12 Women Sent to Prison for Killing Their Kids

Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity
Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Pool / Getty Images

The nation is always shocked by criminal cases such as that of Andrea Yates, a Texas mother of five who in June 2001 methodically drowned her children in a bathtub and then calmly called the police to report it, but mothers killing their children is a more common crime than you might think.

According to the American Anthropological Association, more than 200 women kill their children in the United States each year. Three to five children a day are killed by their parents. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death of children under age 4, "yet we continue to persist with the unrealistic view that this is rare behavior," said Jill Korbin, an expert on child abuse who has studied at length the stories of mothers who killed their children.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a medical anthropologist, said society should understand that all women aren't natural mothers:

"We should detach from the idea of universal motherhood as natural and see it as a social response. There's a collective denial even when mothers come right out and say, 'I really shouldn't be trusted with my kids.'"

Three major factors often play a role when mothers kill their children: postpartum psychosis, psychotic breakdowns brought on by factors such as jealousy and abandonment, and domestic violence.

Postpartum Depression and Psychosis

Postpartum depression is a common problem that can occur within four weeks of the birth of a baby. It can affect both mothers and fathers, although only a small percentage of fathers experience it.

Common symptoms include depression, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, fear, guilt, the inability to bond with the new baby, and a feeling of worthlessness. If left untreated, it can lead to postpartum psychosis, which is much more severe and dangerous. Symptoms include extreme insomnia, obsessive behavior, and auditory hallucinations where voices instruct the mother to commit suicide or to mutilate and/or murder her child or children. Often the mother believes such acts will save the child from a life of misery.

Yates was suffering from extreme postpartum depression and was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. She was sent to Kerrville State Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, for an indefinite stay.

Psychotic Breakdowns

In some cases, children are murdered as a result of the mother experiencing a psychotic breakdown brought on by intense feelings of abandonment and jealousy in cases where the father of the children has left the home. In some cases, the need to seek revenge overtakes reason. Diane Downs, convicted of murder after shooting her three children, one of whom died, in May 1983, was diagnosed as psychotic but was sentenced to life in prison.

Other Women Who Killed Their Children

A look at 11 other women convicted of murdering their children shows that such acts are not as rare as we would like to believe. Here are their names, crimes, and locations where they are serving as of October 2019 unless otherwise noted:

  • Kenisha Berry at age 20 covered her 4-day-old son with duct tape, resulting in his death in Jefferson County, Texas, in November 1998. She is serving in Murray state prison in Gatesville, Texas.
  • Patricia Blackmon was 29 when she killed her 2-year-old adopted daughter in Dothan, Alabama, in May 1999. The cause of death was determined to be multiple blunt-force injuries. She is on death row in Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama.
  • Dora Luz Buenrostro stabbed to death her two daughters, ages 4 and 9, and her son, age 8, when she was 34 years old in San Jacinto, California, in October 1994. She is being held in the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.
  • Socorro Caro was 42 when she fatally shot her three sons, ages 5, 8, and 11, in Santa Rosa Valley, California, in November 1999. She is on death row in the Central California Women’s Facility.
  • Susan Eubanks fatally shot her four sons, ages 4, 6, 7, and 14, in San Marcos, California, in October 1997, when she was 33. She is on death row in the Central California Women’s Facility.
  • Teresa Michelle Lewis killed her 51-year-old husband and 26-year-old stepson in Keeling, Virginia, in a murder-for-hire plot in October 2002, when she was 33. She was executed in September 2010 at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia.
  • Frances Elaine Newton was 21 when she fatally shot her husband, 7-year-old son, and 2-year-old daughter in Houston, Texas, in April 1987. She was executed in September 2005.
  • Darlie Lynn Routier was 26 when she was convicted of fatally stabbing her 5-year-old son in June 1996 in Rowlett, Texas. She is on death row in Mountain View state prison in Gatesville, Texas.
  • Robin Lee Row was 35 when she asphyxiated her husband, 10-year-old son, and 8-year-old daughter in Boise, Idaho, in February 1992. She is on death row in the Pocatello Woman's Correctional Center in Pocatello, Idaho.
  • Michelle Sue Tharp was 29 and lived in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, when she starved her 7-year-old daughter to death in April 1998. She is in the Muncy state prison in Muncy, Pennsylvania.
  • Caroline Young was 49 when she killed her 4-year-old granddaughter and 6-year-old grandson, for whom she had been granted custody, in Haywood, California, in June 1993. She died of kidney failure at the Central California Women's Facility in September 2005.

Korbin said that people who know parents who end up killing their children usually see clues that something is wrong with the parents but don't know how to deal with the information:

"Prior to a homicide, lots of laypeople know these men and women are having difficulty parenting. The public has to be better educated in recognizing how to intervene and how to support child abuse prevention."