The village of Mamaroneck seems like the quintessential Hudson Valley hamlet. Born a farm town, Mamaroneck spent its juvenile years as a popular summer playground for the city’s mid-19th century wealthy before maturing into its current incarnation as a bedroom community for (often still well-heeled) Manhattanites.
If anything about Mamaroneck stands out for residents of the Hudson Valley, it’s probably seaside estates in exclusive gated communities, pleasure boating in the Sound or perhaps the US Open stopover in 2006. As such, when a semi-conscious Manuela Maria Morgado was discovered by police cradling the body of the son she’d allegedly suffocated with helium, inhabitants of Mamaroneck were struck with a brand of shock that is becoming disturbingly common.
It must be a comment on something, though I’m not sure what, that the details of the case are familiar to the point of near-explanation—a financially-struggling mother involved in a tough custody battle (allegedly) kills her own child before attempting to kill herself with an overdose of pills. The question is: How could any parent do something that’s not only societally repugnant but so incredibly contrary to the most absolutely fundamental drives of maternal protection and biological perpetuation?
Unfortunately, abhorrent and bewildering as it seems, parents (although mothers do so more often than fathers) killing their children is not the anomalous horror it should be. In fact, if a severely depressed mother with a young child (or children) attempts suicide there is a five percent chance she will attempt to end the life or lives of her progeny as well. Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University and an expert in maternal filicide (who testified for the defense at Andrea Yeats’ trial and dozens like it), cites the five common motives he’s encountered in these cases.
- “Altruism” In the “altruistic” killing the mother is convinced that the child would suffer less if killed and/or to save the child from some approaching or seemingly inevitable punishment or consequence. A very common example of this is a mother convinced that the child is acting in a manner that would damn them and that killing the child will save them from hell. A fervent belief in an afterlife makes the murder of a child by a disturbed mother considerably more likely.
- Acute Psychosis The acutely psychotic mother kills in the service of a delusion (Yeats again). Again, religious panic one of the most common manifestations of that psychosis. Concern that the child is either hell-bound because of wicked behavior or possessed are the predominate justifications.
- Fatal Battering The fatal beating of a child by the mother (or father in this case) is generally accidental. A parent shook the child, threw them into something, etc., in an attempt at discipline gone wrong.
- Unwanted Child Killing Unsettling as it, people are statistically considerably more likely to be killed the first day of their life than any other. Generally a woman who has given birth to a child they don’t want and, unsure what to do, either actively kill the unwanted child or the infant dies after being abandoned somewhere.
- Spousal Revenge The most common classes of spousal revenge killings are after an infidelity and during a divorce/custody battle.
If Manuela Maria Morgado did suffocate her child with helium before her attempted overdose, she almost certainly did so as a means of punishing her ex. (Though there was probably an element of altruistic killing as well-Morgado not wanting her child to have to deal with her death. As Yeats’ inclusion in two of the categories suggests, these aren’t absolutely definitive and there is crossover.)
So what’s to be done about this disturbing phenomenon? Like so many unpredictable, emotionally-intense crimes, those left in their wake are shocked, having had no conception of the mother’s distress or child’s danger.
Generally, be aware of the emotional state of friends going through taxing situations and keeps the line of communication open with them. Let them know you’re there to talk to. Nationally, access to psychiatric care needs to be improved, as does awareness of mental illness. Including frank discussion of psychological distress and a de-stigmatizing of seeking help for psychiatric complaints.
Jeff Harper is an avid blogger who loves all things high-tech. When he’s not glued to his tablet in the corner of a coffee shop, he can be found roaming the halls looking for more coffee and occasionally working for NewYork.Newsday.com.