Tegan Lane was not the average victim of neonaticide. She was given a name.
THE day you are born is the day you are most likely to be the victim of homicide. This cheerless statistic holds true whether you live in Stockholm or Silverwater. The perpetrator will almost certainly be your mother.
She will most likely be under 25, unmarried, still living at home or in poor circumstances, still at school or unemployed, emotionally immature and astonishingly secretive. She has carried you to term without telling a soul of your existence. And somehow the parents with whom she resides never suspect she is with child.
Now that you are born, it's not depression or psychosis that moves her to murder you – mental illness rarely plays a part. Nor is she overwhelmed by the feeling that life is simply too harsh for such a defenceless little creature for whom she cares a great deal.
There is rarely great violence in the manner of the killing. She may simply abandon you to the elements. The only intense feeling she has is the desire to see you gone. She may even deny that you exist at all.
This is the profile of neonaticide, the murder of a newborn in its first 24 hours of life. Most people in Australia have probably never heard the term. There is no separate provision for it in Australian law. People are charged with manslaughter, murder or, more rarely, infanticide.
Last week former water polo champion Keli Lane was found guilty of murdering her newborn daughter Tegan. A majority verdict of 11 to one found that Lane had left Auburn Hospital on September 14, 1996, killed her two-day-old baby, disposed of her body and proceeded to a friend's wedding. Tegan's body has never been found.
Two weeks ago, in a lower-profile case, Brisbane woman Jem Merrilee Rose Dean, 24, was convicted of the manslaughter of her newborn. She was 19 when she arrived at a hospital complaining of cramps. She was found to be 33 weeks pregnant.
Dean returned home. The following day she called an ambulance and told paramedics she'd given birth to a stillborn child. They found the baby submerged in a toilet, alive but brain damaged. The child lingered for 12 months but died of pneumonia.
Dean was sentenced to five years in jail, wholly suspended for time served. The presiding judge said Dean had a borderline intellectual impairment and believed the baby to have been stillborn.
Because of the counter-intuitive nature of neonaticide – the breaking of such a fundamental taboo — it's difficult to believe it occurs in Australia at a rate forensic psychiatrists and sociologists believe is underestimated and certainly under-reported.
In the past three years, newborn babies have been discovered in the following circumstances: face down in a toilet at an Adelaide hospitality school; in a pile of rubbish at a Perth recycling plant; in a shopping bag at a bus stop in regional Victoria; in the grounds of a South Australian high school; wrapped in newspaper and left in the driveway of a home in a South Australian country town; on a Sydney rubbish tip; at a Brisbane water treatment plant; and, in August, in a shoebox in the garden of a Strathfield apartment block.
In all but two of these cases, the mother has never been found. In each, the umbilical cord was still attached and torn, not cut, indicating a panicked separation of mother from child. An autopsy of the girl from the shoebox proved inconclusive.
Dr Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation, says such killings occur for the grisly reason that "it's easier to hide the body of a very small baby and it's very easy for a very small baby to fall through cracks in the system".
There are, he says, fewer contact points between the community and a newborn. "If an adult is killed, there are friends and family who miss that person," Tucci says. "He doesn't show up at work. But if a mother has carried and delivered her baby in secrecy, it's not hard to make it disappear. If we had some sense of prevalence of hidden pregnancies, we'd know which ones went to term and what happened to the babies afterward. There is no framework to even try and research that."
Mairead Dolan is professor of forensic psychiatry at Monash University and assistant clinical director (research) at the Victorian Institute for Forensic Mental Health. She is co-author of a draft paper, Maternal infanticide and neonaticide in Australia: a forensic evaluation. Dolan says few neonaticides are reported because bodies are never found or reported to authorities, or the cause of a death remains unknown. She also says there is an acceptance that coroners sometimes incorrectly rule a death accidental in actual homicide cases.
"It's also accepted they can be reluctant to think the worst without supporting evidence," she says.
With about 10per cent of sudden infant death syndrome cases estimated to be possible homicides, and the absence of birth certificates for 2.8per cent of children who die, Dolan writes in her research paper that official figures are often regarded as the "tip of the iceberg". (Last week the British Medical Association published a paper that found the number of newborns in France killed within 24 hours of birth is at least five times higher than official statistics.)
Tasmanian Labor Senator Helen Polley, who is campaigning for the introduction of "baby safe haven laws" in Australia to counter neonaticide and child abandonment, says at least 10 babies are abandoned by their mothers every year in Australia.
Safe haven laws have been enacted in most US states in the past eight years. They provide for a mother to abandon her newborn baby without fear of being charged with criminal abandonment. In the US and European experience, abandonment usually takes place in a hospital or at a police or fire station, where special hatches have been built into the walls. There are limits to the age of the children who can be abandoned and there are frequently provisions for child and mother to be reunited under certain conditions.
The Australian Medical Association has backed the senator's call. State welfare departments have routinely dismissed the idea, claiming they already have services that provide for mothers at risk.
But as Dr John Scott, associate professor at the University of New England's School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, points out: "How can intervention occur when something is concealed? The other problem is, some sections of the population may have more opportunity to conceal than others. By nature, welfare workers tend to deal with socially disadvantaged groups but clearly this practice occurs right across the social spectrum and there is even some evidence to indicate it may be more common among affluent groups."
This week, new Victorian Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge said the Victorian government would consider the viability of baby safe haven laws as part of an investigation into how women who conceal their pregnancies might be recognised and cared for.
Dolan says there is no data to support the effectiveness of such laws in reducing the risk of neonaticide. It's uncertain whether the mothers who kill their babies outright are of the same mind as those who abandon them.
Would the baby safe haven laws have made a difference in the case of Keli Lane?
The facts of the case fit the neonaticide profile almost perfectly, save for one anomaly: Lane, then a 21-year-old student living with her parents, was alleged to have left Auburn Hospital with baby Tegan two days after giving birth. Tegan was never seen again and Lane was four hours later celebrating with friends and family at a wedding. Strictly speaking, neonaticide is said to occur in the first 24 hours of life. It's also rare for a neonaticide victim to be given a name.
However, Professor Phillip J.Resnick, the US forensic psychiatrist who identified neonaticide 40 years ago, told The Sun-Herald by email the Lane case "would fit the characteristics of neonaticide rather than the killing of an older child. I also think that the baby being given a name was related to expectations in the hospital."
He says secrecy in the hiding of the pregnancy, or psychological denial of the pregnancy, are diagnostic characteristics.
In a paper published last year, Resnick found an infant's chances of becoming a homicide victim during the first year of life are greatest if he or she is the second or later-born child of a teenage mother. This was according to an analysis of birth and death certificates by researchers at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
In fact, Tegan was Lane's second child. She gave birth to a girl in March 1995 – a year before Tegan was born – at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, and secretly gave her up for adoption.
Three years after Tegan's disappearance, Lane gave birth to a third child, believed to be a boy. He was also given up for adoption. None of Lane's family or friends was aware she was pregnant with any of the children, though her water polo teammates later said in court they'd had suspicions.
The Crown alleged Lane murdered Tegan because she was desperate to pursue her sporting career unhindered by a child. Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, QC, told the jury Lane was also desperate to get to her friend's wedding, and killed Tegan between leaving the hospital and joining her boyfriend at the ceremony.
The key argument made by Lane's barrister, Keith Chapple, SC, was that the absence of a body provided reasonable doubt. Even if Tegan was dead, he argued, there was no way to know how she died and to what degree, if any, Lane had contributed to that death. It was a powerful argument and the jury took more than a week to decide she was guilty.
Lane, 35, who at one point told a coronial inquiry she'd never given birth to the girl, later told police she gave Tegan to the man she believed to be her natural father, with whom she'd had a brief and secret affair. She knew him as either Andrew Norris or Morris. The man has never been found.
Chapple also argued that Lane's alleged motive was ludicrous. "So, it's 'Hurry up, I've got to get to a wedding and play water polo,' is that it?" he asked.
It seems too callous. How can a woman throw her baby away as if it's nothing, and then immediately go dancing?
Consider the story of American girl Melissa Drexler, probably the most notorious case of neonaticide on record. In 1997, 18-year-old Drexler arrived at her New Jersey high school prom. Soon after, she delivered a baby boy in the toilet. She placed him in a garbage bag and dropped him into the sanitary receptacle. She then returned to the dance floor. US media dubbed her the "Prom Mom". Drexler plea-bargained her charge down from murder to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years. She served three.
Still, the question remains: if these women aren't mentally ill (and in most cases they are not), what drives them to kill their babies? Poverty and social isolation, shame, panic and an iron-willed determination to keep their lives uncomplicated, appear to be contributing factors in many instances. But the causes and psychological reasoning are only vaguely understood.
John Scott says it is easy to dispose of an "object" that we have no emotional links with. Moreover, he says, if the object threatens to block social opportunities, crime becomes a viable option.
"It is easier to kill animals because they are not 'human'. At what stage does an infant become 'human'? Not an easy answer here and [it] is likely to vary between individuals and cultures," he says.
Scott says social factors are strong influences on women committing neonaticide. For example, he says, rates are likely higher in some US states because of social attitudes towards unmarried pregnancy. He also suggests that "in an age when men and women are marrying later in life to establish careers, there may be more social pressures exerted to engage in this sort of behaviour".
Does brain development play a part? A study by the US National Institute of Health suggests people under 25 are more prone to risky behaviour, and their problem-solving skills are not totally developed.
Dolan says there is some evidence of abnormal brain pathology in males who commit homicide but this has largely been associated with impulsive aggressive or psychopathic personality pathology. She says there are no studies specifically looking at this issue in women, largely because there are significant differences in prevalence rates of homicides across genders.
Craig H.Kinsley, professor of neuroscience at the University of Richmond, Virginia,
is in the early stages of research that has found women develop a set of "maternal neurons" — a cluster of brain cells created during pregnancy — that operate like "good mother" switches in the brain.
It appears that a certain number of these maternal neurons need to be switched on for a woman to show good mothering skills, Kinsley says. The research has so far been restricted to small mammals.
It shows that "the mothers with a fewer number of 'maternal neurons' tended to neglect or abuse their offspring, while those animals with the lowest numbers actually savaged or killed their own young".
Kinsley told The Sun-Herald that the brain sometimes doesn't work in the way that society demands. What we regard as wrong behaviour is sometimes coldly efficient in terms of how nature works. "In the end, we are a species with an ancient brain living in an age where we can think about the whys of our behaviour."