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When parents go bad, how do you react?

There are two stories of parental murder that are in the Portland headlines right now, and while the one involving a dad has a higher body count, somehow the one involving Amanda Stott-Smith seems more horrible by far. Is it that she's a mom? That she survived the ordeal without, herself, taking her life? That it happened right here, on the Sellwood Bridge, on a sidewalk I've biked or walked over dozens of times, and driven past hundreds, thousands more? Is it that her seven-year-old lived while in the water with her dying little brother?

It's so awful that I often must turn from the headlines, turn off the news, stop thinking, stop imagining. Another mama and writer, Nancy Rommelmann, has been following the case closely from a journalist's perspective and I don't know whether to be horrified or to read every single word Rommelmann writes. My two older children are nearly the same age as Stott-Smith's little boy and girl, so I've been reading, and I can't take my mind off the topic.

I write not to discuss the relative horror of what either Stott-Smith or James Gumm have done, but to wonder, how do we react to stories of this sort? Is empathizing useful or self-destructive? Can you bear to know the details? Do you bury the front page in the recycling or do you read it all in awful fascination? Do you feel that knowing the reasons behind such acts of familial destruction can help us better prevent them in the future; or is it better to hand the parents over to the judicial system and stop thinking about it to save our own troubled minds? I find, personally, that my empathy takes over, but when I read something as thoughtful and emotionally gripping as what Nancy's written, I can't help but consider the motivations and terror in depth. And to believe that something healing must come of knowing. What do you think?

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I tried to read this link, but I just cannot. I work in the mental health field, specifically with people experiencing mental health crises. The way I approach my work has significantly changed since I became a mother. How I live my life has changed. I used to love reading “true crime” kinds of things, and I just cannot anymore. Things are much more personal now. This kind of thing happens, and it’s horrible. If I indulge in the details or speculation, I just won’t make it. I have to deal with these details, or other similarly tragic ones, at work. I hear them; I act as I need to; sometimes I cry when I’m done. But then I come home and remember that, for today, I am not involved in that tragedy. Don’t hear that as cold, or un-empathetic. I just know that I can’t become emotionally involved in everything in see and hear. It will make it impossible for me to keep working, and eventually, to keep mothering. Or vice-versa.

The people who do these things are sick. They are mentally ill. It’s not something that just happens one day by someone who has their life more or less together. It takes awhile for things to get to the point that this is the end result. We can treat and stabilize mental illness, and that’s where you and I can have an impact. The Multnomah County Crisis Line number is 503-988-4888, Washington County 503-291-9111, Clackamas County 503-655-8401, and Clark County 360-696-9560. If you are concerned about someone, call them. They can help you figure out what to do to get that person help. It doesn’t always go the way you want, but that’s the thing that you can do to try to keep this from happening again.

I so hear you. As soon as I became a parent, I started reacting to these stories very differently. And sadly, there seem to be far too many these days - but certainly having two occur close to home is even more upsetting. (Though I don't know that I agree that the bridge tragedy was worse than the man shooting his two kids...maybe it was because she made them suffer more. Either way, both are so tragic.) These stories make me weep. It is just beyond comprehension that, no matter how bad things get, a parent could take the lives of their own children - and in Stott-Smith's case - watch them suffer. And all in the name of revenge? What kind of revenge is that?

A little more than a year ago there was a case in the Baltimore/DC area (where I moved here from) where a man in a custody dispute took his three young children to a hotel in Baltimore and drowned them one by one in the tub. I lost sleep several nights over that story because when I would lay down at night I would replay in my mind the horror of what must have happened in that room, and the incredible grief the mother must have felt as she frantically called police the night her ex did not bring the kids home as planned, only to eventually learn the news. My husband gives my son a bath most nights, but on the nights that I do - I admit that I sometimes have flashbacks to that story and the helplessness those children must have felt. I suspect that many of us won't ever be able to drive over the Sellwood Bridge again w/o thinking of those children that night or walk through that park in Hillsboro.

So, I struggle with the same exact questions that you pose as I find myself scanning the papers/TV station web sites looking for updates and details of what happened with our two local stories. I see that mother in court on the news and I stare into her eyes, wondering what she is thinking and if someone who is capable of her actions could feel any remorse. I wonder why I do this since it upsets me so much. Why don't I just turn away and not read or watch? I'm not sure I know the answer to that but I'm sure a psychologist would have some insight. However, I will say that I was not familiar with Nancy's writings and so I clicked on the link you provided. I got about halfway through the posting and it was too much so I closed it. I do find it a little odd and disturbing that she would write about it in that much detail...wondering exactly what happened. I too have gone through scenarios in my head of what happened that night - but I don't want to read a blog with details about it. That's over the line of what I can mentally handle.

I think the story we should be telling is about how many parents do NOT hurt their children, who go to extraordinary efforts to keep their children safe and loved, even under terrible pressure

I would hope that these stories would encourage each of us to be a bit more aware in our community. Do you see a stressed out mom? Dad? Maybe just asking them if things are OK? Recently a new young mom posted on Craiglist a need for relief childcare. She was stressed, not supported by the father of the child and about to lose it emotionally. Sometimes just a little acknowledgement that you are not alone, that we all get stressed and feel close to a breaking point, helps in coping. I think our society encourages one to be tough, not ask for help. Where are our safety nets?

I know I sure have felt one episode away from seeking a good dose of Vitamin A as in Ativan!

This story from Austin (where I live) seemed connected, to my mind- a mother who seems entirely unable to cope, causing harm, probably as an attempt not to have to keep trying to cope with the un-copable-with anymore.

http://www.statesman.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/blotter/entries/2009/06/03/mother_charged_with_feeding_3y.html

I think there's a difference between parents who can't cope and parents who think they are "losing" their children to their ex-spouse. The latter is often vengeful- entirely different, and far more evil, motive than being overwhelmed by childcare.

I should have qualified my comment with the fact that I did not read the links and will not read the links or follow these stories as I cannot even see nature take it's course in the wild as animals prey on others! It is gut wrenching.

I am having the hardest time with the Stott-Smith case and have to turn away from the headlines. I don't know if it's particularly hard for me since I'm only a few weeks out from delivering my 3rd, and the protective mama hormones are at a high point, or if these are stories I will have to consciously ignore for the rest of my motherhood days. It makes me sick to my stomach, and every time I have to drive over the Sellwood bridge I get very emotional. I am usually very reasonable in my judgment of other people and try to be as compassionate as I can to both the victims and the perpetrators, but I think this woman's punishment should begin with being thrown over the bridge herself, and made to tread water for an hour, before she begins any jail time. She is a monster in the truest sense of the word. And to have done this in the name of getting back at the kids' father is reprehensible. That poor girl who will live her entire life with the memory of that event. That's about all I can comment on this without getting choked up.

To the mom who said she had difficulty with the bath, I remember that mom who drowned her 5 kids, and that was around the time my daughter was a baby, and I had such a hard time myself bathing my daughter. All these weird thoughts would go through my head. I think the difference between the parents that harm their children and the ones who don't, has a lot to do with impulse control. We all have thoughts that we are ashamed of, but we think them, dismiss them, and move on. These parents think them, then act, as they do not see any other option. They may later regret their actions, but not in the moment they are acting.

I don't watch the news or read the paper. My mother in MA told me about the Sellwood Bridge case as it made national news. However, I do end up getting sucked in by AOL headlines when I go to check my email at work. I have Outlook at home so I don't have to, but at work, the sensational headlines are too tempting, kind of like rubbernecking at an accident, or trying to find the victims when we see an ambulence. Maybe it's reassuring to know it's "them, not us." I think it's human nature, not sure why, but some sort of survival instinct to make ourselves aware of what can happen.

By the way, I am a community mental health social worker too, and I agree with what the first poster said, and thank you for posting the crisis numbers.

I have to say, I can hardly make it through this thread without crying. So, no, reading about the actual stories themselves is impossible for me.

Truth be told, since I became a mom, I cannot watch or hear of anything bad happening to children, whether it's fictional or real. It makes me break down, almost without reason. It makes me feel helpless, and horrified at a world where such things could happen.

At the same time as I write this, I know that horrible things happen to children in the US and all over the world (poverty, human rights abuses, lack of quality education), in perhaps less dramatic, but no less tragic ways. But those incidents don't grab our attention the way individual cases do. I can't come to terms with this.

I think we freak out when it's a mom because it is still statistically rare. I heard somewhere that Deptartment of Justic stats are that 9 out of 10 murder are committed by men.

Men kill their exes and children, or their partners and children every day. It's fairly common so it ends up being a "in other news. . . " type story. I remember Christian Longo from when I first moved here, who was followed by another father shortly thereafter.

Fund mental health services. It is really hard to get help even when you call the numbers. Who is going to sit at the drop in center for Cascadia with multiple children in tow? Will social services be contacted and your kids taken away? What can you do to stop visitation with an abusive ex-partner when the courts think you're just a bitter ex and you have money to fight and you'd rather not have your kids sexually abused? These questions can push a someone whose sanity teeters over the edge. I bet that mother wished she were dead. I can't imagine living withthe fact that I murdered my children and that they suffered.

There was a woman back home when mine was little, who poisoned her three gorgeous little girls and herself. I think it was laced hot cocoa. The girls died and mom lived. A coworker knew her family. The mother been repeatedly sexually assaulted as a teenager and then suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. She lived with her parents for extra support. They were in the house when she did this. Another woman more recently back home threw her children in the Bay. THey drowned. She was clearly insane. Her family had been trying to get her committed to a mental institution unsuccessfully.

With anything, crime, drug abuse, child abuse, if we don't reach out to be our sister's keeper ....that dark place can ovewhelm.

one of the links talks about the memorial on the bridge and how there are sentiments written by children. how many people talk with their own kids about what happened? my oldest is 5 and i can't imagine talking about it with her. usually i think i'm pretty open with her about most things, but i can't bear the thought of my daughter knowing that someone's mama did that.

These stories break my heart and there is far too many of them. I had my first baby last June and it seemed I kept seeing in the news such tragedy. It affected me before and now so much the worse. I'll never be able to understand what drives people to such wretched, desperate, selfish and evil acts. I always turn the channel because it makes me cry.
On the flip side I heard about this organization in CA called Project Cuddle - started by a woman horrified by a rash of "dumpster" babies. What a great idea! You can check it out here : www.projectcuddle.org

Part of me thinks that this isn't necessarily happening more often, just that maybe the media has changed... also agree that maybe it hits home more for me personally because it was a mother and I'm a mother???

Also, I think it can happen to anyone regardless of class, race, financial situation, etc. Anyone can be severely mentally ill. When I was a kid my aunt by marriage in an upper middle class family, seemingly well supported by her own close family, in the midst of a separation, burned the house down with my cousins and herself in it. They all died. The day after Christmas. On my grandmothers birthday.

My family after that called it "the tragedy" and couldn't speak of it much more than that. My uncle was quietly devastated. I hear of something as horrific as the woman who tried to kill her kids at the S. bridge and realize that what my aunt did was just as horrific. I can't watch the coverage.

Maybe someone did know they were thinking these horrible thoughts but was too afraid to say something? Maybe they didn't know what they could do to help with someone that close to the edge? Maybe the person with the insight to see these things happen is usually the spouse/ex-spouse and isn't in a position to communicate their fears? I don't claim to know...

Rachel, I have the same reaction as you: like you I'm up for discussing most things with my 6 and 9yo boys. We've talked about Iraq, train crashes, homelessness, adult murder. But my main reaction to this story - other than of course the horror of it - is to recycle those newspapers asap and turn off OPB if the kids are in the kitchen when the story is being reported. I simply cannot bear the thought of them hearing that a mama did this to her children. (Maybe the older one will hear something at school but so far he hasn't said anything and he's the type who would.)

I first saw this story on the news about 6 hours after it happened. My 11.5 y/o daughter and I were up at about 7:30 that morning, turned on the news to check out the weather forecast, and heard the news story.

My daughter was the first one to open the paper that Sunday morning, to read the news that the childrens' mother was in custody, suspected of killing her children.

She also has a close friend whose father is in law enforcement and was one of the first responders on the scene. He's good about insulating his kids from what he encounters on the job, but they know that dad was on the scene and it's been a topic of conversation.

So, yeah--we've talked about this. A lot. About how maybe Amanda Stott-Smith was evil but more likely she was sick and scared, at the end of her rope, and didn't know where to turn for help. And that people who reach that point do desperate, even bad, things.

To avoid feeling completely homicidal, I try to focus on the story I do not know, and to think about Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.

Ugh. I'm an avoider. I honestly couldn't even read all of the responses in this thread because it's just too much for me. I deliberately never watch TV with my almost 4 year old around for fear that I would have to answer questions about stories like these. It's just so, so tragic.

I admit I have read most of the articles in The Oregonian regarding the Stott-Smith case and the Gumm case. Both of them equally break my heart. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends that these children impacted. I had to stop reading the article in today's paper. It caused such a knot in my stomach to read the timeline. Just last weekend I was in New Mexico and the headline there was a woman that killed her 3 year old son and buried him in the sand at a playground. Some kids playing in the sand saw his little shoes sticking out. Then to come home with 2 similar stories here is a little too much.
I have a 2 year old little boy that stresses me out just like every other 2 year old stresses his mom out. I cannot fatham missing a day hearing his sweet little voice, seeing his sparkly blue eyes, or smelling his smell, let alone denying his dad or grandparents the same right.

I hope that 7 year old little girl recovers from this incident knowing that she is loved, and her bother is always watching over her.

I stopped watching the news about the time I got pregnant with my son, who is now 16 months old. I just couldn't handle it. i read it online or in the newspaper instead (something about cutting out the sensationalist tone of especially local anchors helped a lot... not to mention the lack of graphic video). About the time he was born I started only checking written news a couple of times a week, to make sure I was aware of major world events. Now, I can barely do that.

I don't know if it's recent or if I am just more aware of it, but it seems every time I turn on the news or bring up a media website, there is at LEAST one headline involving a dead child, usually killed by a parent. There are terrible, terrible events happening out there with children and I prefer to be an ostrich with these cases and put my head in the sand while I hold my kid tight. A teenage boyfriend throwing his girlfriend's newborn out the window of a moving vehicle on a highway (recent story out of Florida) is not news, it's exploitation. If we would stop giving these sorts of stories such notice, perhaps the media would concentrate on more positive stories along with the "real," not super reality TV dramatic, news.

I live right down the street from the Sellwood bridge. I was also very effected by this story, having a boy 6 years old and a new baby girl 4 months. I suppose this woman represents the mental illness that is present in our culture and beyond. Anyone who would act this way is truly suffering, lost in themselves, so let our love and light guide us and let's not judge. This is a call for what is needed. It is a call for healing. Every time I cross that bridge now, I send out healing light. It is time for living prayer. This is what is needed right now in our community. It is time to BE strong bastions of Light. To network and support one another until these stories are no longer in existence. Love your children. Love your SELF. Make this the breaking news.

I agree with Leigh. While no one could ever condone violence against children or our partners in any form - the parents clearly need help here - we also tend to isolate.

There are a lot of parents out there - single parents, parents with highly stressful life situations, who are put in places emotionally that would stretch any sane person to the very edge. Having not only virtual networks like this but also where we meet in person and support one another is so important.

Know a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet and maintain a home and try to be emotionally available for her kids even when they rebel? A hug or cooking a meal for her or connecting her with a group of supportive peers going through the same thing could diffuse a lot of that sense of hopelessness and fear she is feeling.

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