Sunday, April 04, 2010

Prosecuting Dad when Mommy kills

I couldn't disagree more with columnist Jacquielynn Floyd at the Dallas News, who finds praiseworthy a 10-year sentence for a father whose wife killed her child in an episode of postpartum psychosis. She thinks:
there's a moral equilibrium, a sort of righting of the ship, that comes with judicial recognition that a father who leaves his child with a psychotically sick wife is guilty of more than just bad luck.

The sad case of baby Alex marks what may be the first-ever successful prosecution of a dad after a mentally ill mother kills her child. Maxon's wife, Valeria, drowned the 1-year-old in a backyard hot tub at the family's Mansfield house in 2006. Maxon had left to run household errands.

"You left a defenseless child alone with your wife," state District Judge Wayne Salvant told the defendant, who was clearly stunned by the 10-year sentence.

"You express no regret for the offense, and you do not fully understand what your actions had to do with the death of your son."

Nobody at that precise moment said "Rusty Yates." Nobody had to.

But defense lawyer Jack Strickland (no down-and-out public defender, by the way, but one of the most able attorneys in the state) suggested that the case against his client was unfair payback for public animus against Mr. Yates.

You know, of course, that he's the Houston man whose desperately, wretchedly crazy wife, Andrea Yates, drowned their five kids in the bathtub while he was at work.

Andrea, as you'll recall, remains in a mental hospital. Rusty got a divorce and a new wife and went on with his life.

"There was a great outcry after Yates," Strickland said, in trying to persuade the judge to give Mr. Maxon probation. "Maybe to a degree those chickens have come home to roost."

If they have, they're overdue.
Analogizing the situation to "leaving a toddler alone with a loaded gun," Floyd says that "Profound derangement made Valeria Maxon as dangerous to her child as a loaded gun. Doctors had told her husband so in plain English."

So essentially Mr. Maxon is going to prison because tragedy befell when he failed to strictly follow a doctor's orders. That seems wrongheaded. Will we apply the same standard when antibiotic resistant infections arise because people don't finish taking their prescription?

It also sets a bad precedent IMO to prosecute the families of the mentally ill for the actions of their relatives. That could have the unintended consequence of causing family members to refuse to help the mentally ill for fear if something goes wrong they'll suffer criminal liability.

But most of all, I think Floyd's stance and the prosecution's case ignore the realities of postpartum psychosis. I don't think the husbands should be prosecuted in these tragedies, and we're better served by getting the women mental health treatment, preferably up front, than locking them up the rest of their lives. Criminal prosecution won't prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. There is no deterrent value for women in the throes of psychosis, and past the short-term, there's zero value from "incapacitation," since in most cases the psychosis will ultimately go away whether or not someone's incarcerated.

Honestly the money to incarcerate this guy would be better spent on medical research aimed at understanding the problem and developing medical treatments and coping strategies. We're talking about a particularly poorly understood phenomenon.

Only one or two women out of 1,000 develop postpartum psychosis, and in most cases they don't kill their children; they're more likely to kill themselves. It's just not true that the threat of mothers killing their children is something common that every parent has to deal with. The argument that a child's mother should be feared like a loaded gun can only ever be made with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and only from a distance. (OTOH, not every mother who kill her child suffers from postpartum psychosis; I don't mean by these arguments to excuse intentional criminal behavior.)

In reality, Maxon suffered from a serious mental illness that most people (quite thankfully) know little about and find bizarre and shocking when they encounter it. Her doctor told the father not to leave her alone with the child, Floyd reports, but Katherine Stone at Postpartum Progress wonders why she wasn't hospitalized?

In any event, the doctor's advice flies in the face of all our assumptions about motherhood, much less a husband's assumptions about the wife he loves and trusts. Most folks are ignorant and naive about mental illness unless they have personal experience with a family member, and in cases of postpartum psychosis there's not that familial history of dealing with the situation because the mother was sane and rational just months before. Katherine Stone describes her own husband's (much more constructive) reaction to her experience with postpartum depression:

I imagine he resented how hard he had to work to take care of me and my son while at the same time holding down a full-time job. In the end, though, we both learned a lot about what was happening with me and he supported my treatment and encouraged my recovery. I believe his initial confusion and frustration came out of a complete lack of knowledge about what was happening.
That emotional mix to me sums up what likely motivated Mr. Maxon's ill-fated decision that day: Confusion, frustration and ignorance, but not malice. The father's role was tragic, but IMO not criminal. His ten-year sentence, and Floyd's column, confuse vengeance with justice.

For more background on postpartum psychosis, see these excellent recent posts from Postpartum Progress:

See also prior, related Grits posts:

30 comments:

Robert Guest said...

The duty of a prosecutor is not to convict, but to see that soceity's lust for revenge is satiated.

Anonymous said...

Every time someone who was truy psychotic and due to that state committed a crime they would not otherwise commit is sentenced to prison, it is always about vengeance, not justice.

Anonymous said...

Not only do I now have to be responsible for my actions, but I now have to be responsible for the actions of my crazy wife!!

doran said...

Jacquielynn Floyd's analogy indicates a lack of imagination as well as a desire for vengence. A one-year old baby not only is unlikely to be able to fire a loaded gun, but Ms. Maxon was obviously more dangerous to her child than a loaded gun would have been. Ms. Floyd's analogy also misses the point, that being that Mr. Maxon may have been faced with the dilemma of staying with child and thereby ignoring necessary "household errands," some of which may have involved providing food, diapers, medicine, or etc., for that child.


A husband in this situation -- where he must leave the home to go to work, shop for food, go to his own doctor's appointment, etc. -- is much like the divorced parent who is faced with either turning her child over to a DWI/intoxicated husband for his court ordered visitation, or refusing to do so and risking contempt of court and restrictions on her own rights of possession. Women who have let the intoxicated husband drive off with the kids have been charged, and maybe convicted, or endangerment to those children.

The place to resolve this terrible dilemma when in results in tragedy is, first, at the prosecuting attorney's office. That person should almost always, in my opinion, opt for the lowest possible offense classification when charging the accused parent. The next place for resolving it is in the hands of the presiding judge, who should let mercy, not vengence, be her guidepost.

sunray's wench said...

That is just so wrong.

doran said...

Sunray, was it something I said?

Boyness said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pirate Rothbard said...

Boyness that's interesting. I'm not too familiar with the case. But do you really think a husband should go to jail because he's lame? There are a lot of bad husbands on there, some are neglectful, adulterous, some don't make a lot of money, some are lame in the sack. Do they really all belong in prison?

Anonymous said...

"A husband in this situation -- where he must leave the home to go to work, shop for food, go to his own doctor's appointment, etc. -- is much like the divorced parent who is faced with either turning her child over to a DWI/intoxicated husband for his court ordered visitation, or refusing to do so and risking contempt of court and restrictions on her own rights of possession. Women who have let the intoxicated husband drive off with the kids have been charged, and maybe convicted, or endangerment to those children."

Call the authorities if the husband shows up intoxicated. If you think no more of your child than to allow them to ride with someone who is intoxicated then you should be prosecuted.

What an asinine statement.

doran said...

Well, Anon 4:41, there are a lot of lame women parents out there, also.

You missed my point, which was that Jacquielynn Floyd didn't catch, or recognize the dilemma faced by parents and spouses who are not nearly such sophisticated thinkers as you, nor as adept as you at nuance.

Don said...

Um, Boyness--do you happen to know what "contrition" means?

Pirate Rothbard said...

"If you think no more of your child than to allow them to ride with someone who is intoxicated then you should be prosecuted."

I disagree. I think one of the worse things a society can do is prosecute people for being indifferent. Indifference may be a vice but when you start prosecuting people for it, society starts to fall apart.

Where do you draw the line? Parents allow their kids to get fat, they spank them too much, they use the television as a babysitter. At what point do you say someone should go to jail for that?

The irony is that if you base a society on the lowest moral standards, you create a society with rules that people can follow.

If you base a society on the hypothesis that the state can mold us to act like saints, then you end with a rotting hell like North Korea.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% that Rusty Yates should go to jail. He had plenty of knowledge that his wife was dangerous, at least once rushing home after a call from her to find a full bath tub. He was also a large reason that she was off of her meds on a regular basis.

I hope he feels responsible for their death. He is.

Rage

helena said...

The place to resolve this terrible dilemma when in results in tragedy is, first, at the prosecuting attorney's office. That person should almost always, in my opinion, opt for the lowest possible offense classification when charging the accused parent. The next place for resolving it is in the hands of the presiding judge, who should let mercy, not vengence, be her guidepost.

Best Attorney

Boyness said...

The female Yates is not the only one crazed, so was her lame-ass husband who ALLOWED that to happen. He should be looking out from the inside of a Texas prison instead of having "moved on with his life". How, exactly, does one "move on" after something like that? Anyone?

By the way, drowning your kids isn't NORMAL and even though it was not by Rusty's hand, how in the hell did he NOT KNOW something was up? I really dont want to listen to the dumb-asses who post on here all the time, does anyone have a FRESH perspective??

sunray's wench said...

doran ~ sorry, my comment was directed at the prosecution of the husband for his wife's actions, not your comments.

Texas already has, and uses, the law of parties. This is practically the same thing, but it also takes the "responsibility" angle way too far. It victimises the little people, while large industries, politicians and organisations carry on regardless.

Using this logic (if you know a crime could be committed by another individual but you do nothing to prevent it) then I suspect all of us can expect the police at their door pretty soon.

However, I would love to have the clairvoyance that some commentators here claime to have. No one knows that a woman with post-natal depression, or who is suffering from a mental illness is definitely going to kill her children or anyone else for that matter. You are making it sound like we should lock up anyone who displays signs of mental illness "just in case". When you've explained to me where you got your medical degree Boyness, perhaps you could go on to show me the evidence that those suffering from any mental illness are more likely to hurt anyone than individuals who are not mentally ill.

Anonymous said...

Pirate just gave a new meaning to "indifferent" now meaning child abuse.

No Pirate, we are far from being as you say, North Korea. I just believe that if you bring a child into the world you should protect the child. To do less is being unresponsible.

You can spin the fat and television all day; for you to advocate the permissiveness of knowingly allowing ones child to ride with a drunk driver "shocks the conscious."

Anonymous said...

Well now let's put the doctor in prison too. He knew she was dangerous to herself and others and failed to take action to protect the mother and the child. CPS should have been called by the doctor to look after the best interest of the child. The doctor and CPS should have presented the mother to the court for commitment to a mental facility if mentally unable to form good judgment regarding safety of herself and the child. The doctor is the only trained expert in this case, not the husband. He committed a misdemeanor for failing to report the potential abuse or death of a child. This case assumes the father held expertise in mental health the common person does not generally hold. This guy is going to prison for being ignorant! I worked as a mental health professional for many years and I have to say most people cannot believe their family members could be so unbalanced until after some tragic event actually happens.

FTM

Boyness said...

Anonymous said...

Well now let's put the doctor in prison too. He knew she was dangerous to herself and others and failed to take action to protect the mother and the child. CPS should have been called by the doctor to look after the best interest of the child.
------------------------------------
OK, great idea. We will put a teacher in prison if he/she "knows" a student has or is being molested and does nothing about it. Why in the hell would we protect a doctor or anyone who KNEW something like this could happen and DID NOTHING?

You are exactly WHAT IS WRONG IN TEXAS.

Anonymous said...

Boyness - You missed the point youngster. My point was the DA was off base carrying the case forward against the dad since he had no formal training related to the state of mind of the mother. The doctor was more responsible due to his extensive training than the father. If the doctor is not charged, why should the father be charged? The DA should know the mother could have done the same thing while the father was asleep in the home. Would the dad have been criminally liable for sleeping had the mother killed the child when dad was asleep? Next time there is a homicide in the DA’s county the DA should be held criminally responsible for not stopping the murderer if the actor is known to the DA as someone who could commit a violent act or drive drunk. Get the judge too if he gave probation to someone who later is responsible for the death of another.

Under Texas law the doc could be charged with a Class A Misdemeanor for failure to report. I have to wonder if the doc was threatened with charges if he didn’t testify in a favorable manner for the prosecution. Trained professionals are held to a higher standard when it comes to reporting to CPS regarding the safety of children. Doctors, nurses, psychologist, and teachers have the report or be charged and lose your license line drilled into them in Texas.

Anyway the case is a bad president to set. I hope the case is overturned on appeal. What next; the thought police!

FTM

Charity said...

Based on my own experience of dealing with people like all of you for the last three years after my son killed his sister, I can say this. You most likely have not ever lived through anything remotely similar to this or you would not be so quick to condemn. Do not be too quick to assume you know what is right and wrong in this case lest you find yourself in a similar position one day.


You may think you know what crazy or dangerous looks like or acts like but you don't know all the ways that crazy can hide itself. You may think the father is an asshole or some dunce but he most likely was just a man who loved his wife and baby and had no idea something like this was even conceivable. We know these things happen to others but NO ONE ever believes it will happen to them until it does. Most times, no one believes it after it does.

When tragedies happen to us, as a family, we don't see sides like all of you seem to be doing. We FEEL pain, anger, rage, heartache, misery, love, confusion, depression.....would you like me to go on?

The mother has committed a criminal act and should be held accountable for what she did. That does not mean she should be locked in a 6X6 cell for the rest of her life. She should be sent to a maximum security psych ward. Once her PPD is addressed, along with everything she will feel once she realizes what she did to her child, less supervision and possibly freedom are in order. She did not kill with intent and there is no arguing the severity of some PPD. The father was, at most, negligent but I hate to even say that without knowing all the details of the case.

If you don't like how our criminal code is written, go to law school, become a pol, and try to change it. Don't sit here and blow more hot air and negativity into the world by looking to the father as a scapegoat or a participant in the crime. He is a victim, as is his wife and his child. He did nothing criminal by our current code. If his use of his judgement offend you and you want to have him jailed for that, get ready for a life of looking over your own shoulder all the time when you exercise your own judgement calls in the future.

I can already hear some of you thinking I should be locked up too. After all, how can a mother not know her son is capable of murder, right? Where could I have been to have allowed this to happen? How did I not see the signs? Some of you are probably already busy assuming you know all about me because this only happens to certain kinds of people-people with problems, people with mental illness, people who are dumb, people who do a bad job protecting their kids, blah blah blah. You are wrong.

To all of you, all I have to say is that I hope nothing horrible ever happens to any of you because you will be wanting and needing help and support; not the condemnation you are handing out here.

Pirate Rothbard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pirate Rothbard said...

Teachers shouldn't go to jail because they choose to keep silent.

Again, another example of a bad idea that can lead to more bad ideas.

Fire them, take away their lisence, fine. But don't waste prison space on them.

Anonymous said...

Charity good post. As a trained mental health professional I can't predict behavior 100% of the time. I can only have an educated opinion on mental health matters. Often we, as people, have preconceived ideas which turn out to be invalid when the real life situation unfolds before us. Unless you have been there I would not judge too harshly. Often people who suffer from mental illness are experts at hiding their instability and bad judgment.

FTM

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Wow, Charity, amazing comment. Thanks for sharing that. I hope you find comfort and joy on your unimaginable, sad journey, which I'm sure neither began nor ended with your daughter's untimely death. Good luck to you.

Charity said...

Thanks Grits...actually it did begin with my daughter's death as my son is one of the ones who completely hid all his thoughts from others. Honor student, 141 IQ, amazing big brother and son up to the day he killed.

I am taking my own advice about changing the system and am working on obtaining a joint MSW/JD. We need more people who want to help based on love and compassion and less people who are only out to spread vengeance and lock everyone up to keep their own false sense of security intact.

So watch out all you haters because one day I'll be helping to change all the policies and laws that continue to oppress people rather than lift them up. Really looking forward to pissing all you haters off!!

Charity said...

Thanks too you too FTM. Always happy to hear from a person who understands our lives can not be foretold from the bubbles we fill in on a test or that our past actions will always reflect our future actions.

Anonymous said...

"Her doctor told the father not to leave her alone with the child, Floyd reports, but Katherine Stone at Postpartum Progress wonders why she wasn't hospitalized?"

Charity....Unlike your case, from what you write, one assumes before your son's act he had no reason for any previous treatment or diagnosis. There lies a big difference in your case and the Maxon case where the man was warned to not leave his child alone with the mother.

Charity said...

6:56--Please believe me that everything you read in a newspaper about a case is only the partial truth or an outright lie. I would know having read all the stories that were written about my family.

I think it is fairly obvious that the doctor was more negligent than the father in this case. He is mandated by law to report to the authorities if he thinks a child has been harmed. He has taken an oath to take care of his patient. I agree, if mom should not be left alone with baby she should have been put on a 72 hour hold or something (not sure how TX handles all that).

My point is, as stated before, the father is a victim too. His child has died. He has lost his wife and whatever role he played in that was not intentional. We like to believe we are immune from all the stats we hear about what could happen and most people simply DO NOT BELIEVE anything like this will ever happen to them.

I know it is hard for some people to imagine (because everyone likes to assign blame so we can look and say--right there, there is the fault--and try to eliminate it) but there are some crimes where the only fault is that someone had a mental illness.

Mental illness is what everyone should be blaming this on--not the father--and the solution is to treat the mother and to better educate all expectant parents of the danger signs.

If the father is a decent human being, he will be paying a higher price than any of you could impose on him. He has to live with his loss and his conscious the rest of his life. Losing your freedom is nothing compared to losing your family.

Kaya Paxton said...

I appreciate the discussion of this topic, my opinion of the matter is that this is simply wrong. Sending the father to jail because his wife murdered their baby, yes he was aware of her mental state, but wasn't the doctor also? So, shouldn't he be going to prison too? If the doctor was aware of her mental state, he should have never allowed her to have her child under her responsibly. He should have taken action to not allow the child to be ever put under supervision with her, whether her husband was with her or not. The mother has committed a criminal act and should be held responsible for what she did, it does not mean that she should be lock in a cell for her entire life time, but with the mental state she was in, she should be given treatment to over come the action which she took and then sent to a maximum security psych ward, as Charity said. Even if her doctor told the father not to leave her alone with the child, why wasn’t she hospitalised, she was obviously a threat to her family?

There is a lot of theories surrounding people’s minds when stories like this break out into the news, people place blame on many of the incident. What everyone should be blaming this on is the mental disorder that overwhelmed Valeria - not the father. Is it fair to punish the father who just lost his son and his wife to a severe illness, when the doctors didn’t do all they could to help keep his son from the insanity his mother was suffering from?

Kaya