When Parents Kill Their Kids

A high-profile case offers few answers as to why parents might kill their kids.

June 17, 2009, 4:26 PM

June 18, 2009— -- A French court today sentenced a woman accused of killing three of her children to eight years in prison, bringing to a close the high-profile case known as "L'affaire des bébés congelés" -- or "the case of the frozen babies".

The episode of multiple infanticide stunned the French public when the first details came out in July 2006, after the bodies of two babies were found in the freezer of a French expatriate couple living in Seoul, South Korea.

Jean-Louis Courjault, a 42-year-old French expatriate working in South Korea as an engineer, made the horrible discovery when he was trying to find room for some mackerels in the family freezer. He immediately alerted the South Korean police.

His wife Veronique, 41, and their two boys, aged today 11 and 14, were in France for the summer vacation, but Jean-Louis Courjault was allowed by South Korean authorities to join them in France after giving DNA samples to South Korean investigators.

After he rejoined his family in Tours, about 60 miles southwest of Paris, he and his wife appeared in front of the international press on Aug. 10, 2006, after being questioned by French investigators.

"We can't explain it to ourselves, we don't understand," Veronique Courjault told reporters at the time.

"What we know, and we're absolutely certain of that, is that we are not the parents of these two children," her husband said.

But new DNA tests were carried out and confirmed what the South Korean police had previously determined: Despite their denials, the Courjaults were the parents of the two children found dead in the freezer in Seoul.

French police arrested Veronique Courjault on Oct. 10, 2006. After first she denied any wrongdoing, before she finally confessed to the double infanticide and swore that her husband did not know anything.

She said she hid her pregnancies by wearing oversize clothes and gave birth in September 2002 and December 2003 on her own in a bathtub. She also confessed to a third infanticide in 1999 in the Charente-Maritime region of France, where the family lived at the time.

Veronique Courjault initially faced the possibility of a life sentence. However, the general prosecutor asked the jury to sentence her to 10 years in prison -- likely because she still has two children.

The Psychology of Infanticide

While high-profile instances of infanticide like the Courjault case are often shocking, it is not unheard of for parents to kill their infant children.

In October 2004, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., drowned her two young sons, 3-year-old Michael and 1-year-old Alex, by buckling them into their car seats and rolling the car into a lake. Smith was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Another highly-publicized case involved Andrea Yates, who on June 20, 2001, drowned her five children -- her sons Noah, 7, John, 5, Paul, 3, and Luke, 2, and her 6-month-old daughter Mary -- in the bathtub of the family's suburban Houston home.

Yates told police and psychiatrists after the crime that Satan ordered her to kill her five children to save them from eternal damnation. Yates was convicted of capital murder in March 2002 and sentenced to life in prison.

But for each of these cases, there were hundreds more like them that failed to gain the public spotlight. In the United States, statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal that from 1976 to 2005, the yearly number of confirmed infanticide cases ranged from 511 to 763.

Dr. Ken Robbins, a forensic psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said many people who study infanticide believe it is generally associated with postpartum depression.

"About 15 percent of women develop postpartum depression," Robbins said. "When depressed, such mothers often feel hopeless about the future, and surveys suggest it is common for such women to wonder if life is worth living either for them or for their babies."

Infanticide Often an Act of Desparation, Depression

"Often the thought is to save the baby from a miserable life by ending it now, then for the mother to kill herself," Robbins said.

Worse, he said, an estimated 20 percent of mothers dealing with postpartum depression also suffer from psychotic symptoms, such as delusions, which put them at an even higher risk of harming themselves or their infants.

"To prevent tragic outcomes, it is critical to carefully screen pregnant women and new mothers for depression," Robbins said. "If depression is discovered, they must be referred for further screening, both to determine if the depression is associated with psychotic symptoms and to understand if such women have thoughts of harming themselves or their babies."

For these mothers, just discussing thoughts of infanticide may help to lower the chance that they will carry through with these plans.

As for the case at hand, the psychological issues behind the killings have already become a hot topic. On Monday, a battle of experts took place in the courtroom on the issue of pregnancy denial, a major element for the defense because it could have meant a lesser responsibility and thus a lesser sentence.

French gynecologist-obstetrician Israël Nisand, testifying for the defense, told the court that a pregnancy denial is characterized by a pregnancy "which develops without the woman's knowledge."

The woman "can't manage to express the existence of a child. She represses. The denial is a pathology. The pregnancy is a physical but also psychological phenomenon," he said.

But on Tuesday, two psychiatrists dismissed the notion of pregnancy denial in Courjault's case, instead speaking about a "lie of pregnancy," and claiming that she was aware of her condition.

"There is no total or partial pregnancy denial. Madame Courjault always said she was aware of her pregnancies. She knew," Dr. Fanny Puel-Metivier, who met with the defendant on several occasions, told the court.

"This is a complicated affair, a difficult case. The best proof is that the experts in psychology can have different opinions," Henri Leclerc, one of Coujault's lawers, told the court.

Husband Says He Will Stand By Wife

Veronique Courjault was alone in the dock. Her husband, Jean-Louis, had been indicted for complicity in the murder but was later cleared of any involvement. His wife has always said he "was not aware."

Jean-Louis Courjault, who has been in the Tours courthouse every day of the trial, told reporters Wednesday that his support for this "woman he loves, the mother of his children" is unfailing, even though she is on trial for killing three of their children.

On Wednesday, according to reports from the courtroom, Veronique Courjault said: "I know I killed my children. ... When my son Nicolas talks about his younger brothers, it's difficult for me.

"The pre-trial investigation allowed me to become aware of many things, to ask myself questions. But I still don't have any answer. I hope to find some."

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