Women say mental illness led them to kill kids

July 27, 2006

BY LORI RACKL Health Reporter

Four years ago, a Texas jury declared Andrea Yates a calculating murderer.
On Wednesday, a new jury saw Yates as a delusional mother who didn't know any better, finding her not guilty by reason of insanity.
"A lot has changed since her first trial," said Yates' defense attorney George Parnham, adding that several other Texas mothers who killed their children also have been found not guilty in the wake of Yates' 2002 trial. "There's been a marked shift in our ability to at least be open to discussing the reality of this mental illness."
Three Illinois women locked up for life for killing their young children hope this shift in society's attitude toward postpartum mental illness will help set them free.
Debra Gindorf, Paula Sims and Tammy Eveans all committed their crimes in the '80s, when postpartum depression and psychosis were rarely mentioned in either the courtroom or the doctor's office. These women, who say they couldn't wait to be called "mommy," are serving no-parole sentences in Dwight Correctional Center, where they're called BKs, slang for baby killers.
'The system needs to change'
Outside prison walls, they've found an advocate in Carol Blocker. The Chicago woman lost her daughter to postpartum mental illness when Melanie Blocker Stokes jumped to her death five years ago from the 12th floor of a Chicago Days Inn.
"They shouldn't have to spend their lives in prison for being sick," said Blocker, who hopes the new Yates' verdict signals a more sympathetic era for postpartum sufferers. "The system needs to change. We need to go after the illness, not the girls."
All three women say they poisoned, drowned or smothered their children not because they didn't love or want them, but because they were victims, too -- victims of postpartum psychosis, the rarest and most severe form of postpartum mental illness. Sufferers lose touch with reality, often hearing or seeing things that aren't there. New moms' minds might be filled with nonsensical thoughts and delusional beliefs, such as Yates' thinking that killing her kids would save them from eternal damnation.
These mothers-turned-murderers shared what happened to them and their children -- as they see it -- during recent interviews at Dwight, a women's prison about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. They realize their stories might spark more hatred than pity, and that some will think they're using postpartum psychosis as a convenient excuse for their crimes.
"Too many people are silent about this," said Eveans, 40, who didn't testify at her trial and has never talked publicly about killing her three children, until now.
"I was silent and it gave others the OK to say I did it out of malicious reasons, or I did it for attention. None of that is true. Now here I sit in prison -- here we sit in prison -- with nobody really understanding what we went through."
Some genetically at risk
They all have a history of untreated psychiatric illness. They had troubled childhoods and problematic marriages. In many ways, Eveans, Gindorf and Sims were prime candidates for postpartum psychosis, which affects an estimated 1 in 1,000 women, only a small percentage of whom kill their children or themselves.
"Some people are genetically more at risk, with histories of mental illness," said Jeanne Watson Driscoll, a Boston therapist who has written books on postpartum mental health disorders. "They might have a history of physical or mental abuse, which can alter the biochemistry."
Paula Sims had struggled on and off with depression that took root in her teenage years. Her childhood was marred by sexual molestation and a car crash that killed her brother and shattered many of the bones in her face. She turned to drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain.
Sims remembers being thrilled, though, to find out she was pregnant with her first child, Loralei, in 1985. She decorated the baby's room in their Downstate Brighton home with rainbows.
"I wanted to be a mother really bad," Sims said. "But motherhood wasn't what I expected it to be."
Almost immediately, Sims had thoughts of harming her child.
"I couldn't tell anyone this," she said. "I was afraid and ashamed. I got real depressed. I started hearing voices, voices that kept telling me, 'You know what you've got to do.' "
While Sims battled her demons and tried to adjust to life with a newborn, her marriage was falling apart. She says her husband wanted a boy, and he vented his disappointment by being unsupportive and critical of her. Sims says he treated her better when she gave birth to their second child, a son. She thinks that's part of the reason she didn't become as mentally ill with her son -- and why he's still alive today.
Sims, 47, and her husband have since divorced. Attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.
Sims said what she did still gives her nightmares. She put her red-headed, 13-day-old daughter, Loralei, in a tub full of water. Then she walked out of the bathroom, leaving the baby to drown.
"When I came back, I picked her up, wrapped her in a towel and told her how sorry I was," Sims said. "I walked out the sliding glass doors and laid her down in the woods."
Three years later, Sims says, she repeated the same chilling act with her 6-week-old daughter, Heather. She got rid of Heather's body in a garbage can several miles away from the Simses' new home in Alton.
After each of her daughters' deaths, Sims claimed a masked gunman had kidnapped her child. To this day, she says she remembers hallucinating and seeing a masked gunman, even though she knows her daughters died by her hands, not a stranger's.
"It's hard to explain this illness," Sims said. "It's like I was in a trance. I just wish I could've recognized what was wrong with me and had myself committed until I was fit to raise my children."
'Punished for being mentally ill'
Prosecutors sought the death penalty. A jury found Sims guilty, and she was sentenced to life in prison, where she has been for the last 16 years. The courts have repeatedly denied her request for a new trial.
Sims has argued, among other things, that her original lawyer should have presented a postpartum defense at her 1990 trial.
"I don't expect people to forgive me. I haven't forgiven myself," she said. "But I'm being punished for being mentally ill."
Sims' attorney, Jed Stone of Waukegan, plans to file a clemency petition next week with the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Stone hopes the panel will make a positive recommendation to Gov. Blagojevich, who has the authority to grant Sims clemency and set her free.
"We couldn't have filed this claim 15 years ago; we didn't know enough about this," Stone said. "We've gained a greater understanding in the last few years . . . that should open the prison doors for Paula and a number of other women in Illinois and across the country who suffered from postpartum mental illness at the time of their crimes."
Clemency is the only shot at freedom for Debra Gindorf, too. Gindorf, 42, is the "poster girl for outrageous sentences for postpartum sufferers," said assistant state appellate defender Kathleen Hamill, who was first assigned to the case 20 years ago.
Gindorf has spent half her life locked up for killing her 3-month-old son and toddler daughter. A judge found her guilty but mentally ill. Under Illinois law, two murder convictions bought her an automatic life sentence without parole.
When the suburban Lake County mother went on trial in 1986, no one -- not her lawyers, psychiatric experts or Gindorf herself -- suggested that her crimes were related to postpartum psychosis.
"Nobody had really heard of this back then," Hamill said.
Scholars have found references to postpartum psychosis dating back to Hippocrates, who described it as a kind of madness caused by excessive blood flow to the brain. Despite its lengthy history, many think the country has a long way to go in its understanding and treatment of postpartum mental illness.
"We've made steps, but not enough," said Dr. Meg Spinelli, director of New York State Psychiatric Institute's maternal health program. Spinelli has written extensively about this country's disparate treatment under the law toward women who kill their children. She holds the psychiatric community at least partly responsible. Spinelli notes that the bible of psychiatric conditions, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, doesn't even list postpartum psychiatric illness as its own disorder.
'Illness is minimized'
"Because the courts rely on DSM-IV to 'legitimize' a diagnosis, the significance of this illness is minimized in the judicial process," Spinelli wrote in a 2004 American Journal of Psychiatry article on infanticide.
In U.S. courts, punishment has historically trumped rehabilitation when it comes to women who take the lives of their children. That's not the case in many other Western nations. England's infanticide law, for example, calls for mandatory psychiatric treatment and probation for mentally ill mothers who kill.
The night that Gindorf fed her children lethal doses of sleeping pills, she set out wanting to kill one person: herself. The 20-year-old high school dropout had been battling severe depression. Gindorf was a loner, getting by on little money with two young kids in a Zion apartment.
Her stormy marriage to an abusive husband ended in divorce when Gindorf was pregnant with her son, Jason. Even though her ex-husband had beaten her repeatedly, according to police reports, she wanted him back. One night in March, the former couple met at a bar. Gindorf testified that her ex-husband said he had to leave to take his girlfriend to work, but he'd try to come back to the tavern. She waited. He didn't return. What little will Gindorf had to live went with him, and she resolved to kill herself.
Gindorf swallowed crushed sleeping pills and several shots of Southern Comfort. She put the kids to bed and wrote them goodbye letters, telling them she loved them and not to blame themselves for her death. As she waited to die, Gindorf worried about who would care for her kids once she was gone.
"So I decided to take them with me to heaven," Gindorf said. She added the pill powder to Christina's juice and Jason's bottle. Groggy and vomiting from the pills and alcohol, Gindorf laid down next to her kids, kissed them and told them "we were going to be happy where we were going."
In the morning, she woke up next to her dead children. After several more unsuccessful suicide attempts that day, she walked to the Zion Police Department and turned herself in.
"I know it's the illness that did this, not Debra Gindorf, not their mommy," she said.
In the years since Gindorf's conviction, each of the nine mental health experts who've evaluated her determined she most likely suffered from postpartum psychosis or severe postpartum depression when she killed her kids.
"That's a strong mitigating factor," said Hamill, Gindorf's attorney. "And there's a very strong case for granting her clemency."
Hamill has filed four clemency petitions for Gindorf since 1990. The most recent has been awaiting action by Blagojevich since 2003, when Gindorf had a hearing before the prisoner review board. At that hearing, Carol Blocker made an impassioned plea for Gindorf's release. The panel's recommendations to the governor are confidential, but Hamill left the hearing encouraged.
"The board couldn't have been more receptive," Hamill said. "We've gotten the prosecutor's office to say we don't oppose the petition. The state's expert witness now supports us. There's no opposition. The only people who seem to be not willing to see the light and let her out are the governors of Illinois."
A governor's spokeswoman said Gindorf's clemency petition remains under review. She added that Blagojevich has helped at-risk mothers by creating a hotline for health-care providers with questions about the diagnosis and treatment of perinatal depression. Blagojevich also required the state to pay for postpartum depression screenings for mothers on Medicaid.
Attempts around the country to legislate screening and boost funding for postpartum illness have largely gone nowhere -- until recently. New Jersey this year passed a first-of-its-kind law requiring doctors and nurses to educate and screen expectant mothers and their families. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin last month proposed federal legislation that calls for similar screenings, as well as grants for research and expanded care for postpartum sufferers.
'I started hearing voices'
Not far from Paula Sims' house in Brighton lived another young mother, Tammy Eveans. Like Sims, Eveans recalls a childhood scarred by sexual abuse and depression.
Eveans' Catholic upbringing left her craving a big family. Just a few months after giving birth to her first child, Ricky Jr., in 1986, she was pregnant again.
"This time, I had uneasy feelings, like something wasn't right with me," said Eveans, a soft-spoken woman who looks younger than her 40 years. "Not long after I had my second son, Robby, I started hearing voices. I'd be bathing him and the voice would say, 'Just turn his face upside down.' I'd be driving and I'd hear, 'Just throw him out the window.'"
This woman, who dreamed of motherhood since she was a little girl, stopped wanting to spend time with her two young sons. Feeling depressed and isolated, she focused her attention on other things, like obsessively cleaning the house. Meanwhile, the voices were getting louder, she said, especially when it was time to feed Robby.
"'Suffocate him. Send him on to safety.' I heard that so many times . . . until finally I did just that," she said.
After a midmorning feeding, she placed her small hands over her 2-month-old son's nose and mouth and kept them there, long after Robby had stopped moving.
"I felt completely void. No emotion. No anger, no joy. Nothing," she said, wiping the tears off her pale cheeks. "And then I went back to business as usual. I picked him up off my lap, laid him down in his playpen and went about my daily tasks. I didn't really realize what I'd just done, except send him on to safety."
The reality of what she'd done was too much to bear, so she buried it deep in her psyche. Robby's death was attributed to complications from an earlier fall.
Shortly after the funeral, Eveans was pregnant again. She sought the help of a therapist for her depression, but she kept the voices a secret out of fear "they'd want to lock me up in an insane asylum."
She gave birth to Amy Cecile in 1988. Eveans said that the first time she held her newborn daughter, the voices screamed at her like a drill sergeant: "Kill her! Kill her!"
Sixteen days later, she did. Eveans suffocated Amy Cecile in the middle of the night after a feeding. Doctors blamed it on sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.

'Oh my god, what have I done?'
The following year, the law caught up with Eveans after she smothered her oldest and only remaining child. Ricky Jr. and his mom were taking a nap before heading to a pizza parlor that night to celebrate the boy's 3rd birthday. Eveans said that while she was asleep, she dreamed she was fending off an attacker.
"When I woke up, my hands were over little Ricky's mouth," she said. "I remember saying, 'Oh my god, what have I done?' I tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late."
Eveans says she spent years in prison before ever hearing the words postpartum psychosis. She now reads everything she can on the topic.
Eveans is convinced she committed her crimes as a result of the hormonal changes that hit her body like waves after three pregnancies in three years.
Eveans said she's angry that the mental health experts who assessed her during her trial never raised postpartum illness as a possibility. She's angrier yet that no one considered the diagnosis when there was still time to do something about it.
"There are medications you can take that will help with the chemical adjustments that transpire during and after pregnancy," she said. "I know this now. I knew nothing then."
Eveans said the voices stopped long ago. She no longer wishes she were dead, either. But she says one thing will never change.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about my kids," she said. "If I ever get out of here, the first place I'd want to go is the cemetery."
And if she doesn't get out of prison?
"I know I'll see them again some day," she said. "And the first thing I'll tell them: 'I love you.' "