One Friday morning in June 1992, six-week-old Nakya Scott woke up in an apartment in southeast Washington, D.C., and began to cry. Nakya's mother, 19- year-old Latrena Pixley, gave the girl a drink of water, but the crying continued. Frustrated, Pixley put the baby back into her crib. As Pixley later told police, "This is when I put the blanket over her face. I just killed her."
In fact, it wasn't that simple. Nakya Scott's murder took a long time. While her 2-year-old son played with his toys in the other room, Pixley smothered the girl for half an hour, pulling the blanket away periodically, then pressing it down again on the child's face. Autopsy photos show Nakya's lips mashed against her gums from the force of her mother's hand.
Once she finished killing her daughter, Pixley stuffed the little girl's body into a plastic trash bag, threw it into a dumpster outside her apartment building, and went back upstairs to sit in her bedroom. Her boyfriend (who is not Nakya's father) came home that afternoon. The two had dinner, then went to a relative's house to play cards. They stayed until after 2:00 a.m.
The next morning, Pixley had breakfast and watched television. Sometime before noon she woke her sleeping boyfriend and told him what she had done to the baby. Pixley's boyfriend checked the dumpster. "I can't believe that you did that," he said when he returned. Then he called the police.
Much has been written about what happened next. The following June, Pixley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Judge George W. Mitchell of the D.C. Superior Court sentenced her to probation and ordered her to spend weekends in the city jail for three years. A few months later, Mitchell reduced Pixley's jail time, and she took a clerical job at a vocational training center in Washington. In the spring of 1995, it was discovered that Pixley had been stealing Social Security numbers from office personnel files, applying for credit cards in the names of co-workers, and using the cards to buy VCRs and stereo equipment. Pixley was fired and later convicted in federal court of mail fraud. But she had no problem landing a new job. (Nor did her mood seem darkened by her brushes with the law. In July 1995, she wrote a bubbly fan letter to Ebony magazine praising Aretha Franklin. "I have her whole collection of music on tapes and CDs," said Pixley. "I sing them all the time. Aretha, keep up the good work and keep singing. I love it." ) Jerome Miller, the head of the city's child welfare agency, hired Pixley as a receptionist in his office. "This agency is about offering care, concern, and help," Miller said.
In January 1996, Pixley had another child, Cornelious, her fourth by four boyfriends. (Pixley's oldest child, now 8, has lived with relatives since infancy; the second, the boy who was playing when Pixley killed Nakya, is in a foster home.) Pixley might have drifted off into obscurity from there, had she not been interviewed that month by a local television reporter doing a story about young mothers on welfare. The story that aired said nothing about Pixley's murder conviction. But it did catch the attention of an assistant U. S. attorney who remembered Pixley and was infuriated to see her on television with another child. A brief media storm followed, during which Pixley's creditcard scam was reported in the papers. Before long, Pixley wound up back in George Mitchell's court for violating the terms of her probation.
Under heightened public scrutiny, Mitchell sent Pixley back to jail in May, only to release her eight months later to a group home in Washington called Hannah House. Pixley, however, never bothered to show up at Hannah House, and the judge was forced to send her back to the lockup. He released her for good in November 1997.
During her time behind bars, Pixley left Cornelious with a casual acquaintance, a 25-year-old intern at the Public Defenders Service named Laura Blankman. Blankman, who is now a police trainee in the Washington suburbs, has cared for the boy, at her own expense, since he was four months old. Eventually, she filed papers to adopt him. Pixley accused Blankman of trying to "steal" Cornelious and challenged the adoption in court. In December, Michael D. Mason, a circuit-court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland, awarded full custody of the child to Pixley, explaining that Cornelious would be best off in a black household (Blankman is white) and in the care of his biological mother.
Judge Mason's decision made the front page of the Washington Post and was widely denounced as outrageous. Laura Blankman is appealing the decision, partly on grounds that there is no evidence that trans-racial adoption harms children. Cornelious, now a 2-year-old, is scheduled to be returned to his mother in a matter of weeks.
How did a child-killer wind up with custody of another child? The answer begins with a group of psychiatric experts who have worked on Pixley's behalf since her first arrest. Asked by homicide detectives the day after the killing why she had murdered her daughter, Pixley answered, "I don't know." (Nor did she know how old her daughter was when she was killed.) By the time Pixley was sentenced a year later, an explanation emerged. Latrena Pixley, her lawyer argued, had been suffering from postpartum depression. The most severe, and rare, form of postpartum depression can result in psychotic episodes, during which a new mother experiences hallucinations. Had Pixley been afflicted with postpartum psychosis, she might plausibly have pleaded insanity. She might also have wound up in a mental institution.
Instead, Pixley's court-appointed lawyer argued that her client had been pushed into killing her child by a combination of economic desperation and a form of non-psychotic depression linked to giving birth. The diagnosis never got much more specific than that, nor could various experts even agree on what the diagnosis was. In a subsequent hearing, at least one therapist testified that Pixley suffered from "post-traumatic stress." But that was enough for Mitchell. At sentencing, Mitchell said that he had special sympathy for Pixley, who, not being "some high-class society woman," had been unable to mount a sophisticated defense. "People understand those psychological phenomenons in high-level people, but it becomes ununderstandable in a poor person sometimes," explained the judge, who is head of the D.C. Superior Court's family division. "I don't want to be victimized by that kind of thinking."
Actually, the public defenders who represented Pixley assembled a team of court-savvy psychiatric experts that would have been the envy of many rich criminals. One of the first experts Pixley's lawyers hired, for instance, was Dr. Nuha Abudabbeh, a forensic psychologist well known for her "stress disorder" defenses of accused murderers. Abudabbeh's evaluation of Pixley was not made public, though in a recent interview she described her perceptions of the defendant. "This was not a child murderer," Abudabbeh says, but instead a woman who acted "under duress, under certain conditions. This was a baby she didn't even want. Her boyfriend made her keep the baby. She ended up having to take care of this child. You have to weigh all of these circumstances." Plus, Abudabbeh says, the murder "was understandable because [Pixley] was mentally ill."
The mental-illness defense worked well enough initially, but it presented an obvious difficulty later when Pixley tried to convince Mitchell that she should be released from jail to take care of Cornelious. In the spring of 1995, Pixley was arrested for physically assaulting her boyfriend. In May 1996, a psychological evaluation determined that Pixley still had difficulty managing her anger. Pixley's lawyers were forced to explain how and when her violence problem had been solved. In addition, there was the question of the fraudulent credit cards -- was that the result of depression, too?
Pixley's excuses began to get tangled in one another. "Suffice it to say that I declined to be involved in the second case," says Carol Kleinman, a Washington psychiatrist who has testified in a number of cases related to postpartum depression, and who first diagnosed Pixley as having the disorder. Stealing money, says Kleinman, "is not part of postpartum depression." Moreover, she says, "I found some of [Pixley's] behavior outrageous, beyond the postpartum business. I felt I had reached my limit. It was just enough for me."
Ever resourceful, Pixley's public defenders turned to a Yale-trained psychiatrist named Susan Fiester for help. Fiester had become famous in 1994 during the Lorena Bobbitt trial, when, in gripping televised testimony, she argued that years of abuse and "poor self-esteem" had led Mrs. Bobbitt to " attack the instrument that was the weapon of her torture -- that is, her husband's penis." At various times, Dr. Fiester has described herself as an expert on premenstrual syndrome, and on the "epidemic of nicotine addiction among women." In Pixley's case, Fiester testified as an authority on postpartum depression.
At a hearing in January 1997, Fiester testified that Latrena Pixley was now perfectly sane. Fiester then gave her definition of postpartum depression: " Postpartum depression in and of itself is often thought to be a fairly biologically based disorder that's related to, to at least in part some of the significant hormonal changes that women go through during the postpartum period. . . . So there may be an independent sort of biological piece and also some pieces in the social environment that can affect the, you know, whether the disorder occurs or not and make it worse in essence."
In other words, no one is sure exactly what postpartum depression is. Nevertheless, after evaluating Latrena Pixley for less than a day, and performing no psychological testing, Fiester produced a diagnosis. "It's my professional opinion," she testified, "based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that she is not currently a danger to herself or others, and that specifically that she would not be in any danger of harming children, either her own or other people's children, were she to reside in the community." Pixley, Fiester added, has "worked on improving her self-esteem."
It was an authoritative performance. Outside the courtroom, however, Fiester's "medical certainty" doesn't seem quite so certain. Asked if Pixley's son will be safe once he and his mother move into their own apartment, Fiester admits she doesn't know. "I'm giving my opinion about this point in time," she says. "If you want my opinion about what happens two years from now, I'd have to see her again and see how things went when she was in the transitional housing facility. Assuming things go well and there's no problem, I don't think [the child] would be at high risk."
What happens to Cornelious two years from now hardly seems the most pressing issue on Fiester's mind. But she is happy to reel off a list of the programs she has appeared on recently to talk about the Pixley case: "The Today Show, CNN, Talk Back Live. I've been on radio, WTOP, Channel Four, NBC News." Going on television, Fiester explains, has given her "an opportunity to educate the public about psychiatric issues as relevant to criminal stuff and about these disorders: How frequently they occur, how serious they are, and what they can lead to." How frequently do they occur? Fiester pauses, then admits she isn't sure. "Call the American Psychiatric Association," she suggests.
Fiester and her fellow therapists are easy to mock, but they had a profound effect on Judge Mitchell, who often seemed lost in the fog emitted by Pixley's hired shrinks. At one May 1996 hearing, the judge explained to Pixley why he had been so lenient with her: "I tried to understand the drama that the -- your life had been very bad. You had gone through the kind of crisis that would cause a person to do things, and your mind get warped, and you get depressed, you get down, you get oppressed and you do things."
Even with a roomful of helpful experts, Mitchell never appeared to fully understand what was going on in his court. Years after he ruled in the Nakya Scott murder, the judge was still wondering why Pixley had killed her daughter. "I don't know why these women put these children in these trash bags," he grumbled. "That's a phenomenon that I would like to understand." At one point, he turned to Pixley's lawyer for illumination. "But how," the judge asked, "does one, how does one come to kill -- the basic nature, as I understand it, of, of the, of the -- even the syndrome that they described derives itself out of being a woman -- how does she come to kill her child? That's what is my first hard thing to overcome. And I, obviously, at some point I decided that I would accept certain propositions about this postpartum syndrome."
And not just postpartum syndrome. Mitchell seemed open to just about any theory Pixley's therapists felt like tossing out. In January 1997, the judge interrupted Susan Fiester in the middle of her testimony to ask a question: " Is there any punishment, if you will, from a societal point of view in the nature of the crime itself, that is the killing of one's child, of one's own child, is there, is there a form of punishment that comes about as a result of being involved in that wherever you be? Whether you be in prison or you be on, in the community?"
An ordinary witness might have asked Mitchell to repeat the question. But Fiester didn't miss a beat. "Yes, your honor," she answered. Killing one's own child "is, I think, one of the most severe sorts of internal punishment that any woman can have to live with. . . . I think society at times takes a very simple sort of punitive view toward it and lacks an understanding of some of the underlying factors that can be involved " Mitchell was sold. Before letting Pixley out of jail yet again, he speculated aloud about the nature of baby killing: "Isn't that the kind of crime, isn't that the kind of crime that has a punishment in it itself?."
The assistant U.S. attorney on the case, Deborah Sines, countered Fiester's testimony with an eloquent plea that Pixley be kept away from her children. Sines pointed out that one of Pixley's older sons had been assessed by a psychiatrist and found to be "an extremely psychologically messed up little kid."
The judge was unmoved. At a final hearing in late January 1997, Mitchell concluded that "it would be in the best interest of the youngest child that this mother continue the bonding process that she has started with this baby," and he let Pixley out of jail so the two could be reunited. Even before he came to his decision, however, the judge explained that there was little he could do to keep Latrena Pixley from her son. "The law in this area works towards reunification of mothers and families if at all possible. As a matter of fact," Mitchell said, "our Court of Appeals seems to put its fingers, its hands down on judges who even consider taking children from drug-abusing mothers, and you are likely to be reversed as the trial judge if you start taking babies from mothers who have a little drug problem, as they say."
Latrena Pixley doesn't have a drug problem, but Judge Mitchell was right about one thing: Thanks to the philosophy of "family reunification," enshrined in federal law since 1980, it is frequently next to impossible for the state to take children away from their biological mothers, no matter what those mothers do or have done Consider another case: that of Mahala Irene Page.
On the same day in 1992 that Latrena Pixley was being arraigned in Washington for her daughter's death, police less than 20 miles away, in Prince George's County, Md., were in the process of charging a woman named Mahala Irene Page with a similar crime. Firemen responding to a call at Page's house in suburban Forest Heights had arrived to find Page standing in the doorway of a second-floor bathroom. Behind her, according to the police report, a fireman "noticed a placenta on the floor and an umbilical cord leading to the toilet. Inside the toilet was a baby wedged in the water canal. Applying pressure to the skull, the baby was extracted." Doctors later determined that the child, a boy, had been under water for 25 minutes. There was evidence that Page had attempted to flush him down the toilet "The defendant also stated she had touched the infant and saw movement," says the report, but gave him "no assistance."
Rushed to the hospital, the boy survived. A grand jury indicted Page for assault with attempt to murder, and four other felonies. Page's only explanation for her behavior was that she had not known she was pregnant. The boy, however, was close to full term at birth; Page is 5'1" and normally weighs 125 pounds. It seemed like a sure conviction. Then, in April 1993, a county circuit court judge, Audrey Melbourne, inexplicably let Page off. She received 21 days in jail for second-degree child abuse (all of which she had already served), two years of probation, and was ordered to attend parenting classes.
According to her lawyer, Page completed the parenting classes and " initiated therapy" at the local department of social services. Yet it was obvious that Page still wasn't equipped to handle the demands of motherhood. A confidential state psychiatric evaluation conducted in July 1993 suggested that Page remained mentally unstable. Her "prognosis," the report concluded, was "poor to guarded." Subsequent events confirmed the diagnosis. In 1995, Page, who was and is unemployed, was rearrested and jailed for failing to pay less than $ 100 in court costs.
Nevertheless, Page was allowed to keep her children. According to court documents filed by her lawyer, by early June 1993, less than two months after she was convicted of child abuse, Page had custody on weekends of the child she abused "with the hope of one day attaining full custody of that child." Some time after that, Page did indeed get full custody. Most records pertaining to juveniles are hidden from public view, so it's not clear when or why Page's son was returned to her. "I wouldn't give you the information if we had it," says Karen Lynch, acting director of the Prince George's County social-services department. Reached at her home last week, however, Page confirmed that all three of her children, including the son she left in the toilet, live with her, and have for years.
How did this happen? County officials don't know or won't say. Ron Povich, who oversees foster care and adoptions in Prince George's County, says he has never heard of Mahala Page, but he does concede that it is not uncommon for children to be returned to parents who have abused them. The federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 requires that before placing a child in foster care, state agencies make "reasonable efforts" to "prevent or eliminate the need for removal of the child from his home, and to make it possible for the child to return to his home." The statute has been modified in the years since it became law, but in most states it is still interpreted strictly.
Before attempting to place a child in an adoptive home, Povich says, social workers in Prince George's County are required to prove they have done everything possible to make the negligent mother a better parent. It's a difficult standard to meet. To unfit parents who insist on keeping their kids, Povich's agency offers daycare, therapy, counseling, and subsidized housing. "In some situations," he says, "we've transported the parents to and from therapy sessions, to and from different types of treatment. We even have some funds to purchase supplies for families -- bedding, clothing, things of that nature."
And Povich's agency is not unusually generous by the standards of other states. Several years ago, a Rhode Island couple beat their young daughter so badly that by the time the girl was placed in foster care, she had suffered severe brain damage. Yet even when the couple's younger son began showing signs of neglect, the state's child-protection agency did not remove him from the home. Instead, according to Richard Gelles, a child-welfare researcher who has written a book on the case, social workers simply made arrangements to provide the family with a housekeeper to allow the mother to get out more often. The boy was murdered by his parents soon after.
Defenders of family reunification argue that a few well-publicized tragedies don't by themselves warrant wholesale changes to the country's child-welfare system, and they have a point. Making strong efforts to reunify families isn't a bad idea. Most of the time it's probably the right thing to do. Even abused children generally want to live with their biological parents. And the state should always hesitate before removing a child from his home. The problem is that many parents take a long time to straighten out. Others will never be capable of raising children. How long should children wait -- in foster care or in dangerous circumstances at home -- before their biological parents are fit to take care of them?
It's a question responsible social-service agencies have asked for a long time. Or did. Increasingly, the theology of family reunification allows therapists and social workers to avoid making such difficult judgments. If a child is always better off living with the woman who bore him, then any biological parent is a potentially good parent. Even Latrena Pixley.
Nuha Abudabbeh agrees wholeheartedly. "Of course" a mother who has murdered one child could be a good parent to her other children, says Abudabbeh, one of Pixley's many psychologists. "People are always assuming that because a person is mentally ill or has been incarcerated, she can't be a good mother," Abudabbeh complains. "There are schizophrenic mothers who could be very good mothers. Who decides what's a good mother?"
As it turns out, sometimes nobody does.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.