Chicago Tribune: Mothers killing kids can't turn into old news

Chicago Tribune

Mothers killing kids can't turn into old news

Dawn Turner Trice
Chicago Tribune
March 18, 2002

When Ellen Feinberg was charged with stabbing her two young sons, one fatally, in the family's Champaign home late last month, the story flared, then soon petered out.

So far, news coverage surrounding Feinberg has paled in comparison to the early coverage of Marilyn Lemak and Andrea Yates, both convicted of killing their young kids.

And outside Champaign, it's probably fair to say that Feinberg, a former pediatrician who took a field trip with her 5th grader on the same day she allegedly stabbed him and critically injured his brother, hasn't received the same kind of water-cooler attention as the other women.

Perhaps much of this is because of timing. The Feinberg case occurred right in the middle of the Yates trial, and we were already immersed in that tragedy. So as a coping mechanism it's probably natural that we felt immense sorrow for the Feinbergs, then the need to click the remote or turn the page.

But I wonder how much of this is because we're becoming a bit more shockproof when it comes to women killing their kids. How much of it is because there's been this solemn raising of the bar and now unfortunately a case with multiple dead kids trumps that with one?

Consider how we view school shootings after Columbine; the Oklahoma City terrorist attack after the ones on Sept. 11. Among the things we desperately want to know is: How many people perished? It gives our grief a kind of watermark.

But beyond the numbers watch, we've heard so many heinous details involving mothers killing their kids that they may no longer stun the bejesus out of us.

Consider the cases of Amanda Wallace, the Chicago woman who hanged her son and later killed herself; Lemak, who drugged, then smothered her three children in their Naperville home; and Yates, who drowned her five little ones in the family's bathtub and on Friday was sentenced to life in a Texas prison.

Our perspective indeed may be changing. But this doesn't mean that we view these cases as being any less horrific or that they have become any more fathomable. They are not and they have not.

It also doesn't mean our hearts don't still ache when we look upon the photographs and the faces of the dead kids.

It's just that we now have entered into a realm where our first reaction isn't necessarily to demonize the mothers. These high-profile cases have allowed us to connect the dots, and we now look for the all-too-familiar pattern. We expect that most of these cases--most, not all--will fall within a distinct paradigm that helps us wrap our minds around the unthinkable.

We look for a woman who is possibly suffering from some level of mental illness and depression, often postpartum.

We look for someone who is socially isolated and has fallen victim to an overwhelming routine of rearing her children. Though understanding what is happening here doesn't necessarily strip these women of their culpability, the next step is to ask: What have we learned from hindsight?

Are we doing enough to help women in need before they reach the point of killing their children?

Michelle Oberman, co-author of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the `Prom Mom,'" recommends that we rethink the "it takes a village to raise a kid" model.

Exact figures are sketchy, but the FBI estimates that every two to three days, somewhere in this country there's an incident of a mother killing her child.

The kids die from abuse, neglect, infanticide as well as at the hands of mothers who passed their breaking point. The mothers are black, white, Hispanic. They live in places ranging from ghettos to upscale enclaves.

Yes, we've grown weary of hearing about the cases. We may feel helpless to do anything about it. But perhaps it's far too soon for fatigue. There are many cases of mothers killing their children that should command our attention no matter the number of kids dead.

The sad fact is that for every case like Ellen Feinberg's, there are hordes we don't hear about at all. And if you equate hearing about something with caring, then add that to the growing tragedy.

Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune.