Breakdowns often to blame in killings

Parents who kill their children have likely suffered a psychotic breakdown, according to mental health experts.

Elena Carmen Nichita, who teaches forensic psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia and sees patients, said it's more likely than not that a mother who kills her children is mentally ill or was under the influence of drugs.

Though not commenting specifically about Jeannette Michelle Hawes, a 22-year-old woman accused of killing her two children, Dr. Nichita said there are three main categories for parents who commit filicide:

- Those who have a diagnosed mental illness such as schizophrenia or depression who become delusional about their children

- Those who are suicidal and convince themselves their children cannot survive without them

- Those who kill for secondary gain -- want their children out of the way so they can have another kind of life.

If a parent cannot or won't take care of a child, the Department of Family and Children Services can take the child for a 90-day voluntary placement. A parent can also voluntarily surrender parental rights, said Beverly Jones, a public information officer with the state's Department of Human Resources.

There is help for parents, too, said Cathy Hayes, the director of community support services at Serenity Behavioral Health System.

The community-based mental health center can help with coordinating services for parents, and provide out-patient and inpatient treatment, said Ms. Hayes.

There is a way to seek help for someone who cannot do it himself. A probate court judge in Georgia can order someone committed to a mental hospital for evaluation.

Richmond County Probate Judge Isaac "Buddy" Jolles said he can order a commitment if two people swear under oath that they have seen a person within the past 48 hours and believe the person might be a danger to himself or others.

A person can also be committed if he is unable to care for himself, regardless of potential for violence, Judge Jolles said.

He estimates he has commitment hearings about twice a week.

"It's not unusual, unfortunately," Judge Jolles said.