'How many more children have to die at the hands of parents with mental illness?'

'How many more children have to die at the hands of parents with mental illness?'

Darragh, Carla and Conor McGinley. Their mother, Deirdre Morley, was fact not guilty of their murders by reason of insanity. Picture: Andrew McGinley/Conor's Clips

Two parents whose children were killed by their mentally ill spouses have demanded urgent changes to the law to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Andrew McGinley and Una Butler want the Mental Health Act (2001) overhauled to allow families to be more involved in the treatment of their mentally ill loved ones.

“How many more children have to die at the hands of parents with mental illness?” Ms Butler asked.

Her husband, John, killed their daughters, Ella, 2, and Zoe, 6, at home in Ballycotton, Co Cork, in November 2010, before taking his own life. He had struggled with mental ill-health and had been released from hospital just six weeks earlier.

Ms Butler has been fighting since then for changes in the law to allow for a greater role for spouses, partners or close family members in the care regime in such cases.

She believes that, had she been involved in her late husband’s care, their daughters may still be alive.

Despite Ms Butler’s dedicated campaigning to bring about change, 10 years after her tragedy Mr McGinley suffered a similar horrendous loss, which he believes could have been avoided.

This week, his wife, who he said had been a “devoted and loving” mother, was found not guilty of murdering their three children by reason of insanity.

Conor, 9, Darragh, 7, and Carla, 3, were suffocated by Deirdre Morley at their home in Newcastle, west Dublin, on January 24, 2020. Ms Morley then tried to take her own life, but was intercepted by passers-by.

Mr McGinley said that, despite Ms Butler’s tireless campaigning to ensure that the family of a patient is involved in their care, “nothing much changed”.

“The lessons which should have been learned from the sad loss of Ella and Zoe should have led to improvements in the Mental Health Act,” he said.

“It is too late for us, but I do not want to see another grieving parent speaking in the future about the same exclusion after a similar catastrophic loss.

“My message here and now, to anyone who has a loved one in psychiatric care, is to get in there as soon as you can to be added as an advocate for their treatment plan.”

Ms Butler said: “According to my research, since 2000, 53 children have been murdered by one of their parents in 37 incidents.”

“It involved 20 fathers and 17 mothers, with 60% of them having previous contact with the psychiatric services. It is a major factor in these cases, but it is overlooked.”

A review on domestic homicide, which is nearing completion, should provide insight into these horrific cases, she said.

However, she said patients being treated for mental illness, especially parents living with children, should not be treated in isolation.

“If they are living with children, family members should be involved in their care,” she said.

If someone has a broken leg or is being treated for cancer, family support is essential in their care and patient confidentiality can be protected. Why is the mental health care regime of a person treated differently? 

"How many more children have to die at the hands of a parent with mental health difficulties before there is change?”

Mr McGinley is also calling for an urgent review of his wife’s medical care before the killings.

Her diagnosis and medication changed after the killings. Ms Morley said that, had she been prescribed that medication one week earlier, the killings would have been avoided.

St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, which treated Ms Morley in 2019, has supported Mr McGinley’s call for a review.

“It is imperative that we identify what can be learned from this tragic event,” he said. 

“This includes fully and sensitively investigating if anything could have been done to prevent the deaths of three innocent children and to help avoid any family in the future suffering a similar fate.”

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