The shocking deaths of a mother and her three children in Kearns on Sunday marked the second time in Utah this year that a parent allegedly took the lives of his or her children before committing suicide.
On Aug. 2, the bodies of Christopher Jessop, 30, and his two children, 4-year-old James and 3-year-old Mariah, were found in the burnt-out shell of a sports utility vehicle. Police believe Jessop intentionally started the blaze.
In the medical community, the practice of parents killing their children is known as filicide. A study printed in a 2005 Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law article found about 2 percent of homicides are filicides.
Another study found about 40 percent of filicidal parents previously had been treated for psychosis, but about 75 percent likely were suffering from symptoms of mental illness.
Locally, groups that help child abuse and domestic violence victims say they are shocked by the Kearns incident.
"I was walking up the stairs when I read about it in the paper, and I just fell down, I felt so bad," said Sharon Anderson, executive director of the Family Connection Center in Davis County.
Family members say Sharon Al-Shimmary had battled depression since the death of her young son, Joshua, a couple of years ago. She also had been under a lot of stress from ongoing divorce proceedings.
Experts say depression is a key red flag.
"Feelings of isolation and depression can be so overwhelming," Anderson said.
"Depression is a big problem. The hopelessness, the helplessness. ... Many times people don't know where to reach out to. It's so important this information get out to the community," said Bonnie Peters, director of the Family Support Center in Midvale and a licensed clinical support worker.
Filicide-suicide cases are broken into five categories: altruism, acute psychosis, unwanted children, accidents and revenge against the other spouse, according to the studies. In about 70 percent of cases, children are killed altruistically.
Parents believe killing their children will alleviate their real or imagined suffering, according to the studies. Also, those studies have not shown a link between child abuse and filicide, providing further evidence for the theory that parents who commit filicide do not do so out of anger.
Scientists believe filicide-suicide situations can be prevented by greater community awareness of mental illness and improved diagnosis of psychosis by mental health providers. Community support networks also have been proven to reduce the risk of filicidal situations.
Both the Family Support Center and Family Connection Center offer emergency crisis nurseries for children. A parent who is at his wit's end and needs some time to himself can drop off children at any time of the day or night, for free, for 72 hours.
If someone notices a loved one loved has been especially depressed, it's important to know what resources are available, said Judy Kasten Bell, director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council. Family members should offer support to those who are depressed and encourage them in a non-judgmental way to get help, even if they claim nothing is wrong, she said.
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"I think consistency in terms of offering help and maybe taking the next step and saying, 'I know someone who would be really good to talk with,'" Bell said. "Doing it without intervention isn't going to have a positive outcome. Continue to offer help and support. Be consistent with that and don't give up."
People concerned about the possibility of child abuse or parental psychosis are encouraged to call the Child Abuse Intake Hotline at 800-678-9399 or the Salt Lake Intake Office of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services at 801-281-5151.