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A gavel in a courtroom.
Courts have failed to understand the role childhood trauma can play in adult criminal behaviour. (Shutterstock)

Criminal justice needs a better understanding of childhood trauma

The execution of Lisa Montgomery in Indiana in January made headlines around the world. She was the first female inmate executed by the federal government since 1953. Montgomery faced the death penalty for strangling pregnant 23-year old Bobbie Jo Stinnett in 2004. Montgomery cut the unborn baby from Stinnett’s womb, claiming the child as her own.

Montgomery was a woman described as damaged and delusional, who suffered from depression, schizophrenia, personality disorder, PTSD and traumatic brain injury. She experienced psychosis and believed God spoke to her through connect-the-dot puzzles.

At the time of the crime, she suffered from pseudocyesis, a rare psychiatric condition where she falsely believed she was pregnant and experienced the same hormonal and body changes.

Mental illness

Over the past several decades, researchers have underscored the connection between childhood trauma and mental illness in adulthood. With colleagues, I examine how childhood trauma affects criminal behaviour. Our work is concerned with the area of maternal mental health forensics: the process of determining evidence in cases of mothers who are prosecuted for criminal behaviour, such as in cases of maternal infanticide where mothers kill their children.

Our culture’s lingering stigma of mental illness means that adverse childhood experiences and their relationship to criminal behaviour remain woefully ignored. As a consequence, compassion and fair legal decisions are not made consistently. While the legal system has come a long way, there is still a long way to go.

It is a most heinous crime imaginable when a mother kills her child — or in this case, the child of another. It violates the archetype of the mother as all-protecting of her young.

Society can be quick to judge these women as sadistic and maniacal, demanding punishment to the fullest extent. With a lack of understanding of the possible mental health basis, these mothers are treated as monsters rather than victims of their mental disturbances lacking the capacity to know or appreciate the nature of their actions.

A sign at the prison entrance is shown with a guard tower in the background.
The sign at the entrance of the U.S. federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where most federally mandated executions are carried out. Lisa Montgomery was executed at the prison on Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Exactly 20 years ago, in Houston, Texas, Andrea Yates took the lives of her five children and faced the death penalty. Yates believed she was saving her children from eternal damnation by drowning them in a bathtub. In 2002, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, although an appellate court later ordered a second trial.

At that trial in 2006, Yates’s attorney educated the jury about her psychotic mind. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Public opinion shifted from disdain to compassion for the impact of maternal mental illness, and its role in the crime. However, compassion and understanding from those determining the fate of Lisa Montgomery was lacking.

A traumatizing childhood

As a child, Lisa suffered repeated sexual torture and humiliation from her mother. She would strip Lisa naked and push her outside the front door as punishment. She put Lisa in cold showers and whipped her with belts, cords or hangers. Her step-father built a secret room behind his trailer, where he and others repeatedly raped her. These types of significant childhood traumas, and even ones not so extreme, have been shown to alter brain biology and lead to mental illness in adulthood.

The impact of childhood traumas on adult mental health is like what smoking is to the lung and obesity to the heart. Research shows that extensive trauma at an early age is very common in maternal filicide. Studies confirm that adverse childhood experiences in the first 18 years of life increase risk of psychosis and criminal behaviour. The more adverse childhood experiences one has, the greater the risk of depression, anxiety, suicidality and other mental disorders. While there are factors that can protect people from the severe effects of trauma, like having a safe relationship with an adult, not everyone who experiences adversity or trauma also experiences protective factors.

Read more: How compassion can triumph over toxic childhood trauma

When it comes to maternal mental illness, childhood maltreatment at the hands of parents and guardians have the most harmful effects. There is an urgent need to shift the dialogue and acknowledge that childhood traumas impact adult mental health. Studying how laws and judicial decisions can reflect our evolving appreciation of how adverse childhood experiences contribute to mental illness, criminal behaviour and insanity defences, is crucial.

Trauma is not the “abuse-excuse,” as federal prosecutors called Montgomery’s life story. Rather, abuse produces negative outcomes including criminal behaviour.

Had Montgomery been tried in a legal system with a more nuanced understanding of mental illness her life may have been spared, and proper treatment provided. The murder of Bobbi Jo Stinnett was reprehensible and tragic. A second injustice was enacted when Montgomery, herself a victim of her mental illness, was executed.

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