Charlotte Cunningham was 18 months old when she was killed by her mother, Kaela Mehl, in Victoria. Mehl was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. (Submitted photo)

When parents kill: A look at B.C. cases and the minds behind them

Big read: A look at filicide cases on Vancouver Island and why they happen

The unfathomable crime of a parent taking the life of their child has rocked communities to the core.

People are left to wonder why, and to philosophize about what kind of a monster could do such a heinous thing.

But research and forensic psychiatry paint a more complicated picture in which society may not be just a witness, but an accomplice to these horrific crimes.

“Each case can be driven by quite different circumstances than the next one. One has to be a bit cautious about a magic bullet,” said Dr. Shabehram Lohrasbe, a prominent forensic psychiatrist in Victoria. “But I certainly think there have been forces operating in society as a whole that influence vulnerable people resulting in this extreme direction.”

Lohrasbe is quick to add that he is not saying people shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. Of course they should, he said, but the urge to punish starts to subside when one learns about their struggles.

“Because I’m a shrink, I’m very, very conscious that none of us choose to become who we become. The cards are dealt to us very early in life through our genetics, early childhood, etc. The proportion of people who do horrible things, but who have anything like a normal background, is very, very low,” said Lohrasbe. “If you spend time in jails and prisons, you would be astounded at what these perpetrators, by and large — I’m not saying every single one — but you’d be astounded by what they have endured in their own childhood.”

This is a man that sits down one-on-one with the killers and studies their minds.

For 34 years, he has been assessing and treating accused and sentenced individuals for mental disorders. He is in court regularly testifying with assessments on whether individuals are fit for trial, on their mental state at the time of the offense, or what their future risk is to society.

High-profile cases on Vancouver Island

Of Vancouver Island’s five highest-profile filicide cases since 2002, Lohrasbe has been involved in three to varying degrees.

Lohrasbe says he has no reason to believe that Vancouver Island is particularly prone to filicide, a statement backed up by Statistics Canada data.

Case No. 1 – On or about Nov. 1, 2002, Laurine Marie Aune, 26, killed her two-year-old daughter Kyla Aune in Nanaimo. Aune was charged with second-degree murder but was found not criminally responsible by reason of mental illness by the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Court documents show that Aune was described as “somewhat socially isolated; financially and otherwise stressed; disorganized as a single parent, and was having general coping difficulties.”

She said that she was a victim of past childhood abuse, had some history of depression and experienced episodic psychotic phenomena and memory problems since age 13, though she never received consistent or ongoing diagnosis or treatment prior to the killing. Aune said she felt commanded or directed in her actions when she cut her daughter’s throat with a knife. She stated that her motivation at the time was to end Kyla’s pain.

“This finding of altruism – killing because of concern that they are suffering – doesn’t sit well in society as a whole. It is hard for most of us who have had kids or loved kids to fathom how someone would regard it as something positive, but that is the reality – predominantly among women who kill their kids,” said Lohrasbe.

Case No. 2 – On March 11, 2002, Jay Handel of Quatsino, killed his six children and then set fire to his house with the children inside. Court documents show that just prior, Handel had a phone conversation with his wife and the mother of children, Sonya Handel, during which she mentioned divorce. After he set the fire, Handel drove to pick Sonya up and brought her back to the fire for her to watch what he had done.

In excepts from the court proceedings, Judge P. Doherty says “it is clear in the letter that the defendant is feeling considerably sorry for himself as well as angry with his wife. He means to deprive her of her children and he does.”

Handel strangled two of his children (Ledia, 2, and Moriah, 6) and shot the other four (Sebastian, 11; Roxanne, 9; Martial, 7, and Levi, 4). He was found guilty on six-counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to six life terms, with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

Lohrasbe testified at Handel’s trial, reporting that the man was severely self-absorbed with his own pain and emotions, and that he knew what he did was wrong, but that he didn’t care. It was also noted during the trial, that Handel had attempted to hang himself when he was 14, that his father hung himself, and that as a young teen he learned that his grandfather also committed suicide by hanging.

Case No. 3 – In Sidney on Sept. 2, 2003, Astrid Margaret Literski, 34, called a friend, telling him she was trying to kill herself. When the friend arrived, he found Literski lying on her bed on her side, curved around her four-year-old daughter Everleigh Rain Bringsli. Court documents reveal that they had blood on both of them and when the covers were pulled back, it was revealed that Everleigh had a cross on her chest and the fingers of her hand were interlocked and resting on the cross. Everleigh was dead.

Literski said she had given her daughter four sleeping pills and then held her. She had been in a bitter custody battle with Everleigh’s father Eric Bringsli, in which she felt there was “an imbalance of power and control in her family dispute specifically and family law generally.” In her reasons for judgment, Justice Kirkpatrick states that “the custody dispute is unquestionably a significant factor in the events leading up to the senseless murder of Everleigh.” A note found by Literski’s bed said “Please stop the ADVERSARY FAMILY LAW SYSTEM in Court Please take Parent Alienation serious.”

A search of Literski’s medical records disclosed nothing of concern in respect to Literski or Everleigh’s physical and emotional well-being. Literski plead guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with no eligibility for parole for 12 years. She was granted full parole in September of 2015.

Case No. 4 – On Sept. 4, 2007, police responded to a 911 call from a house in Oak Bay. A total of five deceased bodies were found inside. According to the coroner’s inquest, Hyun Joon (Peter) Lee gained access to the family residence of his estranged wife Yong Sun (Sunny) Park, and using a knife, attacked and killed her, their son Christian, Park’s parents Kum Lea Chun and Moon Kyu Park, before killing himself.

Lee had a history of violence. Earlier that year on July 31, an SUV driven by Lee, swerved off the road and struck a telephone pole. His wife Park, who was sitting unrestrained in the backseat at the time, sustained injuries in the crash and told medical staff at the hospital that Lee had intentionally crashed the car after she informed him that she wanted a divorce. Lee was arrested. He was charged with aggravated assault and dangerous driving and was released under the conditions that he have no direct contact with Park, that he not attend their family residence, not be in possession of knives, and that he report to his bail supervisor regularly. There were a number of incidents where Lee was reported to have breached the conditions of his bail, but no charges were laid.

In speaking of this incident, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth at the time, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, stated that “if the many professionals involved in Christian’s life had the benefit of all available information, a clear picture would have emerged that this boy and his mother were in grave danger without an adequate safety plan.”

Case No. 5 – On Sept. 16, 2015, Kaela Janine Mehl, 32, fed the sleeping pill zopiclone mixed in yogurt to her 18-month-old daughter, Charlotte Cunningham, and then smothered her. She also attempted to kill herself. Mehl was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Mehl and her ex-husband Daniel Cunningham had been in a tumultuous custody battle over the toddler in the weeks and months leading up to her death. The court heard Mehl’s main driving force keeping her alive now is to tell her story, that her state of mind declined, that she wanted understanding about the stresses she experienced in the time leading up to killing her daughter, and that she experienced a lack of support from police and the court system. It is Mehl’s belief the courts and police “failed her.”

Dr. Lohrasbe took the stand in her trial. Lohrasbe, who assessed Mehl once – 20 months after the child died – said there was an “overwhelming likelihood” this was altruistic filicide. However, he considered spouse revenge a possibility because of the turbulent custody battle between Mehl and her ex-husband, over their daughter. Lohrasbe’s conservative estimate was that Mehl had “adjustment disorder,” which he described as when “we may be placed under so much stress that for a period of time we kind of go off the rails. Our emotions get out of line, ideas become increasingly unrealistic.”

Motives

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law concludes that both men and women perpetrators of filicide were experiencing significant life stressors, socially isolated with few supports, and suffered a history of abuse during their childhood.

Speaking from his experience as a forensic psychiatrist, Lohrasbe said mental disorder is prevalent among parents that kill their children, but how that expresses itself can be different depending on gender, at least in the cases he has handled. He also notes that almost always the individual who kills their kid or kids is, at the time, under an enormous degree of stress which intersects with any mental problems they have. Suicide attempts are frequent after filicides.

A classification system for the motives behind this type of killing was developed by another forensic psychiatrist named Phillip Resnick. Lohrasbe says all of the cases he has dealt with could fit into one of Resnick’s five categories:

  • “Altruistic” filicide in which a parent—almost always a mother in this category—kills her child or children as an extension of a suicide attempt or to “save them” from a real or perceived threat.
  • “Acutely psychotic” filicide where hallucinations, epilepsy, or delirium drive a parent to kill a child.
  • “Unwanted child” filicide, which includes homicides in which a parent no longer wants the child. These almost always happen shortly after birth.
  • “Fatal maltreatment” filicides when children die due to beating or neglect, with the death not necessarily being intentional. This includes cases of shaken-baby syndrome.
  • “Spouse revenge” filicides include cases in which parents kill their children to make their spouse suffer.

A single case may also involve more than one category, such as a mother killing her child for altruistic reasons while experiencing psychotic delusions.

In one study, Resnick found that 67 per cent of filicidal mothers were psychotic and that significant depression and schizophrenia or psychosis were more common in mothers than in fathers. Lohrasbe notes similar experiences.

“With women, outright mental disorder is much more prominent. Among the women that I have assessed who have killed their children or child, both altruistic motive and the presence of mental disorder is much more in my face. ‘Saving’ the children from something worse, is very very common,” said Lohrasbe. “With the guys, neither is as obvious.”

It depends on how you look at the notion of mental disorder though, he says, and one way to think about it is to scratch out mental disorder and put in the word instability.

“With men their instability tends to be more in the realm of what is called personality disorder. So they may be unstable but the kinds of things that are driving their instability is often anger,” said Lohrasbe. “And as a society, we are very unforgiving with people who have personality disorders because they haven’t crossed that threshold of what the lay person regards as craziness.”

The personality disorder can involve such traits as being overly reactive, quick to take offense, and to regard the other person as at fault. It is woven into who the person is, Lohrasbe says.

A 2009 study of filicide found that while filicide perpetrators weren’t more mentally disordered than other homicide offenders, they did exhibit emotional problems and an inability to handle everyday difficulties. Financial challenges, separation, and custody disputes can put them over the edge and it can drive them to the point where, under pressure, they somehow feel justified in taking the life of their child or children.

“The ones that disturb us the most are the spousal revenge,” said Lohrasbe. “These are the ones that inflame us all and understandably so. The person may be unstable but the driving dynamic is to deprive or punish the parent. This is something that has come up with the men far more frequently than with the women, in my experience.”

But there are exceptions on both sides.

The common thread is that most of the men and women who Lohrasbe has assessed who have killed their kids were highly unstable at that point in their lives.

“You know, when we are living increasingly atomized lives, if your breakdown in the relationship has alienated you from a group of friends and support that are in the other person’s camp, you are often left very alone with very little holding you together. There is no common identity bonding you to the larger structures and you feel alienated and alone,” said Lohrasbe.

“So I think those forces get people so caught up in their battle because they are marooned away from all the other anchors that give people a sense of meaning and stability in their life. They get very focused on the conflict that is dominating their lives and that can eat away at balance. You start losing perspective on what is important in the situation. The notion of loss of stability, loss of balance is pretty important is grasping how people get to this point.”

How to move forward

So how do we stop this from happening?

People have been examining this question on the ground in the communities, in the police departments, in the medical field, in the courts, and in every government ministry connected to the issue.

The finding that many filicidal fathers are motivated by anger and retaliation highlights the larger problem of domestic violence. British Columbia has put more resources toward stopping this after inquires done by B.C. Representative for Children and Youth after the Peter Lee killings and after Allan Schoenborn killed his three children in Merritt in 2008.

“It is good to remember that when the mother is in danger, the child or children may also be in danger,” said Myrna Dawson, a professor in public policy in criminal justice at the University of Guelph.

In the Capital Regional District, the Regional Domestic Violence Unit (RDVU) was set up in 2009 and takes a multidisciplinary approach to high-risk domestic violence situations. Officers from local police departments, victim service workers and representatives of the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development work together to ensure a full range of services are provided to victims of domestic violence.

There are now nine provincially-funded domestic violence units (DVU) operating in B.C. which means local women and children in those areas facing domestic violence now have a dedicated, integrated team focused on their protection and transition to safety.

“It is a remarkable example of an integrated model that works across jurisdictions to help protect women and their children who are victims of domestic abuse,” said Ardys Baker, chair of the board for Victoria Women’s Transition House Society, a program participant.

There have also been changes to the courts after the Lee inquiry called on B.C’s Attorney General to establish domestic violence courts throughout the province. The Cowichan Valley Domestic Violence Court Project began in Duncan in March 2009 as the first dedicated system in B.C. The court blends an expedited case management process with a treatment or problem-solving court.

According to the Provincial Court of BC Annual Report, by bringing domestic violence cases to the disposition stage as soon as possible, either by plea or by trial and sentence, the project helps reduce the rate of victim recantation or other witness-related problems; offers a less punitive approach for those willing to accept responsibility for their actions and seek treatment; and it ensures the safety of victims and the public.

Other courts have since followed suit. In March of 2012, the Provincial Office of Domestic Violence was established as the permanent lead for government, accountable for a coordinated response to improving and strengthening the services and supports for children, women and families affected by domestic violence.

Even with all of the improvements, tragedies are still happening.

The Board of the Victoria Women’s Transition House Society wrote a letter in February stating that intimate partner violence, more commonly known as “domestic violence,” is not a private family matter or a “women’s issue”. It is the responsibility of our entire society to stand up and take notice.

“We serve more than 2,000 women and children in Victoria annually through our emergency shelter, our crisis line and our counselling and support programs,” said Susan Howard, development director of the Victoria Women’s Transition House Society.

Prevention stems in part from awareness, and the Provincial Domestic Violence Plan provides resources to help bring abuse out of the shadows.

The resources put towards ending domestic violence have two-fold rewards. Not only does if help those currently facing violence, but it is also providing the children with the support that many violent offenders didn’t have when they were young. In this way, it is more possible to truly create lasting change.

“As a society, it helps if you step back from each tree and look at the big picture. These are people who have oftentimes been dealt a set of cards that started them off with disadvantages. And the kinds of choices that most of us have, who have grown up in anything but traumatic circumstances, is often denied to them – the skills that we take for granted to regulate ourselves and our emotions, our actions. With traumatic backgrounds, they often didn’t grow into adults who have those skills.

“I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the value of punishment. And increasingly drawn to compassion,” said Lohrasbe. “The vast majority of the people we lock up go back into the community. And if you brutalize them and dehumanize them then what are you asking for when they are out?”

Resources:

VictimLink BC/Domestic Violence Helpline

Help for victims and witnesses of crime and violence

#SaySomething (information for witnesses and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault)

The ERASE (Expect Respect and A Safe Education) Bullying strategy is part of the Province’s efforts to prevent and support those impacted by violence. The resources include information on domestic violence, including a student online reporting tool.

Be More Than a Bystander Campaign which is aimed at engaging men and boys to end violence against women and girls.

Statistics:

The primary data examined in Dawson’s study were drawn from Statistic Canada’s annual Homicide Survey and includes “filicide cases reported and recorded by police for a 51-year period – the longest period of time over which the total population of filicides have been examined in any country.” The sample analyzed is 1,612 cases.

Table 1

Time period, region, and demographic characteristics of filicides by gender of the accused, Canada, 1961-2011

Total sample Man accused (%) Woman accused (%)
1,612 57 43
Time period
1961-1973 286 50 50
1974-1983 382 52 48
1984-1993 375 58 42
1994-2003 385 64 36
2004-2011 184 61 39
Region
Atlantic 109 58 42
Quebec 459 55 45
Ontario 535 55 45
Prairies 307 63 37
British Columbia 190 56 44
Territories 12 75 25
Age of accused
Under 18 53 8 92
18-24 369 49 51
25-34 626 54 46
35-44 393 66 34
45-54 141 83 17
55 and older 22 91 9
Age of victim
Less than 12 months 481 41 59
1-4 643 58 42
4-11 361 68 32
12-17 127 80 20

(Canadian trends in filicide by gender of the accused, 1961-2011, Myrna Dawson)

A more recent Statistics Canada report states that 51 per cent of child and youth victims of family-related homicide between 2004 and 2014 were under the age of 4 years.

Fathers are more likely to stab, squeeze or beat their children to death where mothers are more likely to use drowning, suffocation, or gassing, according to Dawson’s research.

“We found that methods used by fathers tended to be more violent than those used when mothers killed children,” said Dawson.

Table 2

Incident characteristics and case outcomes in filicide cases by gender of the accused, Canada, 1961-2011

Total sample Man accused (%) Woman accused (%)
1,612 57 43
Cause of death
Shooting 306 85 15
Stabbing 137 56 44
Beating/blows 362 69 31
Strangulation/suffocation 467 34 66
Smoke inhalations/burns 61 57 43
Other methods 249 52 48
Motive
Revenge 129 87 13
Jealousy 88 85 15
Argument/quarrel 99 81 19
Frustration/anger/despair 431 68 32
No apparent motive 140 48 52
Other 560 38 62
Unknown 165 48 52
Clearance status
Cleared by charge 1,076 50 49
Cleared by suicide 500 73 27
Cleared otherwise 36 39 61

(Canadian trends in filicide by gender of the accused, 1961-2011, Myrna Dawson)


 

keri.coles@oakbaynews.com

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