A Mother’s Murder-Suicide: Chilling but Familiar

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Mike Segar / Reuters

A woman walks past a boardinghouse in Newburgh, N.Y.

(Updated) On Tuesday night, after an argument at home, a mother in the industrial town of Newburgh, N.Y., drove herself and her four children into the Hudson River, off a boat ramp several blocks from her home. Her eldest son escaped the minivan and fled to get help, but the woman and her three younger children — two boys, ages 5 and 2, and an 11-month-old daughter — drowned in the river.

According to reports, the 10-year-old boy who survived slipped out of a window as the van sank in the frigid 45-degree water and swam to shore. A passing motorist brought the boy to a nearby fire station, but by the time emergency Marine units and divers found the van, in about 8 ft. of murky water 25 ft. from shore, the four remaining passengers were dead.

(More on TIME.com: “The Shaquan Duley Murder Case: Why Moms Snap.”)

“It’s a horrible sight, all of them in the car,” Newburgh police chief Michael Ferrara told the local paper, the Times Herald-Record. Newburgh is about 60 miles north of New York City.

The New York Daily News reported:

The distraught driver was identified as Lashanda Armstrong, 25. The landlord at her building said Armstrong shared the apartment with her boyfriend, and had twice asked to get the locks changed in a six-month period — most recently in March.

“She said she didn’t want him here,” John Boubaris, 48, said. “That was the last person living with her, the boyfriend.”

Neighbors identified the boyfriend as Jean Pierre, the father of the three dead children. Details of the domestic incident preceding the death were withheld by police, and it was unclear if Pierre was at the apartment — although cops confirmed they had spoken with him.

The tragedy brings to mind similar cases of mothers who made headlines after killing their children, often by drowning. In 1994, Susan Smith trapped her two young sons in her car and rolled it into a lake near her home in South Carolina. In 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub at home in Houston. And in January, Tampa resident and mother of two Julie Powers Schenecker shot her teenage daughter and son in the head for “talking back.”

(More on TIME.com: “In Zahra Baker’s Case, Postpartum Depression Exacted a Heavy Toll.”)

So what would lead a parent to kill his or her own child? In February, Healthland’s Maia Szalavitz spoke with Dr. Phillip Resnick, director of forensic psychiatry at Case Western and a leading expert on parents who kill their children. Resnick identified five of the most common circumstances under which a parent might feel driven to take the life of his or her own child. He told Szalavitz:

The first is “altruistic.” The classic case is the mother who plans to take her own life and believes that the children are better off in heaven with her. Number two is the case in which the parent is acutely psychotic. The third type is fatal battering [as described above]. The fourth is [to get rid of] an unwanted baby, for example an infant born out of wedlock. The final category is spousal revenge [in which a parent kills the children to hurt the partner], typically after infidelity.

Is it possible to foster an environment in which such acts of desperation can be avoided? See an excerpt from Szalavitz’s Q&A:

Is there any way to prevent these types of crimes?

It’s a complicated question. There are broad issues, such as easier access to mental health care, which is a problem right now with state cutbacks becoming severe. Another thing is awareness. If a woman is very depressed and she has young children and makes a suicide attempt, there is a 1 in 20 chance that she will try to take the kid with her. Specific inquiries about thoughts of harm toward children should occur in any evaluation of a seriously depressed [mother].

Are these parents sent to mental institutions because they use the insanity defense, or do they go to prison?

The vast majority of parents who kill their children go to prison rather than a mental institution. I just saw an article written by the FBI: for women who kill their children and are not found insane, the mean length of their prison sentence is 17 years; for women who kill newborns, the mean length is nine years. However, out of all homicide [perpetrators], none have a higher incidence of being found insane than mothers who kill their children.

Killing newborns is much more common than killing older children.

As far as death by homicide goes, you’re more likely to be killed on the day you are born than on any other day of your life.

Are these mothers dangerous to people other than their own children?

They are not a general danger to the community. There are infanticide laws in 22 countries, including England, Canada and Australia — instead of women being charged with murder, [if the child is] younger than 1 year old, they are charged with infanticide. In the U.K., the vast majority get probation rather than prison. The recidivism rate is very low. The risk of suicide is substantial, however.

Is the bad economy likely to lead to more of these cases?

Suicide does increase some when there are more people losing their jobs, so there might be an increase in familicide when the father is unemployed. As far as mothers go, if she’s the sole support, I don’t know if that will increase.

See the full Q&A here.

This article has been updated to reflect ongoing discoveries in the investigation.