A mother’s crime
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They said you committed infanticide, but you don’t remember a thing. You were a loving mother before it happened. Postnatal depression, said the experts. It swept into you and one night five years ago you “snapped”. You fractured your son’s skull and the little boy died. You did the same to his twin brother that night and somehow he survived, though he’ll never fully recover from his injuries.
Raising a family was to be the joy of your life. You already had a toddler daughter and she meant the world to you. You didn’t get depressed after having her. You felt down for a brief period after she was born, but you got over it and motherhood was bliss. You couldn’t head off to work in the morning without her making you kiss her a dozen times. You couldn’t cook a meal without her clinging to your legs.
Ever since you were young you had wanted a family. You had cysts on your ovaries and had been told you might not be able to have children, so when you had your first child it was wonderful. Then when you found out you were having twins you were thrilled – the family was complete. Even now, you smile when you think about it.
You had everything you wanted. Now you have nothing. You’ve been sentenced for infanticide and are forbidden by the court to see your surviving son, Tim, and daughter, Leah. You didn’t go to jail – you were sentenced to a 12-month non-custodial bond. You can’t live in the Sydney home you worked for over a decade to pay off. Your husband is living there with Leah and Tim. You’re back with your mother in the house you grew up in. A tidy lawn out the back and a few spring blooms along the borders. The only reason you have for living is the prospect of seeing Leah and Tim again. Even that hope is fading, despite psychologists saying it would be in the best interests of both the children and you.
You have suicidal thoughts every day, but the hope of seeing your children gives you the purpose to get through.
The walls of the lounge and corridor are like shrines to your children, including Hamish, the eight-week-old baby you were convicted of killing during your mental illness. That’s him there. You look at a black-and-white photo of the sleeping infant over and over. You visit his grave every day. All you wanted to be was the best mother possible.
Alongside Hamish’s pictures are those of Leah, pulling smart-alec faces, and Tim, a toddler image of what his twin brother would have become. In your bedroom there are more photos, and when you close the door a big painting Leah sent through for you, drawings of people and trees. She has traced Tim’s hand for you to put your hand against. There are dozens of her paintings beside your bed.
Your psychologists have labelled you a diagnostic anomaly. That’s because you don’t fit the infanticide profile. Most mothers who kill their infants are under 25 years of age and poor, haven’t made it past high school, haven’t held down a job. You were much older than that and educated. Had been in the one job for many years and proudly called yourself “a financially independent woman”. You bought your own house in your mid 20s. You were set.
The motherhood urge intensified when you reached 30. You hadn’t found the man of your dreams, so you joined an online dating service, which is where you met Dale. You went out with him and things clicked. You had the same morals and values, and both wanted kids. Your family embraced him. It was perfect.
Dale didn’t bring much to the marriage in financial terms. But that hardly mattered. You were in love and the future looked brilliant.
Your future died the night your baby died. You wish you had died that night instead.
The twins were born by caesarean. You were so excited you didn’t follow nurses’ orders to stay in bed. You wanted to see your boys and didn’t care about your stitches. You joked to the nurses that the pain of the stitches was a wonderful pain. Everything was going along fine.
Because you’d had problems getting Leah to breastfeed properly, you bottle-fed the twins. During the first week at home, maternity nurses noted you were doing well. But in the second week there were problems. The babies became “grizzly after feeds”. They were diagnosed with colic and were given medicine, but that didn’t work.
You were told there was not much anyone could do for colic. The boys wouldn’t sleep. They would cry for ten or twelve hours at a time. It was so disheartening to go to the professionals and have them say it was just colic. You felt like a failure, kept thinking, “What am I doing wrong as a mum?”
In the third week the nurses said Tim was not growing in length and he had his knees bent tight and wouldn’t straighten them, especially when crying. Both boys showed signs of bruising.
You had no idea how the bruises got there. To this day, you don’t know what happened. All you could think of was that they were bashing each other because of the colic. You told the nurse how they were like escape artists the way they could get out of their swaddling – no matter how tight you wrapped them.
This explanation was accepted and no abnormality in your relationship with the babies was detected. You were given the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale questionnaire as a precaution. It revealed “symptoms of distress that may be discomforting”.
You should have been made to take the questionnaire again in a week but weren’t.
Over the next few days the boys continued their incessant crying. You and Dale took turns sleeping with the boys in a separate room so you both could get some peace.
They became sick – vomiting and diarrhoea. You took them to your GP, and during the consultation you confided in him that there might be something wrong with you. Normally a stoic person, you said you thought you might need some help.
Your symptoms included anger, rage, sadness, sleeplessness and a sense of worthlessness. You were screened using the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) and the Depression Anxiety and Stress Scale. The overall score was described as “extreme”. Your K10 score was 44 out of 50, indicating severe depression and the likelihood of a serious mental disorder.
Your husband wasn’t told about this, and he was sitting out in the waiting room, minding the kids. No safety plan was put in place.
The doctor didn’t give you any medication. “We’ll see how you go,” he said.
You took the boys to an unsettled babies clinic and maternal health centre. There, a nurse found them to be in poor condition – they were losing weight and reluctant to be fed. And they had more bruises on their faces. When the nurse challenged you and Dale about them, you said you had no explanation other than they must be hurting themselves.
“Babies don’t hurt themselves,” the nurse said.
Perhaps Leah was doing it. The nurse assessed you as a “grey flag” – “needing further follow up”.
You made an appointment to come back in a week’s time. You and Dale were given a referral letter to see your GP in the meantime, but the GP was away on leave.
Two days later, Hamish was dead.
You’d fed them at 8 pm and watched a bit of TV and were tired and wanted to sleep. You slept with Leah. Dale was in the other room with the boys. At about 1 am, Dale came in and said Hamish wasn’t breathing.
You rang your mum to come and look after the other kids and dialled 000 for an ambulance. Dale was doing CPR on Hamish. You went in the ambulance with the baby to the hospital.
At the hospital, at some stage someone came in and said Hamish had a fractured skull.
He also had bruises on his body.
You rang your mum to check on the other kids. She told you the police were there to bring Tim and Leah to hospital to be checked. Your family was being interviewed.
Doctors discovered that Tim had a similar injury to Hamish: a fractured skull. He also had fractured ribs and other fractures to his limbs. One fracture was in the process of healing, meaning it was an older injury. They said these injuries could not possibly be accidental. Leah had no damage.
You were allowed to hug the kids, and didn’t know that it would be the last time you’d see them. If you’d known, you would never have let them go.
You and Dale were taken to the police station for questioning. At first Dale was the main suspect. Then you told them something that shifted the focus solely on to you.
You said you shook the babies when you were upset – when you couldn’t settle them. And you’d end up in a kind of daze, and rock them and shake them.
The only other thing you recall is that you were convinced they were possessed. They were always crying and had a look in their eyes. Their eyes were popping out of their heads like something had taken them over.
Dale told the police you had not been yourself since your sons’ birth. You’d become bad-tempered and would sometimes verbally abuse the babies.
You had to accept that it must have been you who caused the terrible injuries. The realisation brought about your complete mental collapse. You wanted to commit suicide there and then and were placed in a psychiatric unit.
If you’d known you were sick you would have put yourself into hospital. You would never want to hurt your kids.
You were charged with murder for Hamish’s death and the attempted murder of Tim, but these were soon reduced to infanticide and reckless grievous bodily harm.
Infanticide is a crime of diminished responsibility due to a mother not having recovered from the effects of giving birth. It is a very rare crime. For example, it is so rare that there have only been four cases in Victoria. In New South Wales three cases were recorded between 2000 and 2007.
Your mum looked after Tim and Leah for a while and then they went home to live with their father. An intervention order was taken out against you, forbidding contact with them until they were 18.
That was five years ago. Now you are seeking contact with them. You have undergone psychiatric treatment and are medicated. The children have received therapy. Psychologists have recommended that you have access. Not just for your own mental and emotional wellbeing, but also for Tim and Leah’s. The longer you are kept away the less they will understand about what happened. They will demonise you all their lives and never hear your apology, a chance for some sort of relationship repair.
Dale is opposed to you seeing them. Up until you were sentenced you were in constant phone contact. He kept you informed about how the kids were doing, multiple text messages every day. You referred to Tim and Leah as your “munchkins”. The tone between you was affectionate. But on sentencing day he changed his phone number. You’ve heard nothing from him since.
Photos of your kids appeared in the media with their faces blacked out to protect their identity. Seeing those images, with faces of ink instead of smiles, left you in despair.
The responsible government agency supports you seeing your kids, but only if Dale agrees to it. He refuses. This has led to a rift between your extended family and his, and that, according to a psychologist’s report, poses a greater threat to Tim and Leah’s wellbeing than you ever could.
A NSW judge will have to decide whether access is granted or whether the closest you will ever get to them is that art gallery in the lounge and the hall. Leah’s painting on your bedroom door. Tim’s traced hand that you reach out and touch.
Details have been altered for legal reasons.
Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.