Andrea Yates

As I was going through one of my many lists that lay around my house with names of cases to look up at some point I came across Andrea Yates. I have been known from time to time to have names twice or not mark one off my list so when one pops up that I am surprised I have not blogged about yet I go back and double check, as I did with this one. Sure enough I found that I had not done this story yet. Part of me wondered why considering it is a high profile case that is still discussed often in the many groups that I am a member of around the Internet.  Then I reminded myself the controversy that still surrounds this case, some fifteen years later.  There are those who adamantly believe that Andrea Yates was of sound mind when she drowned her five children and is pure evil.  I believe the only thing that could change these peoples minds would be for them to experience life with a mentally disabled person (whether it be themselves or someone close to them) and deal with the mental health system.  Then of course there will always likely be those who claim that they have suffered from post-partum depression, as did Andrea, and they never had thoughts as she did.  It seems to me that so many of them forget Andrea's second diagnosis.... post-partum psychosis.  On the other hand there are a majority of people who blame Andrea's husband, Russell "Rusty" Yates and there have been many calls for him to be charged in the murders of his children.  While I agree at some level that some decisions he made in my opinion were unacceptable, again at another level we have to know again what it is like dealing with the mental health system.  

As a society we are quick to judge those who commit crimes.  Only on the rare occasion is a case cut and dry and as simply as it seems when the media first gets a hold of it and announces the crime and yet few, I agree including myself at times, seem to wait for the full story before passing judgement. While I am not a "blamer" per se and I am a huge advocate of criminals taking responsibility for their crimes, I am also a person that believes sometimes there are more people than just the one who committed the crime who are responsible, but too few feel that way.  I believe in cases such as this there are multiple people who hold some responsibility in the crime being committed.  In this case in particular I believe not only at least one of the doctors treating Andrea deserved to be looked at but the entire mental health (including insurance practices) were responsible.  And, yes as others are quick to say, her husband also.  Andrea Yates did not commit this crime without help, whether it was intentional or not. 

On the morning of June 20, 2001 just outside Houston Texas a 911 call was made.  The woman on the other line just kept telling the dispatcher that the police needed to come. Just after Russell "Rusty" Yates received a call at work from his wife, Andrea, urging him to come home.  She would not say why and hung up.  Just before leaving Rusty called Andrea back and in the midst of the conversation he asked if any of the children were hurt. She told him yes and when he asked who, she told him all of them.  When officers arrived at the Yates home they would find four bodies laying on the bed in the master bedroom.  They were the bodies of John (5), Paul (3), Luke (2) and Mary (6 months).  Inside the master bath they would find the floating body of seven year old Noah Yates.  Andrea Yates would be fully cooperative with the police but this case would bring questions not only about the mental health system but the way in which the justice system evaluates for sanity in cases.

Most states use what is called the M'Naughten Rule when it come to testing a defendant and their mental state at the time of the crime. There are many, including myself, that find this process to be too broad and broken.  Basically all the M'Naughten Rule determines is if a defendant knows the difference between right and wrong, and if they do know the difference then by this "rule" they are considered sane.  Now of course there are those (often called psychopaths in medical terms) who know the difference between right and wrong but simply do not care for their own evil emotions. Then there are those that would argue that those with mental issues, such as argued about Andrea, that they know what societies ideas of right and wrong are and know that to do something would cause them punishment by law but still do it, not because of any gain for themselves but because in their mind they are self sacrificing per se for someone else.  

When it came to Andrea's trial in March of 2002, every expert that testified at her trial, no matter the side in which they testified to agreed that she had mental health issues.  All agreed that she had suffered from post-partum depression and a major agreed that also included post-partum psychosis.  But, the problem still lied with the fact of whether she knew that drowning her children was wrong.  Prosecutors would argue that Andrea's call to 911 and the fact that she did not resist or argue any sort of arrest meant she knew that what she did was wrong by legal standards.  Her interviews after her arrest also indicated that she knew that drowning her children was wrong in the eyes of the law and while like many psychopaths, she did not care what the legal system thought, her reasoning was much different.  

It seems that Andrea had emotional issues for much of her life.  While she was highly intelligent, graduating as valedictorian of her high school class in 1982 and moving on to study nursing and become a RN, she was said to have been bulimic as a teenager and at the age of 17 was considering suicidal.  I could not determine if she was ever treated for these issues.  Andrea and Rusty would marry in 1993 and being raised in a Catholic household Andrea would often tell people they planned to have as many children as God would allow.  One thing that I could not find information on was whether Rusty knew prior to the marriage the mental issues (although most would consider to be minor at the time) Andrea had suffered with in the past.  I am sure some will say that it should not have mattered but I have to disagree. I cannot say just how Andrea's family handled her issues but it is common that many families dismiss these issues and find them to be unimportant or even shameful towards the family.  I do not wish to speak badly of a religion, however, as I understand it Andrea's family was very much involved in their faith and with my experience with what I call "old" Catholic's the issue of mental illness could be considered shameful and not discussed.  I have seen families that have hidden this from everyone they could, especially future spouses so when the issues would later arise not only is the spouse unprepared to deal with it, but also unaware there were issues in the past.  This does not necessarily excuse the reactions of the spouse and how they handle it or treat it but in the same respect they often have no idea how to handle something they never expected when others knew there was that possibility whether they admitted it to themselves or not. Despite all of this the year after their marriage Noah was born.  Soon after his birth the family moved to Florida for a few years where both John and Paul were born. It was also during this time that Andrea had suffered a miscarriage.  Not long after Paul's birth the family moved back to the Houston area.

Most agree that after the birth of Paul, Andrea seemed to change and probably had her first bout of post-partum depression but seemed to recover well.  After moving back to Houston the family first moved into a small trailer/motor home.  Apparently it was during this time that not only did Andrea become pregnant with Luke, but the family became associated with a traveling minister named Michael Woroniecki.  Some have called the followers of Woroniecki as cult like and many say it contributed to Andrea's issues.  Woroniecki practices what is called a Quiverfull Lifestyle.  The Quiverfull Lifestyle, as it is called, concentrates on the fact that children are "Blessings from God" and that basically parenting is the ultimate goal in life.  They promote home schooling children and all but living "off the grid" but most importantly they promote procreation and abstaining from any type of birth control.  Apparently at some point both Andrea and Rusty were very much into the teachings of Woroniecki but almost everyone has said that while Rusty had his own reservations in some areas that it was Andrea who seemed to take his teachings to the extreme.  Most believe this was due to her already fragile mental state.  It was during this time that Woroniecki sold the Yates family a bus that had been converted into a living space and Andrea had begun to home school Noah.  

In February of 1999, while living in the bus, Andrea gave birth to Luke.  It was soon after that Andrea's mental stability, or the lack there of, began to really come to the surface.  In June of 1999 she was placed in the hospital after attempting suicide with pills.  The hospital put her on an anti-depressant.  She was sent home after just a few days but things got worse when she held a knife to her throat once again threatening suicide.  She was hospitalized again and placed on Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication.  The following month she had two more hospital visits and she was officially diagnosed with post-partum psychosis.  Her doctor, Eileen Starbranch, urged the Yates not to have any more children due to the facts that a) the medication seemed to be working and b) the medication could be harmful to a fetus if pregnant so it was not recommended for pregnant women which would have all but required she stop taking it.  There is much dispute on just how much influence Rusty had on Andrea when it came to their decision to have more children.  He has been given a lot of criticism for not just allowing Andrea to stop the medication that seemed to be working but also in pushing her to have more children after a doctor recommended that she not.  While I do not necessarily support this decision from Rusty I do think it was his lack of understanding of mental illness, as well as Andrea's specific illness and how it affected her (as it affects everyone differently), that made these decisions to seem rational to him. Oftentimes people who are mentally ill are good at convincing others they can handle their illness and will take the precautions needed if they feel something is going astray.  They are often able to do this so easily because they, themselves, truly believe what they are saying. But, far too often fear, or lack of true knowledge prevents them from keeping control.  In this particular case Andrea and Rusty had said from the beginning of their marriage that they would have as many children "as God would allow" and I find it reasonable that Rusty would not only believe Andrea that she had things under control but truly want to believe that because then for him things could go back to how they used to be.  Please do not think that I believe his naivety was a pass for making the decisions that he made but I do understand it more than some.  Sometimes it takes others years to see the early signs of a breakdown in others, and even still, the way the system works people cannot be forced into treatment until they have gotten to the point where they literally cannot make decisions on their own.

To put this case in a bit more of a perspective, the fact that Andrea had been diagnosed with a mental illness would not have alerted authorities that her children could be in danger. If for instance CPS had been notified the fact that Andrea had a mental illness would not have been enough to say take the children.  Even when she stopped taking her medication against doctors recommendations could they have simply stepped in and taken the children. Now if little signs of things, such as lets say one of the children got out of the home and began wandering had occurred, although it is unlikely that they would remove the children, they could have possibly gotten a court order to have her resume her medication in order to retain custody of her children.  But then again, first off in this case there did not seem to be any little things occurring that would have even made the authorities be on alert.  Even if Rusty would have taken some of her smaller comments and actions more seriously and sought professional help in what others to believe a faster manner, the system likely would have not helped.  It is not until someone fully has a complete breakdown of reality that you can often get anything done.  I have seen this first hand.  I have a family member who is mentally ill and takes medication.  She has particular signs when she is preparing to have a breakdown.  They include twirling her hair between her fingers and licking her lips. To ask her what is wrong is pointless because she denies there is an issue.  To point out her signs does not do any good.  I have been present when this woman has been taken to the hospital and been told while they know there is an issue, as well as know she is lying to them about her condition, there was nothing they could do. Every time this has been done we would have to wait at least another 24 hours as her condition deteriorated before professional help could be gotten.  This is not just a regional issue family members have with the mental health community, this is an issue all over the country with the system.  

At any rate in November of 1999, Andrea stopped taking her medications because she and Rusty had decided to try for another child.  She did not inform Dr. Starbranch of this decision until the following May.  Andrea and Rusty's fifth child, and only girl, Mary, was born November 30, 2000. It seems that Andrea went back on medication sometime soon after, taking both her anti-depressant as well as the Haldol.  I cannot say how this was done and under whose care in which it was done, possibly still under Dr. Starbranch. Adding to all of this, Andrea's father had died in March of 2001, which most consider a catalyst of her mental breakdown.  By April Andrea was having more issues again.  This time she was placed in the hospital again for the customary ten days that is appears her insurance allowed and under the care of Dr. Mohammed Saeed.  It was under his care that he decided that Andrea did not need the Haldol and apparently by June 4th he began weening her off. But before that she was hospitalized again in May, this time in a near catatonic state.  She would tell the police after her arrest that it was just before this hospitalization that she had ran a bath for the first time and had planned on drowning the children but had changed her mind.  

Dr. Saeed would later say that he recommended that Andrea be supervised 24/7 and not be left alone with the children.  It would be Rusty's argument, as well as that of Andrea's family that Dr. Saeed's refusal to place Andrea back on Haldol as requested by Rusty, as well as the fact that he had increased her dosage of her anti-depressant to nearly twice the recommended dose, and the combination of drugs he prescribed that did more harm to Andrea's mental health and contributed to her decisions the following month.  Seeing as I personally have dealt with these types of doctors I lean towards believing the family in their ideas.  I have personally been told by a doctor that my mentally ill family member was "not bad enough for the hospital" but should not be left alone, just as it seems Saeed told the Yates family.  Rusty has argued that he pushed for Andrea not to be released from the hospital after her last visit but claims that Saeed, despite his recommendation not to leave her alone and issue with the insurance company insisted she would be fine.

As I stated earlier it was on June 4th that Saeed began to ween Andrea off of the Haldol. Apparently this decision was made because Andrea had assured him that she was not have psychotic issues or suicidal.  This is another common occurrence dealing with the mentally ill and those who are supposedly trained to treat them.  From the outside it appears that doctors do not consider that the patient is no longer having the issues because the medication is working, or as I stated earlier, know the patient is not telling the truth and yet still treat them as if they are.  I know in my experience with my family member my husband and I requested a meeting with a doctor once, asking that the patient not be there so we could ask some questions yet we were not given a doctor, we were given a social worker, and the patient was in fact at the meeting.  One of the questions was based on the fact we had been told that at some point she would not be able to live alone and we wanted to know if we were to that point yet.  The social worker literally asked the family member if she thought she could live alone, despite our insistence that she would lie in order to keep independence, and after she stated that she felt she could the social worker simply said "Well she thinks she can" and it was left at that.  This was not an isolated incident for us or with one particular facility.  This has been the overwhelming behavior of several different doctors, therapists, and facilities that we have dealt with in the course of over 20 years. So whether Rusty advocated to keep his wife in the hospital or not really matters little because regardless the out come would have been her release, as well as the removal of the Haldol. The last time Saeed would see Andrea was June 18th, two days before the murders.

Sometime around this time Rusty's mother had come to visit.  Initially it was to be a short visit but seeing Andrea and her issues she decided to stay longer but she did not stay at the Yates home, she stayed at a nearby hotel that allowed long term stays.  According to Rusty, who argues that Dr. Saeed did not tell him Andrea should not be alone with the children it had been decided that Rusty's mother would come to the home one hour after Rusty left for work.  It also seems that Rusty's mother would leave one hour before Rusty arrived home from work, giving Andrea one hour in the morning and one in the evening to be independent for herself, as well as care for her children.  Andrea's brother would later tell Larry King on his syndicated show that Rusty had told him sometime in 2001 that all depressed people needed was a "swift kick in the pants" to motivate them.  Whether this was true or not is unknown, but to be fair it is often the thoughts of some people.  But again, I cannot say that it was actually said but I question where Andrea's family was during this whole time and often feel that if we are going to place a tremendous amount of blame on Rusty for his actions or in-actions, then there more blame, small or large, to go around to include other family members also.  It always seem so easy for someone to place blame rather than accept it, present company included at times.  

On the morning of June 20th, just after Rusty left for work apparently, and before his mother was to arrive at the home Andrea filled the master bathroom tub with water. She then started drowning each of her three middle children, Luke, Paul and John.  After she had drowned each of them she laid them on her bed.  She then went and got six month only Mary and did the same, only this time she left her in the tub before she went to retrieve Noah.  Seeing as he was the oldest, at seven years old, Noah was the biggest challenge. She would later say that when Noah saw Mary's body still in the tub (did he not see the others on the bed ??) he would run away to which Andrea chased him.  After drowning him also she then took Mary's body and placed it next to her brothers on the bed, leaving Noah in the tub.  

So what was her reasons?  She told investigators after her arrest that she was a bad mother and that she was certain (everyone believes this came from her teachings through Michael Woroniecki) that her children would grow up and die only to go to hell because they had a bad mother.  In her mind she was saving them from being subjected to her throughout their lives and again, in her mind, sending them to Heaven to be saved.  Now as ludicrous as this sounds to most of us, I believe, and so do many others, this is what she truly believed.  In her mind she was killing her children to save them.  This is where that notorious M'Naughten Rule comes in.  Andrea knew that in the eyes of the law drowning her children was wrong and that the legal community would expect her to be punished.  She even apparently understood that the ultimate punish could have been her own death but she was ok with that because she believed any punishment she received would be just, not only in the eyes of the legal system for what they called murder, but also because she was a "bad mother." But, for her it meant the "saving" of her children and for her that far outweighed any punishment she would receive.  

Prosecutors obviously did not believe her despite even their own experts admitting that Andrea was mentally ill.  For prosecutors it only mattered how the law saw it.  To that end they decided to charge Andrea only with the deaths of Noah, John and Mary.  It was said that they saved the charges in the deaths of Luke and Paul in case she was found not guilty at trial.  In March of 2002 the jury found her guilty but instead of recommending a death sentence as prosecutors were hoping for they recommended life in prison with parole after forty years.  In January of 2005 an appeals court reversed this decision. That decision was in part made by the fact that a psychiatrist for the prosecution, Park Dietz, later admitted giving false testimony at her trial.  Dietz was well known and has testified in many high profile trials including those of John Hinckley Jr. and Jeffrey Dahmer among others. At Andrea's trial Dietz would testify that Andrea was an avid watcher of the show Law & Order and that not long before her trial an episode had aired in which a woman drowned her children and then was acquitted by reason of insanity at her trial.  It was quickly learned that not only had no such episode aired near the timing of the deaths, but in fact, no such episode even existed, ever.  The negative mark on his reputation cause prosecutors to decide not to call him themselves as an expert witness.  In July of 2006 after a retrial a new jury found Andrea not guilty by reason of insanity.  She was then committed to a high security mental health facility in Vernon Texas.  By the following January she was moved to a low security facility in Kerrville Texas where she remains today.  

Rusty apparently filed for divorce in 2004 and it was granted but he still speaks highly of his ex wife and advocates for her release and for changes in the mental health system.  He was once asked if he forgives her and he stated that would indicate that he ever blamed her. He stated that he blames her illness and the substandard care more than Andrea herself. Andrea's lawyers foresee her spending the rest of her life in a facility.  It is said that she spends her time watching videos of her children and doing crafts such as aprons and cards that are sold anonymously.  The money made is given to the Yates Children Memorial Fund that helps in the area of women's mental health issues.  Along with the criticism he has received for his decisions and actions prior to the deaths of his five children, Rusty was also later criticized for not just divorcing Andrea but in 2008 he had a child with his second wife. I disagree with much of the criticism and just hope that he learned lessons when it came to mental illness and what can really happen.


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