June 20, 2011— -- Ten years ago today, Andrea Yates called 911 after drowning her five children in the family's bathtub and admitted to the first police officer to arrive at her Houston home, "I just killed my kids."
Now, Yates is being treated in a minimum-security mental hospital in Kerrville, Texas, from which her longtime lawyer, George Parnham, says he's "highly optimistic" she will be released after her recommitment hearing in November.
The first step is to secure the recommendation of her doctors. "I think that this year the doctors will recommend a regimen of therapy in a community-based outpatient facility," says Parnham.
Controversial as her case has been, Yates' attorney and friends argue her mental health is much improved after years of treatment and medication for postpartum psychosis and other conditions. Initially committed to the maximum-security North Texas State Hospital Vernon Campus, Yates was transferred to Kerrville in 2007. Kerrville State Hospital, which sits on a hill overlooking the Guadalupe River, has no fences and no guards, but patients are required to stay within designated boundaries. Yates has one roommate and access to a woodshop, an arts and crafts clinic, classrooms and a physical therapy building.
"When this first happened, she was severely mentally ill and would experience extreme sickness at around this time each year," says Parnham.
But with therapy and treatments including anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication such as Effexor, one friend who regularly visits Yates says, "She's come full circle and she's really well."
High school valedictorian Yates now spends her days reading, sewing aprons and creating cards for the hospital's gift shop.
"Talking to her is like talking to my daughter. She's always asking questions about my ski trips and family vacations," says Parnham.
The highly publicized trials of Yates in 2002 and 2006 focused the nation's attention on postpartum psychosis and the nation's insanity laws. During her first trial, Yates' attorneys argued that she suffered from severe postpartum psychosis and delusion. She believed Satan was inside her ,and that killing her children would save them from hell. Although she was initially found guilty, the appeals court later overturned the verdict.
In her second trial, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity. At the time, defense lawyer Parnham described the verdict as "a watershed event in the treatment of mental illness."
Encouraged by the case, Parnham made it his mission to wage a crusade on behalf of women's mental health problems. He reached out to the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston to form the Yates Children Memorial Fund in June 2002 to educate women, their families and their doctors about postpartum psychosis and similar illnesses. The organization has since distributed more than 500,000 pamphlets to raise awareness about women's mental health, created training programs for medical professionals and sponsored an international symposium on postpartum depression.
"When I saw those five tombstones that shared the same date, I thought what a waste of their lives if nothing good could come of this tragedy," says Parnham.
Andrea Yates' former husband, Rusty Yates, has also made strides toward improving his life and raising awareness about mental illness. He stayed married to Andrea until four years after their children's deaths. They remain friends, and he continues to visit her, according to acquaintances who know them both. Rusty has remarried and now has a 3-year-old son.
According to his blog, Rusty enrolled in law school in 2009 "to improve the way in which our society responds to crime, particularly for mentally ill defendants, and to improve our health care system, particularly for mentally ill patients." He also says of Yates. "She is doing well, all things considered. ... She's been medically stable for five years."
A decade after the tragedy, Parnham believes that doctors now will recognize Andrea Yates' improvement. "No one loves those kids more than this woman -- the real culprit was mental illness."
After years of waiving the right to the hearing, Parnham plans to go before the court this year to argue that Yates is no longer dangerous to herself or others, and that her mental condition will not deteriorate if she is released. A judge or jury will eventually determine whether Yates meets these standards.