Full analyses of Folbigg diaries show “maternal grief”

This article contains subject matter some readers may find distressing. If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. Red Nose Australia provides 24/7 bereavement and counselling services for those affected by the loss of a child on 1300 308 307.

Experts have assessed the entirety of Kathleen Folbigg’s diaries in the inquiry into her conviction and found no suggestion of an intent to kill any of her children.

While the inquiry was triggered by new research into the Folbigg genome, presiding judicial officer Tom Bathurst is reviewing elements of the original trial, including forensic assessments, and the diaries, police transcripts and interviews with Folbigg.

The prosecution at Folbigg’s trial relied on specific diary entries being interpreted as “virtual admissions” to prove her guilt. She was convicted for the murder of children Patrick, Sarah and Laura, and manslaughter of son Caleb in 2003, so far serving 20 years of a 30-year sentence.

At this inquiry, psychologists and psychiatrists have considered these excerpts along with all other diary entries, the majority of which were described by one psychologist as “benign” and “referring to mundane events”.

In reviewing the diary entries made over the decade between the births and deaths of her children, and recordings of Folbigg taken after Laura’s death in 1999, clinical psychologist Patrick Sheehan and forensic psychiatrist Dr Kerri Eagle found she showed signs of low mood, depression and post-traumatic stress, but not psychotic mental illness.

Largely, they saw the diaries as the expressions of a grieving mother.

Both commented on the complexity of interpreting the diaries with the competing knowledge that Folbigg is serving a sentence for murder and manslaughter, and that the inquiry was called due to new evidence which could provide alternative explanations for the children’s deaths.

Meadow’s Law and bad statistics

Diaries “unreliable”

On reviewing the materials provided to him, Sheehan believed the diaries introduced “significant doubt” that they were written by a woman admitting guilt and “can be explained in ways that do not implicate her having murdered her children”.

“Whenever I was thinking diagnostically about the features she’s presented over the years, I was always brought back to the successive losses, and how that might influence someone, and the scale of that loss,” Sheehan said during examination.

Eagle found the diaries as “unreliable” admissions of guilt. She said diaries could be written for several reasons, and that Folbigg’s appeared to be disorganised records of her emotional states.

“She was experiencing maternal grief following the loss of her children, and we know that there are certain cognitive distortions, common feelings and common emotions associated with maternal grief,” Eagle said.

On questioning, both Sheehan and Eagle acknowledged someone could exhibit grief characteristics in the event of being a perpetrator as well as a bystander.

Pathologist stands by previous opinion

Divergent opinions among expert witnesses were again on show earlier in the day when Dr Allan Cala gave evidence.

Cala, forensic pathologist who examined Laura Folbigg after her death in 1999, said it was easy to accept suspected suffocation could leave no injuries on the children.

While all experts have agreed suffocation can leave no traces of injury, SIDS expert Professor Peter Fleming on Tuesday told the court he’d be surprised if there were no signs of damage on a child being smothered. Forensic pathologists Dr Matthew Orde and Professor Stephen Cordner echoed that view in evidence on Wednesday.

Cala said his view was formed by his experience studying many cases of accidental smothering in deceased infants.

But he agreed with views expressed by other experts in the enquiry that injuries would be more likely to occur in older children with erupted teeth, as suggested by Fleming.

“In ages often less than 12 months in particular, findings of injuries around the mouth and the face generally can be a commonplace event, that is there may be no injures whatsoever to see,” Cala said.

“I accept that the older the child, with a larger individual, and more fulsome teeth, that’s perhaps less likely.”

In his report to the inquiry, Cala reinforced his view from before the 2019 Folbigg inquiry that there was a possibility each child died from “inflicted injury, most likely in the form of smothering”.

Earlier in the day, after an application from Dean Jordan for the Director of Public Prosecutions, Bathurst agreed to strike out several sections of a report submitted by UK-based paediatrician Dr Joanna Garstang who provided an assessment on the Folbigg diaries. Garstang will no longer appear to give evidence at the inquiry.

More on the Folbigg inquiries

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