If the Bellefontaine mom charged with killing her three sons was sexually abused by her husband as a teenager, experts said it may have had a lasting impact on her mental and emotional health.
A history of abuse and isolation is a common thread in the stories of women who have been convicted of killing their children, according to Cheryl Meyer, professor of psychology at Wright State University. She interviewed 40 such inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women and has co-written two books on the topic.
“I expected, just like everyone else, to see a monster sitting across the room from me. What I found was that these women were absolutely not monsters,” Meyer said. “They were like her. Bad situation, bad life, bad circumstances and they ended up in prison.”
Brittany Pilkington, 23, and her husband, Joseph Pilkington, 43, are in the Logan County Jail in the wake of the deaths of their young sons Niall, Gavin and Noah Pilkington from July 2014 through August.
She has allegedly confessed to smothering all three boys with a blanket and could face the death penalty if convicted of capital murder. Her husband hasn’t been charged with any crimes related to the boys’ deaths, but earlier this month he was arrested on a felony charge of sexual battery.
Prosecutors say Joseph Pilkington was a father figure to his future wife before he began a sexual relationship with her and she became pregnant at 17. He previously dated her mother and moved in with the family when Brittany Pilkington was about 7.
County authorities knew of the relationship, but declined to press charges at the time .
If the accusations are true and Brittany Pilkington is the victim of sexual abuse, Meyer said it may lend some insight into an alleged crime that is otherwise a-typical for mothers who kill their children.
Out of five categories of women who kill their children identified by Meyer and co-author Michelle Oberman in their research, Brittany Pilkington’s alleged crimes could fit into one of the most common, the purposeful killing.
The other categories are: Women who killed their child as a result of abuse, those who killed as a result of neglect, women who killed with a partner and mothers who killed their infants in the first 24 hours of life.
But Brittany Pilkington’s characteristics and history don’t match up with the most common trends of purposeful killers, Meyer said.
“There are aberrations, and this woman is an aberration. She is a very unusual case,” she said.
Mothers who kill their children on purpose are most commonly in their late 30s, according to their research. They tend to kill more than one child at a time. Many have recently suffered a major loss in their lives and might have a mental illness ranging from depression to schizophrenia.
“They tend to be described as devoted, loving mothers and people are really surprised they did this,” Meyer said.
What the researchers didn’t find in this category was a history of being abused. But that was a characteristic shared by mothers in some of the other types of crime, like abuse and neglect cases.
But a sense of isolation and a lack of resources were shared by all of the convicted women studied.
“That whole isolation and lack of social support, it is the critical factor,” Meyer said. “In that way, this is very typical.”
Brittany Pilkington told investigators that her husband was controlling. She was estranged from her family, prosecutors said, and described her 3-year-old daughter as her best friend.
Logan County Prosecutor Bill Goslee described her maturity level as that of a 14-year-old girl and said she appeared unmoved and flat in the aftermath of her sons’ deaths.
Meyer hasn’t interviewed or treated Brittany Pilkington, but said the descriptions of her demeanor fit with the experiences of many abused women she’s encountered.
Depression, anti-social behavior, emotional immaturity and perpetuation of abuse or violence are all symptoms that can be experienced by adults who were victims of childhood sexual trauma, according to the Clark County Child Advocacy Center.
Although it is rare for victims to marry their abusers, sexual assault by a parental figure is common, comprising about 35 percent of the center’s cases last year, according to Coordinator Wendy Holt.
Perpetrators find ways to gain access to families, she said, including dating single parents so they can groom their children to trust them.
“You’ve been taught to obey the parent,” Meyer said, so it’s easy to manipulate that young person.
History of interaction
Interviews and reviews of public records show Logan County officials interacted with the Pilkingtons many times in their lives: Joseph Pilkington’s child support cases, the initial investigation into Brittany Pilkington’s teen pregnancy, a call about possibly unhealthy living conditions at the family’s home in 2012 and two child death investigations in less than a year.
The Springfield News-Sun previously reported that a judge returned the couple’s surviving children to their custody just six days before the third boy was killed, despite suspicions by social workers and the parents’ refusal to sign a care plan or undergo psychological evaluations.
Brittany’s uncle, Jeff Skaggs, tried to bring his concerns about the couple’s relationship to officials years ago, he said, and believes someone — or the system as a whole — dropped the ball numerous times.
Meyer’s research shows that system failures are a common theme in the stories of mothers who have killed their children.
Her second book takes a look at how every system from birth on — education, health care, child protective services, criminal justice — failed these women.
“You don’t have a good education. You don’t have resources. You don’t know where your next bill is going to get paid. You don’t know how to parent and you have more kids than you could have ever imagined … How long do you think it would take you to lose your patience?” she said. “It changes your whole perspective of why they might have done it.”
Unfortunately it’s common for government employees trying to help to have their hands tied by the law, Holt said.
“Historically, the law is focused on adults and adult rights … We need laws that allow us to protect children,” she said. “It happens all the time where we have situations that don’t meet the requirements of a crime.”
Officials can suggest other interventions, she said, but parents can refuse.
Logan County investigators did all they could after the second Pilkington boy died, they’ve said previously, but didn’t have enough evidence to keep the other two children away from their parents.
Part of the reason Joseph Pilkington wasn’t charged with sexual battery when his wife was still a minor was her and her mother’s reluctance to press any charges, Goslee said.
But Lori Cummins, Brittany Pilkington’s mother, said she was never consulted about the investigation when her daughter was 17.
“They didn’t really ask me if I wanted to do anything about it,” Cummins said.
She tried to get Joseph Pilkington out of her house before Brittany became pregnant, Cummins said, and tried to talk her daughter out of marrying him.
“Something should have been done (then)… not years later,” she said. She questioned why charges have been filed now.
Cummins hasn’t spoken with her daughter since Joseph Pilkington’s arrest and both Pilkingtons declined interview requests. But a recent court filing by his lawyer indicates that Brittany Pilkington still doesn’t want charges filed against her husband.
Others have questioned the charges, Goslee said, asking why it should be dragged back out now.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
The case came to the previous prosecutor’s attention in 2009 when Joseph Pilkington was part of a court diversion program for a felony delinquent child support case from a previous marriage.
In a meeting with a county employee, he revealed that he was going to marry the then 17-year-old Brittany because she was pregnant. The employee knew the family history and referred the case to Children’s Services, Goslee said.
From there Bellefontaine Police got involved to determine if it met the criteria for sexual battery or another charge.
“The police said, ‘Yes, but she’s a few months from 18 and they are getting married,’” Goslee said. Police and prosecutors sat down and decided not to move forward with charges.
“I frankly would have done something about it,” Goslee said. “I really look at her as a victim.”
Those 16 and older can consent to sex as long as it isn’t forced, coerced or with someone who is in a position of power, like a teacher, coach, parent or guardian, according to state law.
No evidence has been presented to suggest their relationship began before she was 17. If it did, Joseph Pilkington could be charged with additional felonies because of their age difference.
Abused teenagers often don’t see themselves as victims, Holt said, and without full disclosure of information, it can be difficult for Children’s Services to determine if a crime has occurred.
If the center got a phone call about a 17-year-old who is pregnant, marrying the baby’s father and the custodial parent is aware and approves, “It probably wouldn’t be screened in today as child abuse,” Holt said. But additional details about the family dynamic could change that determination.
The Child Advocacy Center works to educate the public about the signs of child abuse, Holt said, so that the community can more effectively report what they see.
Victims can be isolated, whether by the perpetrator’s design, or simply because they are very young and haven’t come in contact with school settings yet, Holt said. Healthy social support for families, including neighbors, relatives and co-workers, is considered a protective factor that makes abuse less likely.
It’s also a factor in preventing child deaths, Meyer said.
“That is the factor that cuts across all cases, doesn’t matter the category,” she said. “There are people who really don’t have support and are isolated, and there are people who believe they don’t have support and are isolated.”
A woman’s duty?
Although he isn’t charged in connection with his sons’ deaths, the fact that Joseph Pilkington is being charged with a crime at all is uncommon in these cases, according to Meyer.
Before his arrest, prosecutors and legal experts said it would be difficult to charge him with child endangerment or anything related to the deaths because they would have to prove he knew or should have known that his wife was going to harm the children. There has been no evidence to this point that he did, Goslee said.
But according to Meyer’s research, even in situations where a clear risk existed, fathers or husbands are rarely charged.
Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in the bathtub of her Texas home in 2001, had been diagnosed with postpartum depression and schizophrenia. Psychiatrists had warned her husband that she was a threat to herself and others, Meyer said.
Her husband wasn’t charged.
“I never see a man brought up on charges, unless he’s involved actively,” Meyer said.
It’s also rare that a woman’s partner gets charged for abuse that pre-dated and possibly contributed to her crimes, she said.
Because sentencing laws vary state to state, it’s difficult to quantify who is punished more harshly. But anecdotally Meyer believes it’s women who get longer sentences for the same crimes.
She interviewed one Ohio woman whose boyfriend killed her child while she was at work.
“She’s serving 15 to life because she should have seen it,” Meyer said.
Another woman interviewed in the Marysville women’s prison came home to find her husband had beaten one of their children unconscious. She told Meyer he threatened to shoot the rest of her children and her if she called the police, so she let the child die and helped dispose of the body.
“She is serving a longer sentence than he is,” Meyer said.
She suspects a societal belief that it’s a woman’s duty is to protect her children more than that’s expected of a man could fuel these cases.
“If we’re going to have this kind of sexist, disparate treatment, then we need to rethink what we’re doing here,” Meyer said.
Legally no evidence of past abuse will change the outcome for Brittany Pilkington if her confession holds up in court, said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, professor of law at the University of Dayton.
But if she’s found guilty of murder, those issues could come into play in the sentencing phase as mitigating factors and affect whether she gets the death penalty.
“They pursued it here in Dayton for China Arnold,” Hoffmeister said. But in two out of three trials where Arnold was found guilty of killing her baby in a microwave, jurors declined to sentence her to death in both.
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