So horrific, so incomprehensible was the news that nearly two days later it is difficult for even the most cynical to process.
How could a McCandless mother drown her 3-year-old son and attempt to do the same to her 6-year-old, as police allege? How is something that unthinkable even possible?
Sadly, parents killing their own children occurs far more often than one might assume. A study by Brown University researchers published in February found that U.S. parents have committed filicide, the deliberate killing of one's own child, about 500 times every year over the past three decades. Close to three-quarters of the children killed were 6 years or younger, the study said.
In the McCandless case, police said Laurel Schlemmer explained that “crazy voices” told her to push her boys into a bathtub full of water Tuesday where she sat on them. Police said Ms. Schlemmer told them she thought she would be a better mother to a third son, a 7-year-old who was not home at the time, if “the other two boys weren’t around, and they would be better off in heaven.”
Nationally, one of the most infamous cases occurred in October 1994 in South Carolina when Susan Smith, 23, strapped her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons into her car and let it roll into a lake, drowning them. Her motive: She wanted to be with her boyfriend, who did not want children in his life.
In 2001, Andrea Yates, 36, drowned her five children — ranging from 7 years to 6 months — in a bathtub in Houston. Authorities say Ebony Wilkerson, 32, of South Carolina intentionally drove a minivan into the water on March 4 with her children, ages 3, 9 and 10, inside. Bystanders and lifeguards intervened, saving their lives.
Locally, Sharon Flanagan, 35, of West Virginia was sentenced in December to life in prison for purposely drowning her 2-year-old son, Steven, in the Green Tree motel bath tub to get back at her estranged husband, whom she believed sexually abused the boy.
These mothers and others of their ilk have to be insane to commit such heinous crimes, right?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no, said renowned forensic psychiatrist Phillip J. Resnick of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, who for 45 years has studied filicide. Dr. Resnick — who among many high-profile trials provided consultation in the Smith, Yates and Casey Anthony cases — developed in 1969 the seminal classification for the five major motives for maternal filicide perpetrators. The first two are grounded in mental illness but the other three are not, he noted. They include:
1. An altruistic filicide, in which a mother kills her child out of love; she believes death to be in the child’s best interest. For example, a suicidal mother may not wish to leave her motherless child to face an intolerable world; or a psychotic mother may believe that she is saving her child from a fate worse than death.
2. In an acutely psychotic filicide, a psychotic or delirious mother kills her child without any comprehensible motive. For example, a mother may follow the command of hallucinations to kill.
3. When fatal maltreatment filicide occurs, death is usually not the anticipated outcome; it results from cumulative child abuse, neglect, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
4. In an unwanted child filicide, a mother thinks of her child as a hindrance.
5. Spouse revenge filicide, the rarest of the motives, occurs when a mother kills her child specifically to emotionally harm that child’s father.
Michael Welner, a renowned forensic psychiatrist who consulted in the Yates case in Texas as well as other high-profile filicide cases and the Baumhammers and Taylor mass-murder cases in Pittsburgh, agreed those are distinctly different motives but “the common denominator is that a mother only kills her children at the point that she is sufficiently alienated from them to detach.
“Smiling photographs are taken before that emotion sets in and are not the mother the doomed child sees about to drown them,” said Dr. Welner, a Pittsburgh native who is chairman of The Forensic Panel, a forensic science consulting practice headquartered in New York City.
He noted there are more than two victims in the McCandless case.
“It is a unique situation, one child favored by being chosen not psychologically, but chosen to live,” he said about what police have reported. “It is ‘Sophie’s Choice’ with the mother as the proverbial Mengele. That’s an unbelievable burden to process for the child who went to school.
“As for the father, it is important that the community not blame him, whatever the family dynamics. The father and son need to be embraced into the family of community, with prayer for the critically ill child to return to a quality of life, and the justice system will sort out what is right for the mother in due course.”
While filicide in many cases is impossible to prevent, the forensic psychiatrists say that improving mental health resources would help. In Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, has already been working on legislation that he says might have helped Ms. Schlemmer get needed treatment before the children were harmed.
The bill, which is the subject of a congressional hearing today at which Dr. Welner will testify, would make it easier to secure involuntary hospitalization for people in mental health crisis. Current law allows involuntary commitment only when patients have made specific threats about imminently harming themselves or others.
In the Schlemmer case, Mr. Murphy said, the mother might have been forced into treatment last year after she told leaders of her church she struck her children with her van, saying she thought the boys were inside, not behind the vehicle.
“To the extent that she had been in treatment after the previous incident, this might not have happened,” said Mr. Murphy, a trained child psychologist. “At that time, there should have been some other services made available to her.”
Dr. Welner said the legislation “is a very thoughtful step to bringing mental health services to the underserved and to better educating different sectors to recognize crisis even when it doesn’t seem dangerous. Dangerousness is all too often an assessment after the fact.”
Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello contributed. Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.