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Medean tragedy of the baby dumped in a drain

Plush toys and notes of support left on the concrete cover of the roadside drain in Quakers Hill, Sydney, where the baby was found.
Credit: AFP

The mother wouldn’t name her son until custodial bars separated them. Then she anointed him a biblical name. Less than a week earlier, she had left the maternity ward of Blacktown Hospital in Sydney and squeezed her nameless child into a roadside drain. He fell two-and-a-half metres, injuring his brain, still swaddled in a hospital blanket. And there he lay for five days, uncomprehending, sustained by reserves of body fluid and glucose.

Aside from hospital staff it’s unsure who knew of the baby’s existence – the mother disguised her pregnancy – until cyclists were alerted to what they thought was a distressed cat. As they approached the drain, capped with a 200-kilogram concrete slab, they began to wonder if it was, in fact, a child. “I’m glad we got there to save him,” said one of the cyclists. “He was very loud and he wanted to get out.”

The mother’s initial decision not to name her child makes awful sense. But we can only speculate that the recent naming was a late and apologetic assumption of responsibility; the religiosity a gesture to the child’s divine resilience. The woman is 30, Samoan, and the daughter of a church minister. Her parents live in Samoa.

The dumping of the child aroused vengeful passion. This week, before a court hearing, a crowd gathered to express some of it towards the mother’s friends and family. “You ought to be ashamed!” one yelled, and it’s unsure if they were, or merely sickened to be suddenly promoted to avatars of our blackest taboo.

In a court document, the mother accepted that she knew the dumping of her child would likely kill him. The murder of children – especially by their parents – irritates our hardwiring and blasphemes our moral codes. Few trials escape picketing from impassioned strangers, made hoarse and bug-eyed by their exertions. Even the murder of children by children exercises our animal contempt. The killers of James Bulger were ferried to trial in a reinforced van to protect them from the crowds. More than 20 years later, the killers’ new names and locations remain secret, the threat of retaliation presumably unabated.

Filicide seems so unnatural. A wild disavowal of the tenderness and protection innate to evolution and refined by civilisation. The child’s biblical name reflects the dimensions of public condemnation: this is the gravest trespass, and is likely evil. When you run this hard against instincts, suggestions of mitigating explanation are anathema. They’re also likely to be seen as smudging the portrait of the abandoned child, upon whom our moral gaze should be fixed, undistracted by politically correct apologies. This much is natural. But it carries the vain assumption that our disapprobation might be enough to ward off such horror in the future.

Vulnerability of children

The dumping of children is rare. Sometimes they are left with the intention that they’ll be saved; sometimes it’s a case of attempted murder, which is the charge now laid upon this mother. In 2003, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released a report on family homicide. It noted that between 1989 and 2002 there were, on average, 25 children murdered by their parents each year. Today, that average is maintained. It is overwhelmingly perpetrated against infants and babies – 70 per cent of filicide victims in this period were five years or younger. More than a quarter of victims were less than one year old. “The types of weapons used in filicide were different to those most commonly used in intimate partner homicide,” the report stated. “This reflects the vulnerability of children, particularly young children. Just under half of all filicide victims were killed with the use of assaultive force.”

The struggle to comprehend motive

In Medea, Euripides’ ancient play, the wickedly calculating heroine exacts revenge on her deserted husband by murdering their children. Medea plots the killing – it’s not the work of fleeting insanity – but she also embodies the features Euripides thought so threatening to a modern democracy: passion, wildness, intensity.

Modern assumptions of filicide bear some of this, too – that women kill children out of an imagined female intensity but, unlike Medea, they do so in a rush of illness or despair. Women are “mad” and men are “bad” is a common thread running through our understanding of filicide. Men are ascribed Medea’s wilfulness and vengeance; women, her emotional potency. As it is, the AIC report noted that “fathers were responsible for the majority of filicides in Australia (63 per cent compared to 37 per cent)” but are rarely responsible for neonaticide – the murder of a child less than 24 hours old.

Where myth and stereotype once provided us with motives in filicide cases, landmark work by psychiatrist Phillip Resnick in 1969 provided a typology of motivation. It has subsequently been added to and finessed, but largely stands today. After examining hundreds of cases, Resnick identified five categories: “altruistic”, where the parent believes death is in the child’s best interest; “psychotic”; “unwanted child”; “accidental”, as in a death resulting from neglect; and finally, “spouse revenge”, the motivation of Medea and, supposedly, Robert Farquharson.

Subsequent research has attempted to respectively isolate dominant motivation among maternal and paternal cases. This is a crime with multiple dimensions and as such there is no definitive profile. However, certain trends have been identified. Mothers who commit neonaticide often conceal their pregnancies and are socially isolated. Both filicidal mothers and fathers often have a history of depression, suicidal thoughts and drug abuse.

In 2009, Monash University began a large study of filicide in Victoria based upon an examination of files from the coroner’s office between 2000 and 2009. The team noted that international studies were sparse. In the examined decade,
52 children were killed by parents, or step-parents. Consistent with international figures, most victims were aged four or younger. “The study showed perpetrators experienced multiple stresses, especially mental illness and parental separation,” its authors said. “But also domestic violence, substance abuse and child abuse. National research is required to test these findings; also the relationship between the stress factors needs further exploration.”

'Baby hatches'

The high-profile abandonment of a child, rare as it is, sponsors a temporary discussion of baby hatches – safe depositories for children – before quickly evaporating. Tasmanian Labor senator Helen Polley has been calling for the installation of hatches at hospitals and fire stations for many years now. This week she said, “Here, a parent could legally abandon a baby without fear of criminal prosecution.”

Dr Lorana Bartels is an associate professor at Canberra University’s law school. She has written academic papers on baby hatches after studying their use overseas, and is still undecided on their efficacy. “The evidence from the international experience really isn’t that clear on how effective they are, or whether they just sound like a good idea,” Bartels tells me. “Ultimately, I decided that it was worth trialling here on a modest scale, but in the context of increased support for parents of young children more generally. If it were to be trialled, I think it would make sense to attach it to a hospital in a big city and for it to be evaluated after 12 months or so.

“It’s really hard to say in the abstract what the usage would be – in Germany, there have been 1000 children relinquished, and that’s a country with generally good social support systems – and it certainly isn’t a panacea, but it may provide a useful additional option for a small number of parents who would otherwise abandon, neglect and/or abuse their children.”

Interestingly, Bartels says that support for the hatches has run the gamut of political philosophies. “Proponents of these options seem to come from across the ideological spectrum,” she says. “For example, in Australia alone, there has been support from representatives of Family First, the Greens, Labor and Liberal parties, as well as pro-abortion advocates. In the US, there was strong support from the pro-life movement.”

Legacy

A professional consensus exists that adopted children should be alerted to their condition as early as possible – with all the obvious reinforcements – to allow as smooth an integration of the news into their identity as possible. The fear is that a late revelation could be more fractious once false assumptions of origin have been held for a long time. But there is no such consensus for the children of rape, or for those who have unknowingly escaped filicide. The former disclosure presents one stigma – the latter two far more severe ones.

This abandoned child has found foster parents, but remains in hospital. In the physical damage – of deprivation and the bleeding on the brain – there may well be dreadful legacies. It is too soon to tell. How he came to be named may never be known to him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "Medean tragedy". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.