NYC Nanny Stabbing: When Is a Child Too Young to Remember Trauma?

Is that even the right question to ask?

ByABC News
October 26, 2012, 6:12 PM

Oct. 27, 2012— -- Nessie Krim, a 3-year-old returning from a swim lesson, witnessed a family tragedy that could leave lifelong scars. She and her mother walked into their New York City apartment on Thursday to find her two siblings in the bathtub with their throats slashed, allegedly by their nanny.

To add to the horror, the little girl and her mother, 34-year-old Marina Krim, watched on as their nanny, Yoselyn Ortega, knifed herself in the throat and slit her wrists, according to police.

When is a child too young to remember a trauma, and is that even the right question to ask?

"It's more about the family than the child," said Dr. Alan E. Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry director of the Yale University Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.

"The child doesn't know the meaning of the stabbing and may not see blood or know what it was," said Kazdin. "The easier part to address is that the mother will have a huge traumatic reaction to this and it will likely change the interaction with the 3-year-old.

"You can't fault the mom for anything, but depressed moms are less engaged with their children."

The victims' parents – Marina and Kevin Krim, an executive with CNBC – will surely have a psychologically challenging recovery ahead, say medical experts. And their surviving child Nessie's emotional health will be intertwined with theirs.

Children always follow their parents' lead, according to Kazdin. "When a child falls on the pavement, they cry for just a second, then they look to the parent. When they see the parent isn't crying, they stop."

"This is an event the child can't really experience – like 9/11," he said. "The family will talk and cry about it and not the first, but the enduring events the family will go through in their normal reaction will be devastating to the child.… The trauma experience is not going to be a one-shot thing."

Marina Krim demonstrated her devotion to her three children in photos and daily anecdotes that she posted over the last two years on a blog, "Life with the Little Krim Kids" on LiveJournal. It was taken down after the murders.

Police said that Ortega, who is 50 and worked in the family home for more than year, remains on a breathing tube after being rushed to the hospital. She was a naturalized American born in the Dominican Republic where the Krims had visited Ortega's family in February.Neighbors who had known the woman for years said she had no history of mental illness, and police had no motive.

Christine A. Courtois, a counseling psychologist and the author of "Treatment for Complex Trauma," said that Nessie's mother will need "extensive support" going forward. "They have to face loss, betrayal, and in addition a trial."

For the parents, it's not just about the death but the massive betrayal of responsibility," she said.

The motivations of Ortega may never be known. "It depends on the character of this woman and what set it off," said Courtois. "Something may have happened with the children. She may have been resentful about the wealth of the family or have her own history of abuse or something that unhinged her that day."

Other parents need to be vigilant and take it in the sense that this could happen to anyone," Courtois said. "Unfortunately, no one is immune."

She notes that a mother tends to feel more misplaced guilt than a father, even if she had done all she could to vet the nanny.

Both she and Kazdin agree that 3-year-old Nessie will not likely escape unscathed from this family tragedy.

"Even though she might not have known what happened, the fact that her mother walked in and was screaming and screaming, the child will know that [something bad has happened]," said Courtois. "She will register her mother's distress."

But will the bloody events of this week be imprinted forever in Nessie's brain?

"No one knows the answer," said Kazdin. "Will the child have a mental photograph? No one knows."

"We do know about the stress that is experienced by parents gets passed on to their children right there on the spot," he said. "The best thing for the child is for all the support systems to make sure the family gets back on track."