Neonaticide: Mothers with a deadly, preventable secret

By Geoff McKee, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Few crimes generate greater public reaction than neonaticide: when a mother kills her baby, or leaves it to die, on the day she gives birth. We are repelled, yet mesmerized, as details emerge. How could a woman deny being pregnant for so many months? How could no one notice? How could a mother murder her newborn?

As a forensic psychologist, I have evaluated 32 mothers who were charged with killing one or more of their children. Fourteen-year-old “Cathy” was one. She had been repeatedly molested by her stepfather, gave birth alone in her bedroom and then threw her newborn against the wall. “Edna,” a college freshman, was so indecisive about ending her pregnancy that she suffocated her minutes-old baby in an act of delayed abortion.

Cathy and Edna denied and hid their pregnancies, common in neonaticide cases, particularly among teens pregnant for the first time. That was also true in the recent Anaheim, Calif., case in which a 17-year-old visiting from Indiana allegedly gave birth in a Denny’s restroom; police said that neither her parents nor her boyfriend knew she was pregnant. (That baby was found alive in a trash can and hospitalized; the mother has been charged with felony child abuse and neglect.) Teenagers’ pregnancy denial may involve naive beliefs that morning sickness and weight gain are because of illness or excessive eating. But more often, denial is fed by shame over having intercourse, anxiety about enraged parents, fear of giving birth or resentment about ruined future plans.

Pregnancy denial among adults often involves hiding infidelity, excessive ambivalence about abortion and even guilt about neonaticidal thoughts. For either age group, pregnancy caused by rape, especially incest, may produce realistic fears of retaliation by the rapist; denial may be a form of post-traumatic amnesia.

Pregnancy denial gives women some temporary emotional relief, but if it persists, it can cause lasting damage. The woman avoids prenatal care and delays making critical decisions about termination, adoption or motherhood. It’s rare, but a woman who keeps pregnancy secret for nine months is at much greater risk of killing the newborn when she is overwhelmed by the emotional and physical stresses of giving birth alone. If the baby is subsequently found, alive or dead, the woman’s continuing denial is often a desperate attempt to escape felony charges of child abandonment or murder.

How often does this happen? We don’t know. Neonaticides are among the least-well-documented deaths in the U.S. Many bodies — left in trashbins or buried in remote places — may never be found.

Prosecution can be difficult too; investigators have to prove an infant wasn’t stillborn or didn’t die of natural causes associated with premature delivery or accidental suffocation.

Since 1999, 47 states have passed “safe surrender” laws. These laws permit the mother, without risk of criminal prosecution for abandonment, to anonymously leave her unharmed newborn at an emergency room or other designated site (such as some police or fire stations). In California, an infant can be up to 3 days old, but age limits are more generous elsewhere: 30 days in South Carolina and 1 year in North Dakota.

These laws offer great promise. Between 2001, when California passed its Safely Surrendered Baby Law, and January 2007, 182 newborns were turned in. An additional 146 were found alive following their illegal abandonment. These results demonstrate that with coordinated state, community and family efforts, the tragedy of neonaticide is preventable. McKee, a clinical professor in the department of neuropsychiatry at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, is the author of “Why Mothers Kill: A Forensic Psychologist’s Casebook.”