Mental health and trauma influences on maternal infanticide and filicide
On January 13, the New York Times reported that under the Trump Administration, Lisa Montgomery was the first woman in nearly 70 years who was executed on federal death row.
She was sentenced to death for murdering a pregnant woman in 2004 and abducting the unborn child, whom she claimed as her own. A victim of repeated physical and sexual torture at the hands of her mother and step-father, the types of significant childhood traumas that Lisa Montgomery endured have been shown to alter brain biology and correspond to mental illness in adulthood.
According to defense experts, Lisa Montgomery suffered from depression, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and she experienced delusions and hallucinations, believing that God spoke to her through connect-the-dot puzzles.
“This story illustrates so clearly the tragic and deadly consequence and injustice of discounting the impacts of childhood trauma to mental health and accompanying psychiatric issues in adulthood that George Parnham and I underscored in our book that was just published,” said Dr. Gina Wong, psychologist, professor, and program director in the Master of Counselling program at Athabasca University (AU).
Dr. Wong is the founder and director of the Maternal Mental Health Progress in Canada and the Centre for Perinatal Psychology and Forensics International and is also a perinatal expert witness in court cases. She specializes in the area of maternal mental health and her current research focuses specifically on maternal infanticide and filicide—mothers who kill their children.
“It is the most heinous crime imaginable when a mother kills her own child, and with a lack of understanding of the mental health basis of these crimes in mainstream society, these mothers are treated as monsters rather than victims of their mental illness. My research is in the service of these mothers in the criminal justice system who have committed these crimes in which an insane mind was the culprit. The most important to me is advocacy and awareness.”– Dr. Gina Wong, psychologist, professor, and program director in the Master of Counselling program at AU
Advocating against injustices to women at the hands of the criminal justice system
In December, Dr. Wong published a book that she co-edited with George Parnham entitled Infanticide and Filicide, Foundations in Maternal Mental Health Forensics. The book speaks to the underlying motivations, legal outcomes, and social and global concerns from biological, psychological, and social perspective.
George Parnham’s name may sound familiar, as he successfully defended Andrea Yates, a mother who killed all five of her children by way of drowning in 2001, and who faced the death penalty if convicted of murder. The trials of Andrea Yates captured the public’s attention for its sheer tragedy. Although the case initially sparked shock and outrage, it also spotlighted maternal mental illness and the intersection with the criminal justice system—similar to the current case of Lisa Montgomery but with a very different outcome.
At the time of Montgomery’s crime, she suffered from pseudocyesis, a rare psychiatric condition where she falsely believed she was pregnant. She experienced the same hormonal and physiological changes as a pregnant woman, which is also evidence of a disturbed mind.
While Montgomery was not a mother, her crime relates to Dr. Wong’s work and advocacy highlighting injustices to women at the hands of a criminal justice system who can be impenetrable to seeing the role of mental illness and its relationship to childhood trauma in criminal behaviour. Without ignoring that men equally fall victim, as underscored in a chapter of her book, “Fathers and Filicide,” Dr. Wong’s primary focus is maternal mental health.
In 2017, Dr. Wong was contacted by a criminal defense lawyer and asked to be a perinatal expert witness on a case involving a mother who killed her young children. In preparation, she recognized the lack of available resources to guide her in this role and began to passionately pursue it as an area requiring further research and attention.
“As I met experts in the area and connected to the community in the United States, I understood that the lack of knowledge about maternal mental health and its intersection with criminal justice was not just in Canada. I began to present at international conferences with George Parnham. He has been working and advocating in this area ever since the Yates case and he is a pioneer in this field,” she said.
Filling gaps in the literature
As explained by Dr. Wong, maternal mental illness can play a key role in many other legal matters such as child custody disputes, other homicide cases, assaults, and criminal negligence causing bodily harm. Dr. Wong and George Parnham’s book is an invitation to forge ahead together in an effort to address, advance, and advocate on behalf of mothers, fathers, their children, their families, and the generations to come.
Their book adds insight into childhood traumas as they relate to adult psychopathology and maternal infanticide. Research and case illustrations are provided, and the last two chapters are clinical presentations that weave in foundations and practical considerations. One of the cases presented is titled “Falling Between the Cracks of Medical Care in South Africa.” Falling between the cracks is exactly what happened on Jan. 13 with Lisa Montgomery.
The precipice of change
And, while there is no denying that these individuals committed heinous, criminal acts, Dr.Wong advocates that there are past traumas that influenced their brain chemistry and function—making it most reasonable to charge them as not criminally responsible by reason of insanity and to instead, offer them the mental health treatment and care they so desperately need.
“A lot of these cases are based on variability and we want there to be consistent standards and practices. Had Lisa Montgomery been tried in a different state or country, at another time in history, with a more nuanced legal defense team, her life could have been spared,” said Dr. Wong.
“If the legal and psychiatric experts, and society as a whole are aware of all these factors, cases based on a critical understanding of how legal decisions have evolved over time, the mistakes made, and strides gained, will help deliver a more fair, judicious, and consistent outcome for these individuals.”
Twenty years after the Andrea Yates tragedy, and just a few days after the Lisa Montgomery execution, maternal mental illness continues to be misunderstood and stigmatized.
“We stand at the precipice of change that will have lasting impact, in which maternal mental health forensics is underscored as an essential subspecialty area. We want to emphasize the need for an understanding that childhood adversity relates to adult psychopathology and greater risk for psychosis-related mental illness—just as we have seen with Lisa Montgomery this week.”– Dr. Gina Wong