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Posted: 8/24/2001 7:03:53 AM EDT
[url]http://www.theage.com.au/news/state/2001/08/23/FFXH6PLKOQC.html[/url] It seems not all child-killers are equal By JANET ALBRECHTSEN Thursday 23 August 2001 Three days ago, 33-year-old Steven Fraser was charged with murdering his three young children in his unit in a southern suburb of Sydney. Three months ago, 36-year-old Andrea Yates was charged with murdering her five young children in her house in a south-eastern suburb of Houston, Texas. The treatment by the media, the wider community and the legal system of mothers and fathers who kill their children tells us that similarities between these two harrowing stories end there. When women kill their children, there is a reason. When men kill their children, they are simply evil. The staggering hypocrisy behind these common reactions to the tragedy of child homicides was again uncovered in the days after the murder of the Yates children. Across America in newspapers and on talk shows, there was an outpouring of sympathy, not for the dead children, or the now childless father - but for the mother. Susan Kushner Resnick of Salon magazine tapped into the national female psyche when she said: "She could have been me. Or you. Or your wife." One infanticide expert blamed society, claiming "there's blood on everyone's hands". Another pointed the finger at the father, who had left his depressed wife with five children as he trotted off to work. Recent figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology show that when children die at the hands of their biological parents, it is usually the mother, not the father, who is the killer. The highest rate of child homicide is among children under the age of one, and it's in precisely this sort of scenario that women can rely on society's mercy. For example, the Victorian Law Reform Commission found that in six case studies, all women convicted of the crime of infanticide for killing a child under the age of 12 months received non-custodial sentences. In another six case studies of women convicted of manslaughter on the basis of provocation, two were given non-custodial sentences and the other four received sentences of less than five years. Many other cases simply don't proceed because prosecutors decide there are mitigating circumstances, such as postnatal depression, which support a stay of prosecution.
Link Posted: 8/24/2001 7:04:45 AM EDT
Postnatal depression has become much more than a physiological condition following birth. It is a catch-all syndrome describing any or all of the following: hormonal changes, genetic vulnerability to depression, emotional issues such as disappointment with the birth process, stresses associated with job loss or new parental responsibilities. Such is the amorphous nature of postnatal depression that Marie Osmond, of Donnie and Marie fame, added her two cents' worth during the debate about the Yates case. Having experienced postnatal depression after her seventh child, Osmond reflected, on NBC's Today Show, that "we're just expected to do it all nowadays, and I think by trying to do it all, I think stress could be a big factor - lifestyles, diet, nutrition". So the list goes on. We don't bat an eyelid when a mother is let off the hook for killing her own children. But when fathers kill their children, blame falls squarely on their shoulders. The AIC study found that where the offender of child homicides committed suicide, it was usually the biological father. And such incidents were usually precipitated by the breakdown of a marital relationship where the wife leaves the home taking the children, or by the husband finding out that custody has been awarded to his former wife. This paints a stark picture of men laboring under severe depression which, in many cases, is caused by being deprived of their children. But what is our reaction to their crime? They are evil. When fathers kill, whether through depression or provocation, their emotional torment is somehow less credible, less worthy - something not quite on par with emotional distress experienced by mothers. And, therefore, men are seen as less deserving of the community's mercy. Why? If depressed fathers who kill their children can't be accorded the same degree of compassion as mothers who kill, perhaps it's time to hand out equal doses of accountability. In her 1997 book When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder, Patricia Pearson reported her research showing that "Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults". In short, her book suggests that if men and women have an equal capacity to achieve all that is good, they also have an equal capacity for all things evil. It's not a pretty picture, but it comes with the territory of equality. Janet Albrechtsen is a Sydney lawyer and journalist. E-mail: janeta@bigpond.net.au
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