Attorney George Parnham is a man of deep conviction, loyalty and wisdom. When you become a friend of George’s, it’s for life. Entering the world of this humble yet renowned public servant, you find a golden soul whose life is truly about helping others…a staunch defender of justice for all that includes mothers whose mental illness brought them into the criminal justice system.
Mr. Parnham has now appeared with the family of Narjes Modarresi and intends to represent her. Narjes is a Texas mother reportedly suffering from severe postpartum mental illness accused of killing her two month old infant son, Masih Golabbakhshn.
Parnham stated in this initial interview, that Narjes had been receiving mental health services and medication since giving birth to her child, with whom she failed to bond.
Parnham is the Texas based attorney who defended Andrea Yates. He endured threats and admonitions, being marginalized by some of his colleagues and the wrath of a public who had no knowledge of postpartum psychosis, insisting that such women deserve the same fate or permanent removal from society.
The defense of a mother who has committed infanticide justifiably evokes moral and legal controversy. Infants and children die from abuse and neglect every day in numbers that far exceed deaths attributable to postpartum psychosis. The insanity defense is not meant to excuse the murder of innocent children.
The first trial of Andrea Yates – distorted by mischaracterizations of diagnosis – resulted in conviction; the second trial brought a just conclusion when the insanity defense was upheld. This mother – with a history of severe mental illness – believed she was saving her children from hell by ending their lives.
That the symptoms of psychosis can include command hallucinations so severe that it seems logical to take a life, are incomprehensible and repulsive to those unfamiliar with this extremely rare illness – a true psychiatric emergency. No human being can help but recoil when confronted with the death of a helpless infant.
But turning a blind judgemental eye to the context and failing to implement strategic preventive programs serves no one, continuing the stigma that separates those who suffer from available life-saving treatment.
Parnham’s quest for appropriate legal and medical outcomes for such mothers takes a courage that few can shoulder. Because of his insistence that context inform punishment, the number of women whose mental illness has led to life long incarceration without appropriate process or treatment, may some day be reduced, ending a dark history of legal, medical and social abandonment.
Two years ago, Mr. Parnham, along with Rep. Jessica Farrar, introduced legislation to modify the penalty phase of trials in which a mother’s mental illness was a mitigating factor. This legal modification has been accepted by other countries, but not yet in the U.S. Legislators find scant support for its adoption as an unaware public rejects any precedent that would modify the penalty for infant death at the hands of its mother.
Without intensifying public awareness and education about postpartum illness, unmitigated outrage will remain. Such challenges should evoke fierce debate about how best to protect mentally ill mothers and their children.
Research repeatedly demonstrates that unaddressed mental health issues among pregnant and postpartum women result in many serious long range and adverse effects on infant’s physical and emotional well being, including healthy affective neurobiological development. Yet the disconnect between problem and solution remains with mighty consequences for all. The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act including in Healthcare Reform may begin to finally reverse this persistent ignorance of a public health crisis through its federal funding of programs and research that will bring enlightenment and recovery.
For now, American mothers are still offered only one acceptable response to birth… joyful acceptance and demonstrated capacity to subjugate their life to that of their newborn. Those of us fortunate to have the promised experience adjust to the tasks of motherhood with some transient challenges, but without the additional load of a devastating mood disorder. But up to 20% of our sisters walk a different and isolating path with their newborn.
Mr. Parnham has brought the force of his intellect, experience and ethics to stand beside those enduring the fiercest judgements for the crime of having a mental illness that resulted in tragedy. Only the bravest would raise his hand to again represent a mother whose crime will find little sympathy in the court of public opinion.
It is inevitable to wonder who will speak for the infant in such tragedies. While some may feel justice for the tiniest victims is absent, subjugated to their mother’s defense, exactly the opposite is true when Parnham takes the case. For through his advocacy, peer education and legal platform, Parnham protects and defends these angels by forcing a community to consider its own culpability in turning a blind eye to maternal mental illness. In most cases, these deaths could have been prevented.
You can read the tragic story of Modarresi and her infant son here..
In the above article, we again witness dangerous diagnostic mislabeling as the reporter terms the Yates tragedy and this infanticide as resulting from postpartum depression instead of the more accurate (in Yates case) postpartum psychosis. This common misattribution furthers confusion and outrage, as the public then applies its understanding of depression to murder and finds no waiver of responsibility, furthering their outcry of bogus defense.
Most people know someone who was severely depressed and did not commit homicide. But because the illness of postpartum psychosis is so thankfully rare, few understand the concept of having lost ones reason through no fault of one’s own. Few understand the manifestations of psychotic hallucinations as capable of altering reality.
Such misuse of terms comes at a cost of lives, treatment and societal understanding and those in the media who ignorantly mislabel or sensationalize such tragedies share responsibility for furthering stigma.
While the facts continue to unfold regarding the tragic loss of this infant and his Iranian born mother – an ethnic association that could further prejudicial response -,those determined to end ignorance about maternal mental health issues must walk with George Parnham as he seeks to correct public misperceptions and enact appropriate legal response. As his allies in social enlightenment, we are charged to correct misperceptions wherever we find them, talk to our friends and families, educate our communities and refuse to collude through silence.
Mr. George Parnham is an historic hero in the maternal mental health initiative through his pursuit of justice for mothers pre-condemned by the continuation of naieve and sometimes lethal societal myths.
Parnham’s insistence that juries and legislators consider context and mental capacity will help move focus from verdict to treatment and catalyze a societal shift from outraged condemnation to awareness and primary prevention. We cannot separate the protection and defense of mothers from their infants and hope to end such tragedies.