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.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."
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.
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: