Wednesday, April 2, 2008

No easy answers in slayings with parents, children

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Eight children have been killed by their parents in Montgomery County in the past year.

The drowning deaths over the weekend of three Silver Spring children in Baltimore would bring the number of children with connections to the county killed, or allegedly killed, by a parent since April 2007 to 11. They range in age from 2 to 20, with seven of the children younger than 6.

The fathers killed the children in all but one incident, including the weekend tragedy. Two of the incidents were murder-suicides and in one of those cases, the mother was also killed by her ex-husband.

Bethesda resident David Silber, a psychologist and professor emeritus at The George Washington University, said there are no clear-cut guidelines to predict when parents might become violent toward their children.

‘‘When it comes to predicting who’s going to kill whom, we don’t have very good tools,” he said.

But there are some common factors that have been associated with such instances, including a history of mental illness, especially depression, previous instances of violence or threatened violence and family stress, he said.

Parents who are separated or battling over custody of their children places even more stress on a family, he said.

The mother of the Silver Spring children had argued against the father having visitation rights, citing safety concerns.

‘‘Unless there’s a history of abuse, it’s hard to predict this kind of thing,” Silber said. ‘‘Unfortunately in a situation like this, it was the very act of doing it that made it seem that [the mother’s worries] were very well founded.”

A disparity between the parents in education, income and success in life could also place additional stress on a family, he said.

Sometimes spousal revenge may be a motive in filicide, Silber said.

‘‘Sometimes, with the estranged spouse, especially with the father, since men are more likely to be violent, the attitude is: If I can’t have you nobody can,” he said.

These factors are echoed in cases in Montgomery County. Nearly one year ago, on April 3, 2007, Gerardo Roque, 35, hanged his two children, Maria Socorro, 2, and Carlos Diego, 1, in Boyds before hanging himself. He was estranged from his girlfriend, the children’s mother, and had been physically abusive towards her.

In July 2007, Thurmon Herring Jr., 45, shot his two sons, Justin, 20, and Jeremy, 18, while they slept in their Silver Spring home. In February, he was found guilty but not criminally responsible for the first-degree murders. State psychiatrists found that Herring was mentally unstable at the time of the crime. He has remained in a state psychiatric hospital since September.

On Thanksgiving Day 2007, David P. Brockdorff, 40, of Frederick shot and killed his ex-wife, Gail Louise Pumphrey, 43, and their three children, David, 12, Megan, 10, and Brandon, 6. They were found in a park in Unity, near Laytonsville. The couple had a history of domestic violence.

A few days later, Ruth Petra Sendejas, 19, of Silver Spring was accused of killing her son, Leonardo Giovanni Sendejas, 2, on Nov. 27, 2007. Police allege she tried to cover up the boy’s death by tying herself up and claiming she was the victim of a home invasion. Sendejas is charged with first-degree murder. Her trial is scheduled for this summer.

And Mark Castillo, who is charged with drowning his three young children in a Baltimore hotel on Saturday, has a history of mental illness, according to court records.

In rare instances, parents may feel that there is something wrong with their children and killing them is for their own good, as in the recent case in Washington, D.C., in which a mother killed her four daughters because she thought the eldest was evil and a bad influence on the younger girls.

While Silber said five cases in the county within a year did sound like a lot, he said murders involving family members make up a minority of the killings in the United States.

In 2006, there were 14,990 murders where the relationships of the victims were known. Of those, 283 were sons and 179 were daughters, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.

‘‘These tragedies really leave their mark,” Silber said. ‘‘There really is no balm or salve but time.”