Three issues of major national concern came together this week in the unlikely story of a mother and new migrant, alleged to have killed all three of her children inside their new home. The father allegedly arrived home at around 10pm and found the three children dead.
It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for parents to murder their children. There are a number of triggers for this, but the most common is estranged fathers who take the view “if I can’t have you, no-one will”. Our minds stray to the missing dad and his three kids out West. Are they camping somewhere remote? Did they have a terrible accident? Or did he decide to end it for himself and his children? Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
We also think about the Lynnmall supermarket attacker, a refugee, torture victim and person with a dangerous psychosis. There is little doubt that New Zealand failed in its duty of care to this man in some way and paid a huge price for this. With the crisis in mental health care, I wonder how many other very damaged refugees and others are on the streets, collecting extremist ideologies along the way and becoming more and more dangerous.
And the Dunedin supermarket bloke, who was apparently in some kind of delusion that ‘the witches’ were after him. One of these perpetrators called a terrorist, the other not. Both, pretty certainly, mentally unwell.
It is relatively uncommon for women to murder their children. Where such incidents take place, there is often a significant background of violence, perhaps drug-taking or alcohol abuse, lack of coping and other problems.
It is very unusual for such an event to occur in a high-functioning professional family, where both parents are doctors, starting a new life voluntarily in Aotearoa. It immediately raises potential questions about the mental health of the mother. As she has been charged with murder, it would not be proper to speculate on that further. Just to say that the term, reactive psychosis, which is now pretty well out of fashion, allows for the possibility that someone can appear normal in the morning and kill their children later in the day.
There have been similar cases in living memory (of those of us who are older). In 1979, a woman called Elizabeth McKenzie, from Canterbury, was arrested for the killing of her three children. The facts were quite similar, on the face of it. Her husband, a dentist, arrived home to find that his wife had killed all three of their children. There was a lot of talk in the community at that time about how terrible for a husband to arrive home to that, and I guess people will say the same now.
Elizabeth had a history of depression and she was remanded to Sunnyside Hospital for an assessment. It later came out that she had recently rung Sunnyside, asking to see her psychiatrist, and was told there was a long waiting list. A failure of mental health services, more than 40 years ago? Very likely.
Elizabeth stood trial for murder. It came out at her trial that she had suffered from depression for her whole life, as had her mother. In her mind, at the time of the killing, she had not wanted them to go through what she had gone through. By killing them, she thought she was protecting them from a future of depression and mental illness.
Her psychiatrist wrote to the court that she met the legal test of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’, which was one of three potential outcomes, along with guilty or not guilty of murder. The jury had to decide. As a result of the evidence, they did find her not guilty by reason of insanity, and ws. There was a lot of sniping in the media at the time that she had got off ‘scot free’, but in fact she spent many years locked up in Sunnyside. I don’t know when she was finally discharged.
As her mental health improved in hospital, she then had to face the horror that she had killed all her children in a psychotic event. The realisation was, of course, worse than the actual sentence.
Did emigrating to New Zealand trigger some kind of psychotic episode for the mother? Did she have a pre-existing mental illness, and, if so, did Immigration NZ know about it? Or did something else entirely happen?
I expect that she will eventually stand trial. I notice she has been remanded to a secure facility, which I hope is a mental health facility and not a prison. I feel for her. Whatever triggered what she did (if she did it), a year or two on remand in a woman’s prison system overflowing with remand prisoners and very short on mental health treatment facilities, will be another hell she may have to go through. She will find little empathy there, and will be alone in a strange land.
I feel also for the husband. What a thing to come home to, only a week into a new life that must have felt full of promise.
So many of the shocking stories we hear about come back to the common denominator of a lack of access to effective mental health care for those that need it. Our TDB colleague, Dave McPherson and his partner Jane Stevens have campaigned tirelessly for years for better mental health care. Spend more on mental health, spend less on prisons. However, as my alert readers will point out, the government poured millions into mental health services and virtually none of it has been spent.
There must be a better way.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.