Houston Chronicle

June 22, 2001

Researchers say 'filicide' not rare

By MIKE TOLSON
Houston Chronicle

The crimes may be unthinkable, but in truth they are not so rare. Andrea Pia Yates' distinction lies not so much in the killing of her children, only in the number who died.

Within the country's annual homicide statistics lies a layer of filicide, clinical vernacular for child-killing by parents.

The cases have been studied, the research established. No one may ever know precisely what motive ruled Yates' heart. But much is known in general about mothers who succumb to such impulses.

Almost invariably, experts say, filicides fall into one of five categories: accidental, altruistic, acutely psychotic, unwanted child or spouse revenge.

Accidental, the most common, occurs when physical punishment goes too far. It can include shaken baby syndrome or Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental illness in which the mother causes injury to the child and then seeks medical attention.

Unwanted-child deaths occur when a parent, usually the mother, discards a baby shortly after birth.

Revenge or retaliation killings arise from an overwhelming desire to inflict pain on a spouse or former spouse, and the children are a means to that end. In February in Katy, Timothy Rumsey killed his three children, then himself, after his wife complained to police about his abusive behavior.

Acutely psychotic cases usually result from serious mental illness. The parent may have delusions that the child is a threat and must be destroyed.

Altruistic filicides usually involve mothers who are extremely depressed, often suicidal, and sometimes psychotic. They think they are doing the best thing for their children by killing them.

Yates could fit into the last category, as she was by all descriptions a loving and devoted mother. She also was being treated for depression and had attempted suicide in 1999.

"Some women have a delusion the children are better off dead than alive," said Dr. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist at Case Western Reserve University who came up with the classification system more than 30 years ago. "Many believe that they (the children) are cursed, or that they need to relieve them of some kind of suffering."

Resnick, who has examined and interviewed hundreds of women who've killed their children, said the fact that Yates apparently did not attempt suicide after the children's deaths puts her in a minority of women in this altruistic category. But that fact alone does not rule it out.

"The mother plans to take her own life, and rather than leave them motherless in a world she sees as a bad place, she takes them with her to heaven," Resnick said. "But it is not uncommon for women to kill their children and then be unable to kill themselves."

However, if Yates had no intention of killing herself, that could suggest a different purpose.

Larry Milner, a Chicago physician who has written extensively about child-killing, said whether Yates had suicidal intentions is key to unlocking her motive. He said her calm phone calls to police and her husband after the crime seem at odds with a person whose actions stem from what at heart is a self-destructive drive.

"It seems to me either a full-blown psychosis or it was a revenge killing to get back at the husband," said Milner, author of Hardness of Heart, Hardness of Life, a comprehensive survey of filicide through the ages.

Yates' husband, Russell, chose the former explanation. In a brief news conference Thursday, he said there were "psychotic side effects" to her recent depression. Andrea Yates had been previously treated with anti-psychotic medication, but at the time of the killings she reportedly was taking only anti-depressants.

If psychosis is the answer, there has been no public explanation of the nature of it. Typically, the psychosis would have to be centered on the children for them to be the target of her destruction, experts said.

"A parent may develop false beliefs about their children, that the children are demonized or infected in some way," said Geoffrey McKee, a South Carolina forensic psychologist who has spent years studying maternal filicide.

Sometimes, as they project their own psychotic symptoms on their children, the mothers develop preoccupations with the health of their children. They insist the children are sick or don't look right.

There could be a different explanation for Yates' act, according to a colleague of McKee's who wrote a book about Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who in 1994 drowned her two young children in a lake and then told authorities they had been abducted.

Forensic psychologist George Rekers described what he calls another category -- suicide by proxy -- in which the parent, most often a mother, has lost touch with reality to such a degree that she is no longer clear about her identity.

"These people become confused about who they are and who other people are, and they become suicidal," Rekers said. "In their confused state, they think of killing their children as killing themselves. It's really part of a suicidal ideation. They're thinking of suicide, and they end up killing the children."

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle