Friday, September 3, 2010

Why Parents Murder Their Children ... And How We Can Prevent It

If you follow the news at all, by now you've probably heard about the recent case of a South Carolina mom who allegedly confessed to murdering her two children. Police say 29-year-old Shaquan Daly left for a motel after an argument with her mother, which apparently started over how she was caring for the kids. (Tragically ironic) She booked into a room at around 1:30 a.m., and it was there that police say she killed her two boys in the early morning hours by placing a hand over their mouth. The older tot had defensive wounds, suggesting he had struggled.

She then allegedly strapped them into their car seats, and drove off, ditching the car in the Edisto River. She then made up a story about getting into an accident and having to walk some ways to flag someone down because she didn't have a cell phone. Police received a call about a car in the water later that morning, less than 5 hours after Daly booked into the motel.

Police say the young mother was unemployed and "had no means of taking care of her children," according to Orangeburg County sheriff Larry Williams. "She was fed up with her mother," says Williams. "She just wanted to be free. ...she truly felt, if I don't have these toddlers, I can be free." She is currently being held without bail on two counts of murder. And so it is the sad conclusion to another senseless tragedy.

Catastrophic events happen all around us, but I'm always struck by the feelings of "what a waste" amidst such stories; I mean, surely, someone out there could have wanted these children and would have taken care of them, sparing the lads such a horrible fate. For those of us who value and treasure children, the act seems so needless and tragic. It's sort of like watching someone toss valuable jewels and works of fine art into a hot lava pit while arriving just a little too late on the scene to salvage them. You just want to scream out, "Wait! Don't do that! I'll take them if you don't want them." If she had only sampled random people she met on the street, or heck, put an ad on eBay, someone out there would have been happy to take possession of this treasure. The motel owner was reportedly in tears when he heard about the news. I wonder what would have happened if Shaquan had simply brought the kids to his office and said, "I'm at my whit’s end, I can't take care of these kids anymore, will you please do it or help find someone who can?" In an ideal world, no parent would be driven to the point of premeditated murder as a way out.

Of course, we don't live in an ideal world, and our modern society often puts roadblocks in the way of such solutions, preventing more rational and accommodating escape routes for frustrated parents. Had she done such a thing, the police would have been called, and she'd be arrested on neglect charges. She'd be shamed and humiliated by an army of policeman and social workers. Little sympathy would be shown for her predicament. She would be judged, ostracized, and thrust into all new battles. It likely wouldn't solve her problems or absolve her of her parental duties, but only exasperate them. She would be met with resistance and hostility rather than support. This is why she instead hatched an elaborate plan to try and dispose of the kids and make it look like an accident. People have a tendency to take what they presume to be the path of least resistance to solve their problems.

What's also striking about this case is that Shaquan's other child, a 5-year-old girl, was left at the Grandmother's house, and thus, spared the murderous plot. (Grandma now has temporary custody of the child.) Neighbors say Daley lived with her mother in Orangeburg, a town of 13,000 about 40 miles south of Columbia. Considering the police say the fight was about the children's care, and the older girl was left with Grandma while the younger two were toted off with mom, this makes one wonder about the caregiver dynamics that were at play here. Perhaps Grandma was willing to help with the girl but not the boys, or maybe she simply found the younger children too much work to take care of. (As most readers are probably aware, there is a world of developmental difference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old. Infants and toddlers demand constant and intense attention, making it hard to do anything else, whereas a 5-year-old is much more autonomous and can largely care for themselves with limited supervision.) Maybe mom wanted and loved her daughter but found her sons to be too much work and a source of continued frustration. (Police were unable to locate the father of the dead children.) We can only speculate as to the specific family dynamics that played out, but one way or another, we ended up with a situation in which two kids were left out of the mix, with no one vying to care for them.

Time and time again, we watch as situations like this unfold. This wasn't the first such incident, and it won't be the last. In our quick-to-judge society, it's easiest to demonize this mother and her actions, but that doesn't get us anywhere or do anything to help kids in the future. The reality is that people are imperfect, some parents are better than others, and some parents find themselves in situations where they can't take it anymore, and need some type of escape. This doesn't make them monsters, even as barbaric as this mother's actions were; it makes them imperfect, frustrated parents at their breaking point, parents who need some kind of help and act in their own self-interest~ And there are a lot of such parents out there.

We got a glimpse of the scope of the problem when Nebraska’s recent safe-haven law, which was meant to allow for the safe abandonment of newborns at area hospitals, unintentionally made it legal to abandon any child at a hospital, because the law failed to specify age. Thirty-six children were abandoned in a period of three months before the loophole was fixed. None were infants. Sadly, when legislators saw what was happening, rather than address the underlying problem, they merely rushed to put the genie back in the bottle, plugging the loophole and burying the problems from public view again. Nebraska is a fairly small state, at least population-wise, and they were on pace to have an annual abandonment rate of around 150 kids. Which means nationwide, there are tens of thousands of kids in similar predicaments, with their parents at their breaking point and desperately needing assistance. From this sea of unacknowledged frustration come tragedies such as the recent one.

These are parents and children living right underneath our noses, and society isn't doing much to acknowledge or address the issue. Nor is traditional state intervention by CPS the answer. Our child protection system is an oxymoron if there ever was one; bogged down in the normal government bureaucracy, exhibiting the normal incompetence, and built around an antagonistic philosophy that causes children far more harm than they prevent. It is our utter lack of informal resolutions that poses the biggest problem. What we need is not more bureaucracy that works against parents - precisely the opposite. We're so caught up in laws and formality and punishment and finger-pointing and a community that operates at a distant arms-length that, for a few select individuals, disposing of the kids through one means or another seems an easier solution than obtaining the relief they so desperately need.

We need to make it easier for someone, anyone, to be there for such parents and provide care for their kids during times of need in an informal capacity ... without the government feeling a need to complicate the procedure with persecutory laws, criminal charges, and licenses/ paperwork/procedural guidelines from here to the moon. Moreover, such a support network needs to work with parents (not against them) to provide relief on the fly when they desperately need it, and it needs to be as easy and painless as ordering a cheeseburger, so that no parent ever considers murder the easiest way out. The Nebraska safe-haven law was not necessarily wrong, in principle. In fact, it uncovered a hidden problem with enormous need. Something similar with a few fundamental tweaks and alterations could provide a support network that keeps children alive, and offers frustrated parents the support they need.

This may sound like a romantic vision, but it's hardly unworkable. I remember as a child a campaign of helping hand stickers on houses, which were meant to be safe places for children to turn to if they needed help. We need a similar type of informal support network, in every community, that parents can utilize to seek help...whether it be to drop off their kids for a couple days, seek support on an ongoing basis, or otherwise alleviate the stress and keep such children safe. It needs to be readily available and widely known about. Similar programs, known as 'crisis nurseries,' are already available in certain communities to individuals who have already been cited for child abuse or neglect. There are precious few of these available, but those that do exist have been the most successful and child-friendly abuse-intervention programs to date. Yet we can't wait for someone to be arrested for child abuse to offer such help, and we can't link help with criminal prosecution, judgment, or disruption of parental rights if we truly want to assist families in crisis.

We need to stop pretending that those who injure children are monstrous individuals who enjoy being evil, as opposed to people who for one reason or another have reached their breaking point. This mother's actions were horrific and inexcusable. But we're not exactly doing all we can to prevent such tragedies, either. We need to worry less about laws and rules and procedures and persecution, and start worrying more about building a supportive community. People will always act as imperfect people do, and for those parents at their breaking point, we can expect they might do injurious things out of self-preservation. This is basic human nature. Expecting every parent to be wonderful and selfless and skilled in handling their children at all times and out of every situation is simply foolish and naive. Not all people were equally cut out for the parenting role, especially when under severe stress. We need a system that offers better support for all levels of parents, especially those who are less skilled, caring or devoted to their children. This will not occur by snatching children away from their communities only to thrust them into an abusive bureaucracy, but by making support available, and readily available, at the times and in the places and in the ways they need it.

I don't know about you, but I'd gladly join some type of register and submit to background checks, and would be happy to help provide care to those invisible children in our community whose parents are surviving on the margin of sanity, in order to prevent those kids from being beaten or murdered. And I’m sure there are enough other parents or retired grandparents who would be willing to do the same, so that we could have a crisis drop-off house on every block. One way or another, we need to build a support network into our communities, so that no parent ever feels that murdering their children is the only (or easiest) way to obtain the relief they need.

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