News Martina Devlin

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Martina Devlin: Raw courage of Una and the questions she forces us to ask

Published 01/11/2012 | 17:00

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WHEN a parent kills their trusting young child, it is an act expressive of such despair that it bypasses understanding. Contravening every nurturing instinct and natural law, it is so aberrant that we prefer not to dwell on it.

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Each case is reported in the media, a national intake of breath follows, and the phenomenon is pushed under the carpet.

Yet as we avert our gaze from these unnatural child deaths, often occurring as part of parental suicide, they continue to happen in Ireland at a rate of about two a year.

Yesterday, a reminder of the waste they represent and the horror they inspire came when a mother spoke about her two small daughters, killed by their father who took his own life afterwards.

Una Butler's courageous, dignified testimony precipitates the question: could steps have been taken to prevent their deaths? And if different procedures had been followed, could any of those reluctant participants in a parent's suicide have been saved?

People in Ireland believe filicide is uncommon, Mrs Butler told RTE Radio's 'Morning Ireland'. But she insisted it was not, citing 23 children dying at a parent's hands since 2000.

Mothers and fathers are dispatching their children in a variety of violent ways, from house fires and drowning to suffocation and strangulation. Presumably these parents are temporarily unhinged and believe they are sparing their little ones from a hostile world.

Mrs Butler, a civil servant from Ballycotton, Co Cork, described how, in less than an hour, her family was wiped out. It was an occurrence of Greek tragedy proportions.

She took to the airwaves to lobby for legislative change to help prevent further deaths. Legislation in the 2001 Mental Health Act is currently under review, and an expert group is to report next March.

One morning two years ago, Mrs Butler's husband, John, who suffered from depression and had been under the care of mental health services until three months earlier, snapped.

After his wife left for work as usual, he gave their daughters their breakfast. Their clothes were on the radiators, warming up before it was time to dress. While Zoe (6) and two-year-old Ella watched cartoons on TV, still in their pyjamas and eating toast, he strangled one and suffocated the other.

Then he climbed into his Toyota Yaris, bought petrol from a filling station, doused the interior of the car and drove it off the road and into a ditch.

Meanwhile, Mrs Butler, uneasy about his demeanour that morning and unable to raise him on the phone, left work early and was driving home when gardai stopped her because of the crash ahead.

As a result of her experience, Mrs Butler believes that where someone is treated for mental health problems it should be a priority to focus on whether young children are living in the home. If so, a mandatory risk assessment should be done.

She also wants changes to the law so that partners are involved in a patient's treatment. Obviously, this raises patient confidentiality concerns, but Mrs Butler insists the other parent must have the right to prioritise a child's welfare.

"Children don't have a voice when they are so small," she said.

Nor do they have the strength to fight back if a parent uses brute force against them. Her husband, an unemployed builder caring full-time for their daughters, was a loving father.

"John never harmed me physically, or Zoe or Ella. Ever," she said. "I don't think I believed it until I saw my girls. I said, 'No way. John wouldn't do something like that'."

Perhaps if she had been involved in his treatment she might have had some inkling of the direction in which his mind was turning. And perhaps she wouldn't.

Kathleen Lynch, the junior minister responsible for mental health, has met Mrs Butler and admires her resilience, but she said it was a difficult area that may have to be dealt with by guidelines rather than laws.

We can't legislate for everything in life. Horrible, incomprehensible events occur and laws are incapable of stopping them. Still, Mrs Butler is right to insist that safeguarding children must be of paramount importance.

This is not to stigmatise people. Many families have much-loved members dealing with mental health issues -- my paternal grandfather attempted suicide when depressed, for example. It was a source of enormous shame to his wife and children. But full and rewarding lives can be led today thanks to medication -- provided patients keep taking it.

Looking away from something that leaves us uneasy and helpless is an instinctive reaction, especially in the case of a child's death. But we must not allow incomprehension to be an excuse for inaction.

We need to look at these killings and ask: what was the trigger? Is there a pattern, or common denominators? Can we avert similar deaths?

Una Butler couldn't get home in time to save Zoe and Ella. By speaking out, perhaps she can save someone else's child. But only if we listen to her.

www.martinadevlin.com

Irish Independent

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