Tragedy In Towson

Our View: A Rash Of Murder-suicides Involving Families Here And Elsewhere Suggests Such Killings Are Becoming A Public Health Problem That Must Be Addressed

April 23, 2009

No one can fail to be shocked, saddened and mystified by the tragedy that befell the Parente family, whose bodies were discovered this week in a Towson hotel room, the victims of a murder-suicide that took the lives of 59-year-old William Parente, his wife, Betty, 58, and their daughters, Stephanie, 19, and Catherine, 11. The couple had driven to Baltimore with their youngest daughter from their home in Garden City, N.Y., to visit Stephanie, a sophomore at Loyola College. But what might have been a joyful family gathering at college instead turned deadly on the last day of their visit. Over a period of several hours on Sunday, police say, Mr. Parente beat and asphyxiated his wife and youngest child, then killed his elder daughter when she arrived at the hotel that afternoon. The next day, police say, he took his own life by cutting himself.

Confronted with such heartbreaking loss, people invariably ask, why? Neighbors described the elder Parentes as lovely people, outgoing and active members of their church who loved traveling with their daughters. The father apparently was a successful tax and estate attorney; his wife devoted herself to several charities. The girls were smart and beautiful. What could have gone so wrong?

It's a question communities across the country have been asking themselves in recent weeks, as a rash of murder-suicides involving families have dominated the headlines. In Maryland, police in Middleton found a family of five dead in their home last week, and similar crimes were reported this spring in California and North Carolina. Last year, a distraught father, caught up in a custody fight, drowned his three children in the bathtub of a Baltimore hotel.

Health officials say such familicide increasingly is being viewed as a public health issue that threatens the well-being not only of victims but of the extended families and the communities where they live. And although economic conditions may play a role, the greatest risk factors are mental health disorders such as depression and stress. William Parente may have acted as much out of grief and anguish over his mother's recent death as from the financial difficulty he reportedly was experiencing. Studies show most murder-suicides involving close relatives are committed by men who find they cannot face the shame of financial failure and its devastating effect on their families.

Crafting policies to combat familicide isn't easy because the most effective strategies depend on recognizing the symptoms of the problem and taking action before it's too late - something that's hard even for family and friends. Health officials can design campaigns that raise public awareness of the danger signs, but then family, friends and neighbors must encourage people in difficulty to get help. That can be tough, especially when the response is likely to be, "Mind your own business." Yet we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones and our communities to make the effort. All of us feel the loss from such terrible tragedies, and we all have a stake in working to prevent them.

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