Infant killings aren't rare

Research on cases such as Ocean City woman's finds first day of life is riskiest

August 04, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

When prosecutors charged an Ocean City taxi driver with murder Thursday in the 2004 death of her newborn baby, they opened a window onto a crime that occurs more often than most people would expect.

In the United States, a baby is killed within 24 hours of birth at least once every three days. In fact, the risk of homicide on the first day of life is 10 times greater than the risk during any other 24-hour period, experts say.

"A lot of [cases] we never find out about because the baby is never discovered or the woman is under 18 and it never hits the newspapers," said Cheryl Meyer, a psychologist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and author of a book about mothers who kill their children. "It happens more frequently than we think."

Christy Lynn Freeman, 37, is charged with murder in the death of one of a set of twins that police said occurred immediately after she delivered them on a second-floor toilet three years ago. Police discovered four tiny bodies last week in and around her home.

Of the other remains, the state medical examiner found that one was premature and stillborn. Investigators are awaiting autopsy results on the second twin and on a fourth set of fetal remains found in a Winnebago parked outside Freeman's home.

It is technically called neonaticide, the killing of a baby -- almost always by its mother -- usually in the first moments of life, always in the first day. A handful of researchers have studied the phenomenon.

The picture they paint of a mother who kills her infant soon after birth is one of an isolated woman in denial of her pregnancy, one who holds the secret for as long as possible, sometimes far beyond nine months.

Freeman's secret and the bodies were discovered soon after she delivered the stillborn fetus late last month. Police and prosecutors said she initially denied that she had been pregnant, despite the fact that she had passed out, was bleeding heavily and hospital tests showed she had been pregnant.

She also appears to have concealed the most recent pregnancy from her family, friends and co-workers. The remains were hidden close to her home, if not inside it.

"When moms kill kids, they [the victims] are usually under 5," said Meyer, whose second book on mothers who kill their children will be published this year. "Most of the time, it was a moment of anger, and they tend to want to keep [the bodies] close to them."

Fathers who kill, Meyer said, typically take their children far away to do it.

The typical mother who kills her newborn is young, poor, unmarried and afraid of being found out, experts say. Freeman, however, is far from that stereotype. At 37, she has four older children and is in a long-term relationship with their father.

Another difference: As they investigate the origin of the four sets of remains, authorities suspect they may be dealing with something even less common than neonaticide: a repeat offender.

"It's very unusual for this to be a pattern," said Dr. Wendy Lane, a pediatrician at the University of Maryland Medical Center who runs the hospital's Child Protection Team, which deals with concerns about maltreatment.

Mothers who have secretly given birth and let their babies die have made headlines from time to time. In 1996, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, both 18-year-old college students from well-to-do families in New Jersey, drove to a motel in Delaware to deliver their son. They killed the newborn, whose corpse was found in a trash bag in a Dumpster. They pleaded guilty and served short prison terms.

In 1997, Melissa Drexler went to her high school prom in New Jersey, delivered a son and choked him to death. She then threw him in a bathroom trash can and returned to the dance. She served three years in prison as part of a plea deal.

This week, an Anne Arundel County teen was found responsible in the December 2005 death of her son, whom she submerged in a toilet just after birth and then threw into a trash can on a cold night.

There are various motives among new mothers who kill their babies, said Dr. Neil S. Kaye, a Wilmington, Del., forensic psychiatrist who said he has been involved in more than 100 neonaticide cases.

One is the "altruistic killing," in which the mother wants the newborn dead to relieve its suffering, either real or perceived, Kaye said.

Another is the "psychotic killing," where there is no intention to kill but the mother doesn't know what she is doing, he said. Research has shown that a much lower percentage of mothers who kill newborns are psychotic than those who kill older children. But the most common type of neonaticide involves an unwanted child, he said, including children of scared teens and those who deny they are pregnant.

Kaye said he did not know enough about the Freeman case to speculate on a possible motive.

Meyer said mothers who kill their newborns have spent so much time denying they are pregnant that there is no motive -- because in their minds, there is no baby.

When in denial, Kaye said, they typically feel very little remorse for what they have done. More likely, he said, is a feeling of shame for the embarrassment they bring to their families by getting caught.

One of the reasons they have hidden the pregnancy is shame -- and suddenly the secret is out in a more public way than they could even imagine, he said.

"They don't have any connections to the child," he said. "The fetus is simply a foreign object passing through their system."stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

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