Twenty Years Later
Twenty Years Later – The story behind the Yates Children Memorial Fund
Written by: Vanessa Park
Told by: Mary Parnham
When Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary Yates woke up in their Houston, TX home on June 20, 2001, they did not know it was to be their last day on earth. But it was. The events of that day ripped through countless lives, hearts, and homes, leaving a trail of mourning and disbelief. In the 20 years since, much has transpired.
What I know, and what others in the legal and mental health professions understand, is that the children’s mother, who ended the lives of Noah, Paul, Luke, and Mary, loved her children more than her own life and truly believed she was saving them.
Andrea Yates was not, and is not, a monster. The only monster in the house that day was postpartum psychosis, a rare mental illness but one with distinct warning signs and symptoms, though few recognize them, even many medical and mental health clinicians.
The tragedy—for tragedy it was—could have been avoided. Here’s the story.
Twenty years ago, when word of this tragedy was released by news outlets in Houston and across the country, most people, including those of us in the local criminal justice system, were horrified and numb. Really? Were we hearing this correctly? That mother must be pure evil to have done such a thing. Some people even called for Andrea’s immediate execution—without a trial. She didn’t deserve one.
That brings us to the second monster in the story. Ignorance.
The law firm my husband George Parnham and I operate in Houston was contacted on official business regarding the Yates murders. Would George take Andrea’s case? That momentous day, he said yes. George had heard the story on the news already, and, like any red-blooded defense lawyer, he hoped he’d get the call. Let’s be honest—it was obviously going to be a huge case. Little did any of us know it would be a groundbreaking case, as well.
As eager as we were to dig in, neither George nor I took what we’d agreed to lightly. Andrea’s case was already being tried ruthlessly in the media, a situation that dogged us throughout and certainly did not help. Within a day of George’s name becoming linked with Andrea’s as her attorney, our office received over 150 media calls in one weekend. That was our first reality check. Life, as we knew it, would never be the same.
Houston had experienced a devastating tropical storm just prior to June 20. Our jail and courthouse systems had been displaced by flooding and other consequences of the storm. As we prepared our case that summer, this fact just made things a little harder than they already were.
The competency hearing was scheduled on September 11. The timing and circumstances guaranteed this was a recipe for disaster. Oil companies in downtown Houston were abandoning their offices and buildings that day, while the media from all over the country were camped out to witness the hearing. Mass transit was at a halt, and the countless reporters who needed to get back home, to New York or LA or wherever they were from, quickly realized they might be stranded. Houston that day was a full-fledged hot, humid, immobilized big-city nightmare.
Looking back, I’d say that post-storm Houston evacuation coinciding with our competency hearing foreshadowed the challenging journey that lay ahead for us all.
Despite strenuous efforts to develop a robust insanity defense for Andrea, when we went into the first trial early in 2002, we still knew too little about the facts of postpartum psychosis (as we later realized). The jury found her guilty of capital murder, entirely rejecting our defense. The State had sought the death penalty. Fortunately, the jury chose to spare her life.
It’s worth noting that, once her psychosis was treated and had abated, Andrea was fully aware of her actions, their consequences, and had to live every day of her life with the unbearable pain of knowing she had killed her own children—who gave her life meaning and provided her with what little joy she found in an otherwise lonely life. Regardless of her illness, the verdict, and any facts that came to light after June 20 of 2001, Andrea Yates would never forgive herself.
In the aftermath of the shattering verdict, there was one idea that George and I could not let go of—there must be a way to avoid these tragedies in the future. There must be a way to educate and bring awareness to an oblivious public—the people who sit on our judicial benches and make up our juries, the new moms and dads bringing children into the world, medical practitioners who likely have never seen a case of this rare mental disorder in their careers.
Knowledge is power. The public has to be made aware that misdiagnosed and untreated mental illness was the culprit here—not mom.
We found our way to Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the Yates Children’s Memorial Fund (YCMF) was created. Our mission was “to raise awareness about postpartum illness for the benefit of mother, child, and family.” We flourished for some time in the greater Houston area and our list of milestones was impressive. We were also successful in having Andrea’s case reversed in the appellate process. We were granted a new trial—a second bite of the apple, so to speak.
We knew from the start of the second trial that the State could not seek the death penalty this time around, since it was rejected by the first jury. So, thankfully, that part of the trial was not in dispute. Almost five years had passed since the tragedy. YCMF had been circulating in the community and we truly believed that this time we would have a more aware, more educated jury pool. This trial was long, as the first was, but the difference was the amount of time the jury spent in deliberation. There was no hours-long rush to a verdict as there was the last time. The jurors took two and a half days to deliver a reasoned verdict: Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.
Wow. It worked! We did it!
Interestingly, Andrea hadn’t wanted us to try her case a second time. She had little recollection of the first trial due to her mental state at the time. Five years later, she was perfectly sound of mind and painfully aware, so that the presentation of all evidence, day in and day out, was bound to be very hard on her. (And it was.) But George convinced her. He helped her believe in herself, and that she was strong enough to do it. He also convinced her it would be worth it. All the work, learning, interviews, research, and planning that he had done over five years to prepare for this moment made him confident we would prevail this time around.
And he was right.
Andrea, of course, still suffers the loss of her children, the weight of which none of us who have not experienced such a thing can ever imagine. However, rather than languishing as a felon in prison, she is being well cared for in a clinical setting. She keeps as busy as she can and waits for the day when she will be reunited with her children.
Andrea has become our dear friend. As close as we are to her, George and I fully realize that, to Andrea, everyday life is a kind of living nightmare. But her faith, fortitude, and desire to be reunited with her babies keeps her going—keeps her alive.
But justice for one is not justice for all. We realized more and more that we needed to expand our efforts and advocate, educate, and engage on a broader scale. As if someone overheard our prayers, we were able to do just that, but in the strangest of ways.
Weather disasters are part of living in the Gulf Coast Region, and three years ago we were directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey. (The worst flooding Houston has ever seen.) As part of its aftermath, Mental Health America was moving in a different direction with post-Harvey grants. In other words, our funding dried up. YCMF lay virtually dormant. But Postpartum Support International (PSI) took up the reins and welcomed YCMF to its family as the PSI Yates Children Memorial Fund Justice and Advocacy Program. A mouthful, yes—but music to our ears. The direction has shifted a bit from YCMF’s first iteration, but the fit with PSI is indeed perfect.
The PSI Justice and Advocacy Program was developed out of the need to provide education and awareness of the plight of mothers who were implicated in the criminal justice system for infanticide or filicide. The goals of the program are to provide support to families and resources for professionals involved with cases concerning perinatal mental illness in the legal system. The list includes law enforcement, first responders, attorneys, maternal mental health expert witnesses, and psychiatric providers.
We’ve all heard it—tragedy begets change. But change is still too slow to suit me.
Andrea was not the first mother suffering from PPP to be unjustly convicted of murder, nor, unfortunately, was she the last. Twenty years later, the headlines keep coming and moms keep suffering and children are still victims. And yet, in spite of everything, we do believe our efforts have made a difference. But we have only scratched the surface of this problem in the US justice system, which falls far behind other developed nations in terms of its legal handling of maternal mental illness.
Until these tragedies become extinct, our work is not and will not ever be concluded.
We ask you to renew your commitment to make change—to educate—to reach out—to encourage—to shatter the awful stigma around mental health—and to speak up for change. We know so many who advocate for change in the world of maternal mental health have had their own experiences. And to all of you, we see you, we hear you, and we thank our lucky stars that you made your way to PSI and work to encourage and engage in our mission. We couldn’t do this work without you.
PSI provides support, resources and referrals for those who suffer from Postpartum Psychosis and other Perinatal Mental Health Disorders. If you want to learn more about Postpartum Psychosis, or need help for yourself or a loved one, you can find more information about symptoms and resources here or contact the PSI HelpLine at 800-944-4773.