Questions linger after mother charged in crash that killed girl

It's unclear if woman suffers from mental illness

September 08, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County police say Lisa Dieter described to them in horrifying detail how she planned to kill herself and her 9-year-old daughter.

They say she spoke of how she turned the first floor of her white cottage in Parkville into a gas chamber and then tried to blow it up. And when that didn't work, police say, she drove into a tree at Double Rock Park.

She told a detective and doctors that she intended to kill herself, her only child and the family dog Monday morning in their Buick Century, according to charging documents filed by police.

But what the 35-year-old woman didn't say was why she did it.

In the midst of mourning the death of Alana Anne Dieter, friends and strangers wonder: Why would any mother want her only child to die with her? How does some- one who is suicidal become homicidal? Why that day?

"Most typically it's seen by the person as an altruistic measure," said Patty Horgas, a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and a National Institute of Mental Health violence prevention fellow who is studying the links between suicide and homicide. "Sometimes it's that the mother can't imagine how bad the child's life will be once she's gone ... or, they believe the world is such a bad place that they're trying to spare the children."

Mentally ill?

Without examining her, health and psychiatric experts generally agree that Lisa Dieter, a divorced mother, is probably mentally ill. Doctors who cared for Dieter after the crash recommended that she be sent to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, a maximum security state mental hospital in Anne Arundel County, where she remains today.

Only the doctors and staff treating Dieter could begin to say what illness she may have or what she was thinking. Her family and lawyers have declined to comment or speculate.

It also remains unclear whether Dieter had been treated for depression or another mental illness. It's also unknown if she had sought help before the apparent murder-suicide attempts last week.

"A lot of people don't recognize the symptoms in themselves until after they're in treatment," said Dr. Mitchel Kling, an associate professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine and the director of the mood disorders program the Baltimore Veterans Affairs hospital.

"Statistics also show that most people who attempt suicide have seen some type of health care provider in the two weeks prior. It's one of the reasons that at many medical facilities, including the VA hospital, screening for depression has become a routine procedure."

According to Kling and other experts, it's not surprising that neighbors and friends said they had no idea that Dieter was having problems.

"People usually show signs, but they're not always overt. They may not be communicating as effectively as they think they are," Kling said. "And when the signs are missed, they often interpret that as people not caring. It can be a cycle that feeds on itself."

Filicide

Department of Justice statistics show that several hundred children are killed by their parents each year in the United States, a phenomenon known as filicide, the killing of one's child.

Psychiatric experts note that every case is different. But they say while men and women kill their children in nearly equal numbers, it's more common for men to kill their families and themselves than it is for women.

In 1995 in Essex, a 32-year-old man took his estranged wife and three children on a shopping trip to buy school supplies and blew up their station wagon, killing them all, including himself.

In that case, there was a history of domestic violence -- an element that is part of most murder-homicides involving children, experts say. In Dieter's case, though, there is no public record of a violent past. Her divorce nearly two years ago was uncontested, with her former husband agreeing to give her custody of their daughter.

Unanswered questions

For those parents trying to explain this case to their children -- some of whom have seen the news reports or may have known Alana Dieter -- Horgas recommends that parents be as honest with them as they were after the World Trade Center attacks.

"I think they have to say that most mommies would never do something to hurt their children. You should tell them why they don't have to worry, but that if they continue to think about it, there's someone [such as a therapist] who can help," Horgas said.

Experts are first to acknowledge that in cases like this one, there may always be unanswered questions.

"We just don't know enough about what takes someone from suicide to homicide," said Horgas. "There haven't been enough studies yet on why someone goes from wanting to take their own life to wanting to take people with them."

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