Sunday, September 19, 2010

What drives a mother to kill?

This is the cover story I wrote for the Irish Independent's Weekend magazine of September 4 last. Hard to report on, but not half as harrowing as being a relative of any of the parties involved in these cases.

MOST parents’ idea of a nightmare would be to outlive their children. No wonder then that when a child dies at the hands of a parent, it provokes outrage and disbelief. When that parent is a mother, it seems the most heinous act of all: a mockery of the primal human instinct of maternal love.

No-one knows if these were Ruth Murphy’s final thoughts a fortnight ago when she tied two plastic bags around her head and slowly suffocated to death on the floor of her cell in the Dochas women’s prison in Mountjoy. Murphy was serving a life sentence for murdering her seven-year-old son Karl in June 2001. Karl too had spent his last moments struggling for precious gasps of air, his head held firmly under water at Greystones beach by his mother as she drowned him.

Although she was found crying and incoherent on the shore near where Karl’s body lay in shallow water, Ruth Murphy did not admit killing him until shortly before her trial was to begin in 2004. It would have been very difficult to explain away the six dark fingermarks on his neck which proved the lie to her original story that he had accidentally drowned. The traumatic nature of his death, and his mother’s part in it, shocked the nation.

“There’s nothing in our culture, our literature, our day-to-day experience that would suggest that women are more dangerous than men where children are concerned so when you have a situation where a woman harms a child, it’s bound to come as a terrible shock,” says Fergus Finlay, CEO of children’s charity Barnardos.

Ruth Murphy had been an alcoholic and was estranged from Karl’s father, who had custody of their son. She was attending a psychiatrist, was drinking heavily and was on anti-anxiety drugs when she snatched Karl during one of her court-restricted visits to him at the home of a couple who babysat him in Glenealy, Co Wicklow. She drove him to Greystones beach and – in an act so poignantly in contrast to what was to follow - gave him sandwiches, Coke and crisps shortly before she ended his life.

In her seven years in jail, Murphy never explained why she had killed her son although her alcoholism and fragile mental state clearly played a part. As she didn’t leave a suicide note, neither will her family ever know exactly why she put an end to her own life. Dochas staff say that she had been in the grip of a depressive phase in the weeks before she died – but had she also reached a point at which she could no longer live with what she had done?

The incomprehensible nature of maternal filicide – mothers who kill their own children – is perhaps the hardest cross to bear for those left behind. Eddie Reddy, whose sister Sharon Grace drowned herself and her two little daughters on Kaat’s Strand in Co Wexford in April 2005, says his family will never know if anything could have been done to prevent her desperate actions.

“That question will always be there,” Eddie told Weekend. “Who knows? You can’t get hung up on the question or it will eat away at you. It happened, you can’t change the past, the only thing you can change is the future.”

Sharon had become depressed after separating from her husband Barry, father to Mikhala, four, and Abby, three, the previous Christmas. On the evening of the tragedy, she had called to Ely Hospital in Wexford, pleading to speak with a social worker. She was told there was nobody to speak with her and no out-of-hours emergency number she could call. The three bodies of Sharon and her little girls were found floating in three feet of water on Kaat’s Strand the following morning. She left behind an 11-year-old daughter Amy from a previous relationship, who is now in the care of Sharon’s sister Lillian.

“As far as I know, the situation (regarding the provision of out-of-hours social services) hasn’t changed,” says Eddie. He is now 29, the same age Sharon was when she died. “The way I look at things is that the country had loads and loads of money and it didn’t invest in mental health back then. They’re not going to do it now there is no money.”

Eddie has instead channelled his grief into fundraising for the suicide charity Console. He dedicated a 160km sponsored cycle last January to his lost sister and nieces, and organises other fundraising events through the website His efforts have helped Console to set up a drop-in suicide awareness and prevention centre, Console House, in Wexford town.

“It’s always inside of you, but you have to let it go and try to get some good to come from something that was so bad,” says Eddie. “It was such a high-profile case that it would be terrible to let it go without trying to get some good out of it.”
He says that he and his family can’t afford to live in the past: “You can only change what’s in front of you”. He does, however, think that recognising and speaking about what might seem an unspeakable act is a way forward in preventing further murder-suicides like his sister’s.

“Five years ago, it wasn’t talked about. People have become more open, realised that people have problems and they need to talk to each other. Problems you have in your head can seem so big, and to share it with others could make you think it’s not so big after all. It’s hard going but all you can do is learn from the past.”

As in the case of Sharon Grace, many mothers who kill their children frequently take their own lives too. This, of course, makes it impossible to question their motivation in the aftermath. There are a few tragedies that quickly emerge to be the direct result of severe psychiatric illnesses. Forensic psychologist Dr Brian McCaffrey testified at the 2002 murder trial of Jacqueline Costello, who strangled and suffocated her eight-year-old son Robert in 2000 at their home in Mullinavat, Co Kilkenny. She had been released that very morning from Waterford General Hospital where she had been treated for depression.

Dr McCaffrey says: “In the Costello case, she was schizophrenic, she definitely had a psychotic illness.” He told her murder trial that he believed her schizophrenia was misdiagnosed as post-natal depression. Jacqueline’s mother had also been a schizophrenic and Jacqueline had previously raised her concerns about the mental health legacy she had inherited. She was found guilty but insane of Robert’s murder.

The Costello trial judge Mr Justice Paul Butler criticised the criminal insanity law which allowed a mentally ill person to be branded guilty as “not only grotesque but obscene”. The law changed in 2006 to create the new verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity – and 47-year-old psychiatrist Lynn Hutchinson became the second person ever to be returned this verdict after she drowned her 16-year-old daughter Ciara Gibbs in a bathtub.

That tragedy made headline news: here was a highly educated woman who had raised her academic, beautiful daughter and younger son in a loving, stable home with her husband Gerard Gibbs, a fellow psychiatrist.

The day of the tragedy, Lynn and Ciara had gone shopping in Dublin while her son and husband were visiting family overnight. That evening, back home in Kilkenny after their day trip, Lynn Hutchinson ended her daughter’s life. Her trial concluded that she had been suffering from a severe mental disorder at the time and had also spiralled out of control when she realised that Ciara had begun suffering from symptoms of anorexia, something Lynn had experienced herself as a young woman.

“I personally can’t conceive of any situation where somebody would intellectualise in a sane and rational way the thought that I must kill my child in my child’s interest – and give vent to it,” says Fergus Finlay. “I think something has have had to gone seriously, psychiatrically wrong for the thought to be translated into action.

“In the situation where the psychiatrist drowned her daughter it concerned with the mental health of the woman. And the only possible prevention is one which addresses the mental health of the mother early. As often or not, that’s only going to happen out of luck unless the mother is actively seeking help.”

There are other cases that are even harder to get a handle on. Norah Gibbons, a leading children’s advocate who is currently compiling the report for the Government on children’s deaths while in State care, makes the point that there is “not always an underlying psychiatric illness”.

As adults, we may feel that our children ‘belong’ to us. “Possessiveness, in its positive slant, it can lead us to protect and identify with the child,” says Gibbons. “But then clearly when it gets distorted, a possessive love, whether between adults or adults to children, it turns into a type of total ownership of the person which is completely unhealthy. When that possessive and destructive love is challenged, the child can be killed rather than let the child go to develop as all children must.”

Neighbours and relatives of mother Mary Keegan were stunned and devastated when she stabbed her sons Glen, 10, and Andrew, six, in the kitchen of their comfortable family home in Firhouse, Dublin in February 2006 and then slashed her own neck and wrist. At their inquests, her husband Brian, who had been away on business at the time of the deaths, said that he had not known that his wife was depressed.

“I am proud to have known and married Mary,” he said. “She was the most loving and generous person I ever met and an inspiration to me and our beautiful children. There is no anger in my heart towards her as her actions were borne out of a will to protect our children from the harshness she perceived in this world.”

This would seem to illustrate cases Fergus Finlay relates in which he says that because of the difficulties a mother has had to face, or the difficulties they perceive their child might have to face in the future, “they have come to the intellectual conclusion that if they weren’t there, their child would be better off being with them”.

The family of Galway woman Catherine Palmer found an indication of the turmoil she was in when she drove herself and her two daughters Jennifer, nine, and Louisa, six, off the pier at Kinvara in March 1999. A piece of notepaper found in Catherine’s pocket had “this is hell” written nine times on one side. The words, “a disgusting waste of two beautiful girls, two human beings”, and the words “waste” and “destroy” were written on the other side. She had told her husband Geoffrey that she was bringing the girls swimming at the Leisureplex in Galway.

Cases of murder-suicide at the hands of a parent are mercifully rare, says Dr John Connolly of the Irish Association of Suicidology. “But they get big coverage when they do happen,” he says. “What we’re always worried about when you’re reporting things like this, and the high profile they get, is copycat suicides or murder-suicides.” However, he said that at one point he noted that provincial papers didn’t report suicides, while nationals did. “It’s hard to know which is right. Maybe not to report it is stigmatising it as much.”

Of particular heartbreak were a trio of tragedies that took place in a period of nine months from May 2007 to January 2008. The first concerned Caitriona Innes, a single mum who had just broken up with her boyfriend days before she suffocated her seven-year-old daughter Caitlin at their Letterkenny home in Co Donegal. Caitlin had just received her First Communion that day.

Two months later, in July 2007, the bodies of Nollaig Owen and her baby son Tadhg were recovered from the River Araglin in Co Cork. Nollaig was believed to have been suffering from post-natal depression and a jury returned an open verdict on their deaths although the inquest heard that Nollaig had attempted suicide four days earlier.

Then in January 2008, young mum Eileen Murphy fell from the Cliffs of Moher with her four-year-old son Evan in her arms. The details of how Eileen had travelled from her home near Mallow, Co Cork with Evan, booked into a hotel in Galway the night before their deaths and then bought bus tickets to the Cliffs of Moher were chilling. Her inquest heard that Eileen got off the bus and headed up to the cliff edge so quickly that the driver warned her to be careful. Her family said they were disturbed by inaccurate reports that Eileen had thrown Evan from the cliff first, and then jumped after him.

“Every single one of those cases do require to be seriously looked at,” says Norah Gibbons. “The untimely death of any child needs to be examined because we need to learn from it. I know the Ombudsman for Children recommended to the Government about how the deaths of children should be dealt with in making sure that the learning is picked up.

“They are all absolute tragedies, for the children whose lives have been ended in an untimely manner, and when parents do it it’s an absolute double tragedy.”

• The Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day at 1850 609090

This 46-year-old French woman has two daughters now in their 20s but admitted last month to killing eight of her newborn infants and has since been charged with murder. Bodies of two babies were discovered by occupants of a house in which Cottrez and her husband once lived in Villers-au-Tetre. Family and neighbours maintained they had never noticed her pregnancies because she was an overweight woman.
A lawyer for her husband released a statement saying that the couple were still together: “There is no rejection and they are very united.” Sabine Hilschenz of Germany was convicted in 2006 of also killing eight of her newborns.

When Angela Gordon’s seven-year-old daughter Khyra Ishaq died in May 2008, she weighed just three stone. She had starved to death following months of neglect and possibly years of physical abuse at their Birmingham home. Gordon and her partner were convicted of manslaughter this year.
What shocked observers was that Khyra and her five siblings had been previously noted to be at-risk children but according to a report into her death, some State agencies “lost sight of the child and focused instead upon the rights of the adults, the adults' behaviour and the potential impact for themselves as professionals”.

When Irish-American Andrea Yates, 36, drowned her five young children – ranging in age from Noah, seven, to baby Mary, six months - in a bathtub on June 20, 2001, the news again rocked Houston, Texas. The ensuing murder trial also made waves worldwide because it put a spotlight on the legal test for sanity called the M’Naghten Rules. Her defence team claimed her murderous actions were a direct result of Yates suffering years of post-natal depression and psychosis.
Yates was convicted of capital murder but in 2006 this was overturned and she was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She is now in a low-security state mental hospital.

In October 1994, Susan Smith drowned her two young sons, buckling them into their car seats as they slept and pushing the car into a lake in South Carolina. Smith became the focus of public anger for sending police on a false manhunt for a non-existent black man who she said had hijacked her car with the children in it, and for her apparently attention-seeking appearances in the media begging for the boys’ return. She confessed nine days later to killing Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months and is serving life in prison for the double murder. She had a court appeal rejected in March of this year.

Tinning was considered a very unfortunate mother when she lost nine of her children over a period of 13 years from 1972. Most of the children – including an adopted child - died suddenly when they were babies. Tinning became a well-known visitor to the A&E centres of Schenectady, New York for running in with one of her babies cradled in her arms, either dead or near dead.
When she was finally charged with the murder of her last baby, four-month-old Tami Lynne, in 1985 Tinning admitted smothering three of her children. She was convicted of murder in the second degree in Tami Lynne’s case but there was not felt to be sufficient evidence in the deaths of the other children to take further action. Much coverage of her case has focused on why no social worker, doctor or family member voiced suspicion over the children’s deaths. Tinning, now 67, is still in jail – she was denied parole last year.


While the murder of children by their mothers receives huge attention when it happens, infanticide – the killing of babies under the age of 12 months – has been a common occurrence throughout history. In ancient times it was sometimes the result of child sacrifice to ‘appease’ the gods, as in Incan and Babylonian culture.

Superstition sometimes played a part – twins were thought to be a harbringer of evil in some cultures and murdered at birth. In others, infanticide was used as a socially accepted method of keeping population numbers down, and girl babies were often most at risk. That practice, though illegal, is thought to still happen in certain parts of densely-populated India and China.

In Irish law, if a woman is charged with killing her baby when it is under one year old, the charging judge can decide to have her tried for infanticide rather than murder. The Infanticide Act says that it is a specific crime that is “tried and punished as for manslaughter”. This is to allow for the fact that the mother may have harmed her baby while suffering negative hormonal effects from childbirth or “lactation”. As such, the penalty for an infanticide conviction would be much lower than if a murder charge had been brought against the mother.


It is difficult for us to understand the killing of children in our modern society. From Victorian times until the mid-20th century here, however, social and religious factors appeared to have played a big part in the decision of mothers to take their babies’ lives.

In Ireland in the 1940s, for example, there was a spike in infanticides because the Emergency Powers Act during World War II prevented pregnant Irish women from travelling to England to have abortions or to give their babies up for adoption as they had prior to this time.

A study of mothers sent to the Central Mental Hospital in Dublin from 1850 onwards after being charged with infanticide or child murder showed that most of these were admitted in Victorian times. There was evidence in most cases of psychological disturbance, such as in the case of Mrs F, a 31-year-old ballerina who was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude in 1888 for the manslaughter of her baby. Mrs F claimed her cell was haunted and also that she was a capmaker to the British Queen and “could hear speeches from a London via a telephone that ran directly from her cell to the chambers of parliament”.

Poignantly, the study also outlines the sad cases of Miss G, a 20-year-old single servant girl found guilty but insane in 1883 of the murder of her baby and of Miss C, an 18-year-old single woman from Dublin who was admitted in 1888 to the Central Mental Hospital as unfit to plead to the manslaughter of her child.

It appears that Miss C may have been suffering from mental illness but also have had a mental age much younger than her 18 years. She is described, in the rather un-PC words of the time, as “a congenital idiot becoming very excited and violent at each menstrual period”.

Miss G, on the other hand was described as an “unfortunate young woman” who did not appear to be insane at the time of her admission to the hospital. The admitting officer notes sadly that her story was “the usual tale, seduction, desertion and infanticide”.

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