotic episodes, a defense of insanity may be appropriate. It is estimated that mothers who are in the throes of true postpartum psychosis may act out against their child 4% of the time. Early screening and identification of mental illness is imperative. Family members should pursue their reasonable suspicions by talking with mental health experts early on. In some circumstances, women (and young girls) who are overwhelmed with emotion and feelings of doubt or fear at the latter stage of pregnancy may wish to seek out the assistance of safe havens where no questions are asked. Adoption options should also be weighed.
While it appears that Ms. Spoon and Murray are now in the stages of psychiatric evaluation, and the details of their acts are not yet fully known, it would seem a rare case where first degree or other intentional murder charges are warranted; the very act of a mother killing her child is exculpatory in itself. The emphasis should be on preventing the acts from occurring.