John Elder : December 19, 2010
Photo: Brendan Esposito: Keli Lane outside the Sydney Supreme Court during the trial.
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 South Yarra. The perpetrator will almost certainly be your mother.She will most likely be under 25, unmarried, still living at home or in poor circumstances, either 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 in this sort of killing. 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 that she kills you, her newborn child. 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, and a form of infanticide peculiar to industrialised countries. Most people in Australia have probably never heard of neonaticide. There is no separate provision for neonaticide in Australian law. People are either charged with manslaughter or 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 Sydney's Auburn Hospital on September 14, 1996, killed her two-day-old baby, disposed of her body and proceeded to a friend's wedding for the evening. Tegan's body has never been found.
Two weeks ago, in a lower-profile case, a 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 an upstairs toilet, alive but brain damaged. The child lingered for 12 months but eventually died of pneumonia. Dean was sentenced to five years' 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 that forensic psychiatrists and sociologists believe is underestimated and certainly under-reported.
Over the past three years, newborn babies have been discovered under 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 Shepparton bus stop; in the grounds of a high school in South Australia's Riverland region; wrapped in newspaper and left in the driveway of a home in a South Australian country town; on a western Sydney rubbish tip; at a Brisbane water treatment plant; and, in August this year, in a shoebox in the garden of a Sydney apartment block.
In all but two of these cases, the mother has never been found. In each of them, the umbilical cord was still attached, and torn not cut, indicating a panicked separation of mother from child. An autopsy of the little girl found in the shoebox proved inconclusive, with no cause of death pinpointed.
The reality, says Dr Joe Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation, is that each year ''there are an unconfirmed number of very small babies that are killed and disposed of without any detection, and the rationale for doing that is the child isn't wanted''.
Tucci says this ''dark figure'' in child homicide statistics exists 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''.
He says there are fewer contact points between the community and a newborn. ''If an adult is killed, there are friends and family who miss that person. 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 afterwards. There is no framework to even try to 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 that 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 10 per cent of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) cases estimated to be potential homicides and the absence of birth certificates for 2.8 per cent of children who die, Dolan, in her research paper, says 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 haven laws in Australia to counter neonaticide and child abandonment, says at least 10 babies are abandoned by their mothers every year in Australia.
Baby haven laws have been enacted in most of the US's 50 states over 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, the 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 that can be abandoned, and there are frequently provisions for the mother to be reunited under certain conditions.
The Australian Medical Association has backed the senator's call. State community 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, the new Minister for Community Services, Mary Wooldridge told The Sunday Age the Victorian government would consider the viability of baby haven laws as part of a broader investigation into how women who conceal their pregnancies might be accessed and cared for.
Dolan says there is no data to support the effectiveness of baby haven 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 simply abandon them.
Would the baby haven laws have made a difference in the case of Keli Lane? The former water polo champion was last week found guilty of murdering her newborn daughter 14 years ago.
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 four hours later Keli Lane was 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 Resnick, the Cleveland forensic psychiatrist who first identified neonaticide in a landmark research paper 40 years ago, told The Sunday Age by email that 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 that 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 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
In fact, Tegan was Keli 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 were aware she was pregnant with any of the children, although her water polo teammates later said in court they'd had suspicions.
The Crown claimed Lane, daughter of a former policeman, 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, by a majority verdict of 11 to one.
Lane, 35, who at one point told a coronial inquiry that she'd never given birth to Tegan, later told police she gave her daughter to the man she believed to be her natural father, which 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 with a rhetorical flourish.
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 next door Melissa Drexler, probably the most notorious case of neonaticide on record. In June 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. The 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 woman aren't mentally ill (and in most cases they are not), what drives them to kill their babies? Poverty and social isolation, as well as shame, panic and an iron-willed determination to keep their lives baby-free and uncomplicated, appear to be contributing factors in many instances. But the causes and psychological reasoning - what goes on in the minds of these women - is 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 in an email.
''Part of being human is having a social identity and part of this identity is formed from the onset of the pregnancy being made public. If this status is not made public, is it possible for a social identity to adequately develop? If this identity is less developed, it may be easier to commit the crime.''
Scott says that social factors are strong influences on women committing neonaticide. For example, he says, rates are likely higher in some American 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 Institutes of Health suggests that people under the age of 25 are more prone to risky behaviour, and their problem-solving skills are not totally developed.
Mairead 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 the prevalence rates of homicides across genders.
In October, Craig Kinsley, professor of neuroscience at the University of Richmond, Virginia, was the co-author of a report that discussed the motivation to take care of a baby, and the hallmark traits of motherhood, might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building.
The mothers in the relevant study who most enthusiastically rated their babies as special, beautiful, ideal, perfect and so on were significantly more likely to develop bigger mid-brains than the less awestruck mothers in key areas linked to maternal motivation, rewards and the regulation of emotions.
More controversially, Kinsley and student Haddis Tujuba are in the early stages of research that has found mothers 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 rodents and small mammals.
He says the research 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 Sunday Age that the brain sometimes doesn't work in a way that society demands. What we regard as wrong behaviour is sometimes coldly efficient in terms of how nature works. ''To wit, an animal that kills its weakest offspring so that the remaining ones can live and have a better chance at thriving … In the end, we are a species with an ancient brain living in an age where we can ponder the whys of our behaviour.''