Bereaved mother calls for changes to Mental Health Act

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

A WOMAN whose husband killed their two children before taking his own life has called for changes in legislation to make it mandatory for childcare services to carry out an assessment of risk to children when a parent presents suffering from mental illness.

Una Butler lost her daughters, Zoe (6) and Ella (2) when her husband John, who suffered from depression, killed both girls at the family home in Ballycotton, east Cork before taking his own life on November 16th, 2010.

Yesterday Ms Butler spoke of the devastation she had felt on learning of the tragedy and of her conviction that existing health guidelines needed to be changed to allow greater family involvement in the treatment of anyone suffering from mental illness.

“The legislation should be changed. When a patient arrives in to their GP or the hospital and say they’re suffering mentally, the first question should be asked: ‘are there children living at home?’.

“And if there are, the legislation should be changed [so] it’s mandatory that there’s somebody sent out to assess the risk [to] children living there,” she said.

Ms Butler said family involvement, such as including spouses or partners in the treatment process would also be a huge benefit not just to the patient but also to the medical professionals involved in their treatment.

Speaking to RTÉ, she recalled the morning she learned her 43-year-old husband had killed their daughters before ending his own life by crashing his car into a ditch in Ballycotton.

“To this day, I suppose, I’m still trying to accept what has happened – that Zoe and Ella, their lives were taken by their own father, who did suffer with depression,” she said.

Ms Butler had slept it out on the morning of the tragedy but her husband had woken her at 7.30am and she had put Zoe and Ella’s clothes on the radiators to warm them before she left for work in Cork city. “I thought he was a bit down in himself, but there was lots of days he was down in himself so I’d ring when I’d get to work, see if everything was all right. I got to work about ten to nine and I was ringing home and . . . his mobile and there wasn’t any answer.

“I rang his sister to ask would she invite him down for the day just to occupy him, really, when he was minding Ella – Zoe would have been going to school – and she rang back to say she wasn’t getting any answer from him either.”

She became uneasy and drove home to check on them. She thought perhaps John had taken Ella for a spin in the car but she was stopped by gardaí outside Midleton, telling her there had been a crash on the road ahead and that her brother was on the way down to meet her.

“My brother told me what had happened and I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “John . . . never harmed me physically or Zoe or Ella, ever. So I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”

Her world had been turned upside down. “Zoe and Ella were my life. Their future was wiped out. And all my hopes and dreams for them . . . it is [such] excruciating pain that sometimes I would have thoughts of suicide,” she said.“ . . . I will never forgive John for what he did to Zoe and Ella. A lot of the time I’m angry with him. But I’m also sad; I feel sad for him.

“I’m waking up to a living nightmare every day, and I don’t want anyone else to [suffer that] . . . Changes have to be made for the welfare of children; for the patient themselves.”

Minister of State with responsibility for mental health Kathleen Lynch said she expected an expert group tasked with examining possible changes to the 2001 Mental Health Act to report next March. Ms Lynch had met Ms Butler and forwarded her correspondence to the expert group and to the Mental Health Commission.

Also yesterday Ms Butler called on the Health Service Executive to open a public inquiry into its involvement with her late husband after an internal review of its actions found there were no shortcomings in the service it had provided. Ms Butler made the call in a statement issued by her solicitor, Ernest Cantillon.

“The report, carried out by the HSE into its own actions, concludes that there was no shortcoming on the part of the HSE in the service that it had provided. Una Butler strongly disagrees and believes that if there had been greater family involvement in the treatment of John, the outcome may well have been different,” said Mr Cantillon. The HSE was not commenting last night.