As the case of the Orangeburg County mother, Shaquan Duley, accused of killing her two young sons continues to unfolds, the question on many people’s minds is what comes over a mother to take the lives of her children.
Forensic psychiatrist and retired USC professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Dr. Harold Morgan, has handled six cases of filicide during his career. Morgan says the persons who commit the act of killing their child may suffer from a severe form of mental illness or psychosis, severe depression, or a number of grey areas between the two.
People who are severely depressed, who feel that life has been such a pain–not worth living and always such a struggle for them–they don’t want their children to have to go through that. So out of a misguided love, I guess you could say, they take the lives of their children, hoping to spare them from the kind of suffering that they’ve endured.
A study by the American Anthropological Association reports that more than 200 cases of mothers killing children occur each year in the U.S. Morgan estimates that one or two of those cases occurs in South Carolina.
Postpartum depression is moderate to severe depression in a woman after she has given birth. It may occur soon after delivery or up to a year later. Most of the time, it occurs within the first 4 weeks. Morgan says severe cases may lead a woman to kill her newborn, which is referred to as infanticide.
That’s recognized as a risky time for the child. Some people get through this fine. Other people have a hard time dealing with that. But the family, especially if they’re insightful and knowledgeable, they know this is a risky time–they keep an eye on things. And the mother may be able to say, ‘I don’t trust myself with the child,’ so family can intervene.
Morgan says some women may kill their babies because they are suffering from a severe form of psychosis. For example, a woman may kill her infant because she thinks the baby is possessed by a demon or the devil.
Morgan says the majority of victims of filicide are very young children, and gender is a factor in most cases.
Men do not do this as often. And who knows, it may be because our society expects the mother to be the one who is the caretaker, and who probably feels the most responsibility for the children–particularly, one who is a single mom or who is in the process of divorce or separation and doesn’t feel like she has anyone to rely on.
However, Morgan says there are cases where men take the lives of their children, which may be accompanied by the killing of the mother, and ultimately, suicide. Also, they could kill the child as revenge against the mother. Sometimes, it is also manifested as physical abuse.
According to Morgan, these persons can be successfully treated, and they feel true remorse for what they have done, but they will have recurring bouts with depression. Morgan says family members should not carry the burden of feeling that they should have noticed something wrong with their family member, because these persons may give the appearance of being well-adjusted.
However, in very rare cases, Morgan says a parent may possess a severe psychosis that is conveyed by a “me first” or “my way” attitude that would lead them to kill their child.
What I would call a narcissistic personality–they are very self-centered. They feel entitled to have whatever they want when they want it. And if the children are in the way they just sort of get rid of them, in the hope that this is going to make their life better or more attractive. It’s almost a malignant kind of personality disturbance. As I said, these categories can merge–they’re not distinct categories–they just reflect what I’ve seen over the years.