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Despite the depth of the tragedy, there was a sense of relief associated with the aftermath to the recent asphyxiation death of three-year-old Olive Woo Murphy at the hands of her mother in a botched suicide attempt.
For one thing, Mayor Newsom didn't rush to tell television cameras how sickened he was, as he did the last time an unhinged mother made local news killing offspring. That was when Lashaun Harris threw her three little sons to their deaths off Pier 7 last October. Bloggers didn't find cause for comments such as "kill the bitch" as they did with Harris. Bill O'Reilly didn't weigh in, as he did twice regarding the murders. District Attorney Kamala Harris didn't gain toughness points for raising the specter of the death penalty, as was the case with Harris. With little Olive, anti-death-penalty opponents had no cause to rally around, like they have with Harris.
On March 29 Olive's mother, Linda Woo, brought her two children and a portable barbecue into a Subaru Outback at their Ingleside home. When a neighbor found them, Olive was dead from the barbecue's fumes. Her brother Carter, 4, was unconscious. Woo was still awake. She had reportedly been distraught over a recent separation from her husband. The resulting murder and attempted murder charges carry 25 years to life.
Instead of the spinnable narrative of the Lashaun Harris tragedy, we have an incident too prosaic for prime time: a dead little girl, her bewildered brother, a grieving father, family, and friends, and a sad, sad woman in General Hospital's jail ward who was somehow driven to do an incomprehensibly horrible thing.
It was just a banal casualty of mental illness, child-rearing stress, and personal isolation, in which the criminal justice system was the first to arrive at the scene. It was an extreme example of the desperation a lot of mothers face, feelings that the rest of us can do more to ease.
A jury will soon attempt to fathom what Linda Woo's demented thoughts were when she killed little Olive. So there's no point doing that now. We're merely left pondering whether, or when, there will be a next time, and if we're doing enough for children and their caregivers, and for people struggling, or who appear as if they might be struggling, with depression or other mental illness. We're left looking around us at a city that, despite its plethora of playgrounds, programs, and beautiful places for children to live, can be a lonely, stressful, even anguishing place for a mother. If you know one, this might be a good week to ask how she's doing, and listen. Ask if she needs any help. Then follow through if she does.
In advance of Mother's Day, which comes a month from now, perhaps we could honor Olive Murphy's death with a week in which we gently, helpfully, conscientiously, meddle in the affairs of a San Francisco mother.
"Telling someone you care, and that you're interested," said Alan Fox, director of Safe Start, the city's anti-child-abuse program. "That's the best intervention."
I first heard about Olive Murphy, a small, beautiful girl with dark, wavy hair, a few months ago, when my daughter Olivia mentioned her name in her nightly recounting of the day's adventures at preschool. I told Olivia her playmate had nearly the same name she did.
"No she doesn't," Olivia said, asserting a three-year-old's possessiveness.
I learned Olive was murdered the morning after she was asphyxiated, when my wife called sobbing from Olivia's preschool. I found myself resisting an urge to angrily bang the telephone receiver on the table. The idea of murdering children really isviscerally infuriating when you're made to digest it.
I had coincidentally flown into San Francisco four days earlier after visiting a loved one who'd recently attempted suicide. I'd spent a week of afternoons playing with that woman's four-year-old daughter, who is beautiful and petite, with short dark hair.
The morning after Olive died, a good portion of the 50 or so parents whose children attend our preschool stayed for a while, irrationally concerned that something bad might also happen to their children. Many, I was told, slept that night beside their three- and four-year-olds. Teachers pressed through the day near tears, finding it hard not to focus on memories of Olive.
That afternoon, when I picked up Olivia, the school had arranged to have a grief counselor waiting. I found this to be a helpful gesture, despite the fact it gave my daughter an opportunity to boast. Some adults had gone off with the counselor to the preschool's purple-walled room to talk and weep, "but I didn't cry," Olivia bragged, making me think how nice it is that three-year-olds needn't yet comprehend such horror.
A couple days later parents gathered at the preschool for a meeting with counselors. Many were of the same mind I was when I felt the urge to break the telephone receiver. One of the crisis counselors said that mothers who kill their children don't stop loving them, but instead enter a tunnel of twisted thinking that defines serious mental illness. "They feel they're doing the best thing for everybody when they do this," said Kathy Baxter, coordinator of San Francisco's Child Abuse Council, when I spoke with her later.
At the meeting, one mother spoke up to say she'd had similar thoughts herself a year or so ago. She described how she mentioned this to a friend, the friend took her to get help, and she's under care, feeling better. And her kids are well and safe, too.
"It's somewhat surprising that we don't have more children being seriously injured and dying," Baxter said. "The stresses on parents are so high, and so great across the board. I think many parents suffer in silence."
Added Belinda Lyons, executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco: "We tend to deal with mental illness when people have fallen through the cracks."
Like everywhere, San Francisco's system of caring for the mentally ill is notoriously inadequate. And in San Francisco, like other cities, it's easy to become isolated. Neighbors here don't know each other. Families with children are becoming scarcer by the year as parents move out of the city, and thus increasingly less a subject of popular concern.
But as with so many things in San Francisco civic life, there is actually a lot going on in this city to make things easier for caregivers and their children. Proposition 82 on this summer's ballot would direct funds to preschool programs for four-year-olds. An initiative in 2004 taxed millionaires 1 percent with the money directed toward mental health programs, though advocates here say funds were distributed unfairly between counties. Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a San Francisco-based political organization aimed at improving children's lot held a rally Saturday demanding more government programs designed to make it easier for families to stay in the city. There's clearly generalized sympathy here for the idea of helping families. There are good ways to channel that sympathy into specific action, experts I spoke to say.
People who know a child they fear may be in danger can call 415-565-SAVE, the city's hotline for suspected child abuse.
The nonprofit San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center has a hotline, 415-441-KIDS, where stressed-out or otherwise isolated, overburdened, or troubled parents can call for support, information, and referrals to other family support organizations. The Child Abuse Council also hosts a drop-in center in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood where a parent in the middle of a crisis, or otherwise in need of a break, can rest a little as kids play in a child-care center. Parents can also avail themselves of counseling and other services, or sign up for any of a series of groups and workshops aimed at keeping parents sane. The center has a list of services at www.talklineforparents.org.
It's often true, however, that the most anguished parents don't get hooked up with the right help. People who thought they knew Olive Murphy and Linda Woo well, for example, say they had no inkling of the mother's mind frame."There's a really big disconnect between people doing the work to support families and prevent violence, and people not getting help, not knowing it's there," said Fox.
In Fox's view, the best way to prevent tragedies such as Olive's death, or to simply ease the mental suffering of a troubled parent, is to butt in. Try to make yourself an adult presence in the lives of children you know. Talk to parents. Ask how they're doing. And listen, carefully, Fox advises.
"The rest of us have to bear some responsibility," he said. "When someone thinks they have someone who cares, someone to talk to, that connection turns the irrationality down. When somebody says, 'Gee, maybe I can watch your kid for an hour. How about I drop your kid off at the playground?' That little stress relief can make all the difference."
A citywide pre-Mother's Day uptick in this sort of subtle rescuing might be a bit too mundane to become fodder for prime-time hyperbole. But as wrenching for many people as Olive Murphy's death may have been, I still think such a result would be kind of nice.