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 and a staunch defender of justice for all that includes mothers whose mental illnesses brought them into the criminal justice system.
Parnham has now agreed to represent Narjes Modarresi, a Texas mother reportedly suffering from severe mental illness who is accused of burying her two-month-old infant son alive.
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--a public demanding that mothers who commit infanticide be served the same fate or be permanently removed from society. It's a fine and controversial line to walk legally. Infants and children die from abuse and neglect every day in numbers that far exceed deaths attributed to postpartum psychosis. The insanity defense is not meant to excuse the murder of innocent children by their mothers.
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, is incomprehensible and repulsive to those unfamiliar with this extremely rare symptom - a true psychiatric emergency. No human being can help but recoil when confronted with the death of a helpless infant.
But turning a blind 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 women takes a courage that few can shoulder. But because of his insistence that truth inform punishment, the number of women whose mental illness has led to lifelong incarceration without appropriate process or treatment, may some day be reduced, ending a dark history of legal, medical and social abandonment.
Two years ago, 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. Such legislation is already on the books in other countries, but not in the U.S. Our juries have not often been able to consider mitigating circumstances when they involve the death of a child. In the absence of awareness and understanding, outrage is understandable. Such challenges should evoke fierce debate about how best to protect mentally ill mothers and their children.
We know that unaddressed mental health issues among pregnant and postpartum women result in many long range and adverse effects on the infant's physical and emotional well being. Yet even lesser manifestations of disconnect from problem and solution remain. 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.
But we have a ways to go. American mothers are still offered only one acceptable response to birth: joyful reception 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 support, mental health and the capacity to meet these challenges. But others of our sisters, up to 20 percent, walk a different road which too often results in a lonely, isolated shame.
The emergence of public awareness campaigns, research and community response has begun to broaden understanding, as has the passage of federal legislation which further validates the need to address this unmet crisis.
Parnham has brought the force of his intellect, experience and ethics to stand beside those enduring the judgments that come from the most extreme and tragic responses to motherhood--a place only the bravest would dare to venture. His decision to now represent a mother whose crime will find little sympathy in the court of public opinion demonstrates his continuing pro-social commitment to contexted understanding of all facts that lead to such tragedies.
It is inevitable to wonder about the child's defense. While some may feel representation of this tiny innocent victim is absent, exactly the opposite is true when Parnham takes the case. Through his advocacy, peer education and legal platform, Parnham protects and defends the victims of such preventable deaths by forcing a community to consider its own culpability in turning a blind eye to maternal mental illness. With appropriate treatment, these are preventable deaths.
In the above article, it is most unfortunate that the reporter chose to term the Yates tragedy and this infanticide as resulting from postpartum depression instead of the more accurate (in Yates case) postpartum psychosis. This misattribution commonly occurs in the media serving to fuel confusion, alienation and fear, warping understanding and increasing stigma.
While the facts continue to unfold regarding this latest tragedy, all of us who are united in our fervor to end such ignorance must walk with Parnham as he seeks to correct public perception of maternal illness and effect an appropriate outcome. As allies in enlightenment, we need to correct media misrepresentations, talk to our friends and families, educate our communities and refuse to collude through silence.
Parnham will forever be an historic hero in the maternal mental health initiative for his empathic understanding and advocacy for those rejected and mislabeled by our naive and sometimes lethal societal myths. A true champion of mothers who suffer and those who love them, his efforts in court may facilitate a justice that takes due process beyond verdict to treatment, beyond punishment to understanding, from the reactionary to the preventive. This is the work that will eventually ensure that no angel infants death will ever be in vain.