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A mother's deadly secret

What possesses a woman to kill her newborn? Often it involves pregnancy denial.

August 13, 2007|Geoff McKee | Geoff McKee, a clinical professor in the department of neuropsychiatry at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, is the author of "Why Mothers Kill: A Forensic Psychologist's Casebook."

A 37-year-old taxi driver in Maryland was charged earlier this month with murdering a newborn. Days before, she'd been rushed to a hospital, bleeding -- and denied being pregnant even though doctors found a placenta in her womb.

Her deceased day-old son was discovered wrapped in a towel below her bathroom sink. The murder charge, however, stems from another baby's death in 2003 or 2004. Investigators found the remains of three other newborns on her property.

Few crimes generate greater public reaction than neonaticide: when a mother kills her baby, or leaves it to die, on the day she gives birth. We are repelled, yet mesmerized, as details emerge. How could a woman deny being pregnant for so many months? How could no one notice? How could a mother murder her newborn?

As a forensic psychologist, I have evaluated 32 mothers who were charged with killing one or more of their children. Fourteen-year-old "Cathy" was one. She had been repeatedly molested by her stepfather, gave birth alone in her bedroom, and then threw her newborn against the wall. "Edna," a college freshman, was so indecisive about ending her pregnancy that she suffocated her minutes-old baby in an act of delayed abortion.

Cathy and Edna denied and hid their pregnancies, common in neonaticide cases, particularly among teens pregnant for the first time. That was also true in the recent Anaheim case in which a 17-year-old visiting from Indiana allegedly gave birth in a Denny's restroom; police said that neither her parents nor her boyfriend knew she was pregnant. (That baby was found alive in a trash can and hospitalized; the mother has been charged with felony child abuse and neglect.)

Teenagers' pregnancy denial may involve naive beliefs that morning sickness and weight gain are because of illness or excessive eating. But more often, denial is fed by shame over having intercourse, anxiety about enraged parents, fear of giving birth, or resentment about ruined future plans.

Pregnancy denial among adults often involves hiding infidelity, excessive ambivalence about abortion and even guilt about neonaticidal thoughts. For either age group, pregnancy caused by rape, especially incest, may produce realistic fears of retaliation by the rapist; denial may be a form of post-traumatic amnesia.

Pregnancy denial gives women some temporary emotional relief, but if it persists, it can cause lasting damage. The woman avoids prenatal care and delays making critical decisions about termination, adoption or motherhood. It's rare, but a woman who keeps pregnancy secret for nine months is at much greater risk of killing the newborn when she is overwhelmed by the emotional and physical stresses of giving birth alone. If the baby is subsequently found, alive or dead, the woman's continuing denial is often a desperate attempt to escape felony charges of child abandonment or murder.

How often does this happen? We don't know. Neonaticides are among the least-well-documented deaths in the U.S. Many bodies -- left in trash bins or buried in remote places -- may never be found.

Prosecution can be difficult too; investigators have to prove an infant wasn't stillborn or didn't die of natural causes associated with premature delivery or accidental suffocation.

Such issues have arisen in the case against a USC student whose dead baby was found by a homeless man sifting through a trash bin in 2005. Murder and manslaughter charges were dismissed by a judge this year, but prosecutors have refiled the murder charges, which are now under review.

Breaking through the barrier of denial is key to preventing child abandonment or neonaticide. An investigation does not need to be elaborate. A mother worried that her daughter might be pregnant could ask her to model a swim suit. A successful intervention is worth any argument that might ensue. Once another person knows, arrangements can be made for prenatal care, assistance in delivery and postpartum care and frank discussions about long-term plans for the infant.

Since 1999, 47 states, including California, have passed "safe surrender" laws. These laws permit the mother, without risk of criminal prosecution for abandonment, to anonymously leave her unharmed newborn at an emergency room or other designated site (such as some police or fire stations). In California, an infant can be up to 3 days old, but age limits are more generous elsewhere: 30 days in South Carolina, and 1 year in North Dakota.

These laws offer great promise. Between 2001, when California passed its Safely Surrendered Baby Law, and January 2007, 182 newborns were turned in. An additional 146 were found alive following their illegal abandonment. These results demonstrate that with coordinated state, community and family efforts, the tragedy of neonaticide is preventable.

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