Why Do Parents Kill Their Own Children?

Last week, Lashanda Armstrong drove a car with her four children into the Hudson River. Her 10-year-old son Lashaun escaped the sinking car �" but three of her kids did not. In this week's Moms conversation, host Michel Martin speaks with noted forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Phillip Resnick about why parents kill their children and what community members can do if they observe volatile behavior from a parent. Martin is also joined by Tell Me More's regular parenting contributors, Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker. This subject may not be appropriate for all listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we continue our series for National Poetry Month. TELL ME MORE is celebrating the art of poetry throughout April and we are sharing your tweet poetry on the air. That's coming up and I really think you'll want to hear this one.

But, first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today we are talking about a topic that is so painful that we actually debated long and hard about whether to have this conversation. And this is an adult conversation, so I do want to add, it might not be appropriate for all listeners.

We want to talk about that terrible story out of New York last week. Last Tuesday, 25-year-old Lashanda Armstrong drove a van containing her four children into the Hudson River near New York City. Her 10-year-old son, Lashaun, was the only survivor. He climbed through a window in the vehicle, swam ashore and was discovered by a stranger. The boy told authorities that his mother had warned them, quote, "I'm sorry. I'm going to do something crazy." Here is the voice of the woman who found the boy and brought him to safety.

MARTIN: By the time it was my turn to go to the dockside I saw him going like this, help me, help me, help me. He said, Mom just drove the car into the water. And he was terrified. He blamed himself, not getting his baby sister out because the buckle was too tight. And he was just literally blaming himself for everything - everything that went on and that he didn't get help fast enough.

MARTIN: Police later found the bodies of his mother and three younger siblings offshore.

We wanted to talk more about why a parent would do this and what people can do if they suspect that someone, a family member, a neighbor may be on the verge of this kind of act and how to respond after it happens. And to do that, we've called upon Dr. Phillip Resnick, who has studied this phenomenon for 45 years. He's a professor of psychiatry and director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western University.

He joins us now from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Resnick, thanks so much for joining us.

PHILLIP RESNICK: Certainly.

MARTIN: And in our Washington, D.C. studios we're joined by our regular parenting segment contributors, Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Ladies, thank you both so much for joining us once again.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: I think I speak for many people when I say that I think the first thing that comes to somebody's mind after this, when they hear a story like this is why did she have to take the children with her? Is that something that you often hear from people who when they talk about a story like this?

RESNICK: Yes. It's quite common where people say, why didn't they just kill themself rather than wipe out the family? And I think the answer to that is, really, if it is what's called an altruistic killing, a mother feels that the world is a terrible place through her depressed eyes and often feels that her children go through the same suffering she does. She wants to protect them and believes that they'll all be better off in heaven. So it's what I call murder out of love, not murder out of hate.

MARTIN: You've identified five circumstances where parents kill their children. And we don't have time to go through all five. But this altruistic scenario that you just described where a parent thinks, well, you know, they can't survive without me. Is that the most common scenario in your view? And I also wanted to ask, is it different with men and women?

RESNICK: The main difference is that a depressed father or mother may kill their children. Fathers are more likely to commit familicide, that is, kill their wife, children, and themselves, whereas women very, very rarely will kill their husband. They'll just kill their children and themselves. That's because men tend to think of their wife and children with kind of proprietary ownership and women don't have that attitude toward their husbands.

MARTIN: Is there anything that anyone could have done to prevent this, Dr. Resnick? And I ask this question knowing that we do not know all the facts. I mean, we do - we are hearing through news reports that there was a triggering event, if the mother had heard that her partner, the father of the three of the children was having an outside relationship and apparently that sent her over the edge. But is there anything anybody can do if somebody's determined to do something like this, in your view?

RESNICK: The question really is when the intervention occurs. The one category other than altruistic is called spouse revenge - only four percent of killings by parents. And it's usually set off by either knowledge of infidelity or in child custody fights. And in that circumstance, there may be a desire to really get to the surviving spouse. Again, I don't know what happened in this particular case, but altruistic and spouse revenge would be two possible categories.

MARTIN: I did want to ask about mental illness, which for many people, it just seems like, obviously, who would do this who isn't mentally ill? And so the question I have, in your research over time, is there generally an underlying mental illness?

RESNICK: Not necessarily. In the altruistic type, there usually is. But in the spouse revenge, there may or may not be, and the child maltreatment - which is a fatal battered child, which is actually one of the most common - there is not mental illness. It's a killing in the overzealous application of discipline, where a person just loses control and throws a child against a wall or whatever, but there's not necessarily an underlying mental illness.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about parents who take the lives of their own children. We've just been speaking with Dr. Phillip Resnick. He a professor of psychiatry and the director of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western University in Cleveland, and he studied this phenomenon for many, many years. I also want to mention that he testified in the Andrea Yates case, who's a woman who drowned her five children because she thought that they were possessed by demons.

Also with us, our regular Moms Leslie Morgan Steiner and Dani Tucker.

MARTIN: Do you think that there is some value in talking about this publicly? And the reason I ask is that it just goes against everything we think of as what parents are and they're about. And some people feel that further talking about it just stigmatizes these people further. So is there any value to that? I wanted to ask each of you: Do you think there's any value in talking about this?

MORGAN STEINER: This is Leslie, here. I think there's tremendous value, even though it's such a sad and incredibly painful subject to talk about. You know, my first reaction was shock and horror that any woman could do this. But then I have to tell you the truth, that almost immediately, I thought, you know what? I understand, and I've been there, too, even though it's a terrible thing to admit to.

I've never wanted to kill my children or myself, but I have had many moments as a mother where I really deeply regretted having children and I felt like the responsibility was more than I could possibly bear. If you talk about it and you try to sort of normalize these fleeting moments of despair, then maybe she wouldn't have felt so alone.

One of the biggest risk factors for mom who hurt their children is an incredible sense of isolation. And I think if when you're going through that, you know that a lot of other moms - a lot of other really good moms - have momentarily felt, you know, a crushing sense of despair. Perhaps you can hang on until it passes. And I'm sure that this would have passed for her, too, but she must not have known that it's actually kind of normal to feel such a terrible feeling.

MARTIN: In fact, the little boy told - he later told authorities that she said I've made a mistake. I'm making a mistake. And we don't know what she meant by that, but it does seem like this was an impulsive act.

Dani, what about you? Do you think that there is value in talking about this? Because I know that there's also the racial aspect of this. I mean, we should just tell it. I mean, that a lot of people - I was noticing the comment boards and some of the news organizations have covered this story, and race did come into it. And people were saying, oh, what do you expect? It's young woman. She's got all these kids, different fathers and so forth. And I know that's painful in and of itself that people want to go there.

TUCKER: Yeah, that hurts really bad. I agree with Leslie. We should talk about it. We don't talk about it enough. I think that's why a lot of mothers don't get help. It brings, like, the Banita Jacks story. I don't know if a lot of people outside of D.C. were familiar, but the young lady killed her four daughters and stayed in the house with their decomposing bodies for months. And the police missed the mark. The family missed the mark. Yet she's sitting in jail, and there's no help there for her.

Because of that, to me, Lashanda Armstrong happened. And because of that, somebody else is coming in, because we're such a taboo and we refuse to look at this for what it is.

To me, in my opinion, I mean I'm no psychiatrist like the doctor, but I really believe that we have not gone deep enough into what's going on.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you've ever met someone who you felt was capable of this, was on the verge, as it were?

TUCKER: Oh, a couple of times. I mean, I'm like Leslie. I haven't been that far, but every mother, I believe, gets to the point where Leslie was talking about. You get so overwhelmed. And I don't care how much support you have, that mental health, a lot of us don't necessarily deal with that. You know, we have a problem dealing with our regular physical health, but we really don't always talk to somebody, join a support group.

And I've had couple of girlfriends who have called me stressed to the max. And in their case, yes, they did have multiple kids. Yes, they were dealing with more than one kid's father. But that's water under the bridge. They're here now, and you've got to keep them healthy. You can't keep taking them back because a lot of them were stuck in guilt(ph).

MARTIN: You said you've talk to some mothers who just were on the edge. What do you think was the thing that made them on the edge? Was it just feeling like they couldn't cope, they just had too many things?

TUCKER: Everything. Yeah. Feeling like you can't cope - again, when you're mental health is coming, in my opinion, and just listening to the two girlfriends I experienced this with, they always had issues coming in. You know, bills are due and kids are sick and no help coming. And in your mind, your mind's not healthy right now. You're stressed. You're tired, and you can't fight off those thoughts that say hurt your children, run away from your children, abandon your children. And that's what they were going through. When you get all of that coming together and you're in a room by yourself with just kids going mommy this mommy that, that's just too much.

MARTIN: Leslie, have you ever known anyone who you felt was on the edge?

MORGAN STEINER: I have. I had a close friend, when her child was about two years old, she was getting divorced and she had just moved to a new community where she knew no one. I talked to her almost every day on the phone, and she was clearly not taking care of her child and not taking care of herself.

MARTIN: I just want to drive my car over the cliff with my son in the back. Neighbors called child protective services, and they did their job really well. The boy was taken out of her care and has been raised by his father. And it's a happy, happier ending for the boy because he got good care. But it's actually a good ending for her, too, because she needed a good two years after that to pull herself together.

And I know we hear a lot of negative things about Child Protective Services, but it is our society's best solution right now, because it is really hard for individuals to intervene. And I think it is really hard for moms to ask for help when they're so far gone, especially in our society that expects so much of mothers. And I don't care if you became a mom at 15 or 35, it's hard. And we don't say enough, how difficult the responsibility of caring for young children can be.

MARTIN: Dr. Resnick, I was doing some research here, and I found a story from the Associated Press that reports that these killings occur more often than we might like to believe - often as 100 times per year that a parent kills a child.

RESNICK: Yes. And actually...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

RESNICK: ...some studies I've seen are about 200 per year. In the study I did, it was one in every 33 murders in the United States was a parent killing a child. At least transient thoughts towards killing kids are so common, and that's one theory as to why we want to punish these mothers severely, is that it reinforces our own internal controls. And so often, there's a desire to make an example. And juries also punished severely, even when these women are mentally ill.

MARTIN: That's what happened in the case that Dani was just talking to us about, the Banita Jacks case. This was an important story in the Washington, D.C. area, probably didn't achieve a lot of national attention. And so I wanted to ask you this Dr. Resnick: Do you think that our response at this juncture is appropriate as a society? I mean, our criminal - it tends to be a criminal justice response. I know in the case that you testified in, the Andrea Yates case, she was initially prosecuted. She - it seemed very clear that she was having a psychotic episode. I mean, she thought that demons had inhabited her children and that she had to kill them to save them. I'm not a doctor, either. But if that's not psychotic, I don't know what is.

RESNICK: No one argued - everyone agreed she was psychotic. But, of course, the criteria for insanity involved not knowing the wrongfulness of the act, in Texas.

MARTIN: So the question I had for you is: What should our response be to these circumstances? And I understand that you're saying that there are a lot of different circumstances. But what do you think our response should be, as a society, and also as individuals, when we've encountered people in our lives who we think are struggling?

RESNICK: I think the critical issue, as far as prevention goes, is identifying depressed mothers. If a mother has small children and she takes her own life, there's one chance in 20 she'll take her children with her. So every depressed woman who's at risk of suicide is at some risk of taking the children. And so intervening, providing support, getting them to mental health professionals in that state is important. If someone is frankly psychotic, as some of these women are, that's pretty obvious that they need help. But severe depression is also a concern.

MARTIN: As we go forward - I just wanted to end with some sort of concluding thought, because I hate to the idea of sort of leaving people with this awful sense that we just have to continue to live with this, and this is all we get. So does anybody have any sort of concluding thoughts to help people kind of think through this? And Dr. Resnick, I'll give you the last word, here. Leslie?

MORGAN STEINER: I remember about a dozen years ago when my first child was only two, he had a complete meltdown in public. It was one of these things where I felt like he was shaming me and humiliating me by screaming in public, and I came really close to slapping him. And I remember another mom, who was a complete stranger, came up to me. She didn't judge me. She smiled. She said, you know what? I have been there so many times myself. Can I take your son just for a minute? And she took him, I think, for two minutes, and that's all it took for me to get control of myself again.

So I think if you're going through this, know that you're not alone, and that it's going to pass. And if you see somebody who's going through it, try to reach out to them and let them know that you've been there, too, and don't judge them or pity them. But just try to help them.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you?

TUCKER: My final thought is to the moms: We live in a very judgmental society. So I know what it's like to be worried about what people will say or think or do. Don't let that stop you from taking care of your mental health. Just as you clean your house, think about your mind. Clean it. Keep it clear. Join groups. But take care of your mental health. Put it at the forefront, so that when you get stressed like Leslie and I were talking about, and you can't control it and you don't get to the levels where you might get to where Lashanda Armstrong did. Take care of it now.

MARTIN: Dr. Resnick, a final thought from you?

RESNICK: One of the problems is that women are very reluctant to share thoughts of killing their children, and the person they're least likely to share it with is a social worker, because of the public perception that children will be taken away. But they're also reluctant even to share it with their pediatrician or obstetrician. And if they do reach out, help is available, and they need to overcome the societal expectation that every mother's going to be a perfect mother who can handle all crises.

MARTIN: Dr. Phillip Resnick is a professor of psychiatry and director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western University. He was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland.

And here in our Washington, D.C. studio are our regular Moms contributors: Leslie Morgan Steiner. Currently this book is a memoir, "Crazy Love." And Dani Tucker.

I thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

MORGAN STEINER: Thank you.

RESNICK: Thank you.

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