Mother of slain family demands law reform

Mental health laws must be changed to ensure children with a parent fighting potentially dangerous conditions like depression are not put at risk of injury or death.

Una Butler — whose husband John killed himself and the couple’s two children on Nov 16, 2010, in one of 32 Irish filicide deaths since 2000 — made the call after urging greater family invol-vement in and awareness of the vital medical care.

Ms Butler, from Ballycotton, East Cork, said she believed existing mental health laws failed to fully protect potentially at-risk children from tragedies like the one her family suffered.

Kathleen Lynch, the junior minister with responsibility for mental health, responded by saying she does not believe “there is a clinician in the country who wouldn’t take steps to ensure children would be made safe” in cases where one of their patients may be a danger.

However, Ms Butler, whose husband was being treated for depression, said new rules were needed as she was still “waking up to a living nightmare every day and I don’t want anyone else to have to wake up to what I have to every day of the week”.

When asked what changes she wants to see happen in an extensive RTÉ Morning Ireland interview, Ms Butler said: “For the welfare of children to be paramount when someone is living under the same roof as somebody suffering from mental health [issues]. The other is to involve spouses or partners in treatment, have family involvement, always get the bigger picture. And I think it would benefit both the medical professionals and the patient.

“[The current medical guidelines are] not enough for the welfare of children. It needs to be set in stone. Children don’t have a voice when they’re so small, and spouses have to speak on their behalf.

“The legislation should be changed so when the patients arrive into their GP or the hospital and they say they’re suffering mentally, the first question that should be asked is are there children living at home.

“And if there are, the legislation should be changed so that it is mandatory that somebody should be sent out to assess the risk of them living there.”

Ms Butler is specifically seeking changes to the Mental Health Act 2001, which oversees the treatment of patients with mental health issues.

It is being reviewed by an expert group set up by Ms Lynch, and this is due to report its findings to the minister next March.

Ms Lynch has already met Ms Butler on the matter, and her own circumstances, a number of times, saying she “could not fail to be moved” by what happened.

The minister said mental health law changes were “extraordinarily difficult” as doctor-patient confidentiality issues could prevent a medic from contacting family members.

However, Ms Lynch insisted any doctor would move to ensure children are safe if they feared a repeat of the Ballycotton tragedy.

John Butler, 43, killed his daughters Zoe, 6, and Ella, 2, at the family home before killing himself.

Yesterday morning, Una Butler revealed her private trauma to RTÉ southern correspondent Pascal Sheehy. These are her words

Una Butler (UB): The morning of Nov 16 [2010], Tuesday morning, my alarm clock was set for 6.30am as normal, but of course I slept it out and John woke me at 7.30am. I got up, put Ella and Zoe’s clothes on the rads [radiators] and carried on to work as normal.

I thought he [John] was a bit down on himself, but there was lots of days he was down on himself, so I’d ring when I got to work to make sure everything was all right.

I got to work about 8.50am and I was ringing home and ringing his mobile, and there was no answer. I rang his sister to ask would she invite him down.

She rang back to say she wasn’t getting any answer from him either. So I continued ringing, I rang round my friends and my sisters to see if they’d seen him drop Zoe to school. None of them had seen him.

I drove home thinking maybe he’d left the phone at home and gone for a spin with Ella in the car. I was met by the guards. They stopped me to say there was a crash up the road.

The guard said my brother was on his way down. My brother told me what happened and I just couldn’t believe it. I stopped at the house, a guard was outside, and I asked him if I could just go down to see Zoe and Ella. But I wasn’t let.

John never harmed me physically, or Zoe or Ella. Ever. So I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I didn’t want to believe it to be honest, and I couldn’t until I saw my girls.

I remember that morning, I was like a robot saying: “Can I go down and see my girls?” but in my own mind I don’t think I actually wanted to go there.

Pascal Sheehy (PS): It’s a huge loss for anybody to have to go through. What did you think initially when you had heard what happened?

UB: I said: “No way, John wouldn’t do something like that.”

I knew John had been down but I think I was in shock for a long time afterwards, and to this day I think I’m still finding it hard to accept that it happened, that Zoe and Ella, their lives were taken by their own father, who did suffer with depression.

PS: So what changes do you want to see in legislation?

UB: The first one is the most important, for the welfare of children to be paramount when someone is living under the same roof as somebody suffering from mental health.

The other is to involve spouses or partners in treatment, have family involvement, always get the bigger picture. I think it would benefit both the medical professionals and the patient.

PS: There are guidelines advising health professionals in this area to involve family members. Isn’t that enough?

UB: It’s not enough for the welfare of children. It needs to be set in stone for the welfare of children. They have to be involved in the treatment. Children don’t have a voice when they’re so small, and spouses have to speak on their behalf.

Since 2000, there have been 23 cases of filicide in Ireland, 32 children have been murdered by one of their parents, 15 suicides, and five spouses or partners murdered. That’s 52 lives in total.

And I believe if the legislation would be changed, it would help to prevent recurring tragedies.

Ireland, as a society, believes filicide is rare. It’s not as uncommon as they’d like to think.

PS: In relation to risk to children and risk to other family members, what do you think of the legislation?

UB: The legislation should be changed so when the patients arrive into their GP or the hospital and they say they’re suffering mentally, the first question should be asked is: “Are there children living at home?”

And if there are, the legislation should be changed so it is mandatory that somebody should be sent out to assess the risk of them living there.

PS: Can you describe to us your sense of loss now?

UB: My world was turned upside down. Zoe and Ella were all my life. Their future was wiped out, and all my hopes and dreams for them.

And in this excruciating pain sometimes I would have thoughts of suicide, but medication is going to solve my problem. I will never forgive John for what he did to Zoe and Ella. A lot of the time I’m angry with him. But I’m also sad, I feel sad for him.

I’m waking up to a living nightmare every day, and I don’t want anyone else to wake up to what I have to, every day of the week.

Changes have to be made for the welfare of children, for the patient themselves. I believe if the changes [she is calling for] are made it will help to prevent any future tragedies.

* Published with permission of RTÉ’s Morning Ireland

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