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> Columns > Boston Globe > Yates children's father shares in guilt for deaths

Yates children's father shares in guilt for deaths

By Cathy Young | March 25, 2002

NOW THAT the trial of Andrea Yates is over and the Texas mother who drowned her five children has been sentenced to life in prison, the debate has shifted to another troubling aspect of this horrific case: the role of Russell Yates, Andrea's husband and the children's father. Just like the question of Andrea Yates's guilt, the question of whether Russell Yates bears partial responsibility for his children's death has turned, to some extent, into a gender issue - with feminists lined up on one side, men's advocates on the other.

At first glance, it was hard to see this man as anything other than the sixth victim in the case: a father who lost everything he had in one terrible moment. But as Andrea Yates's family and friends (including Russell Yates himself) described the overwhelming evidence of her mental illness, people inevitably started to ask how any man in his right mind could leave his five young children in the care of a seriously disturbed woman.

By the time the trial was over, Russell Yates was being widely portrayed as a domineering bully who condemned his wife to a life of endless childbearing and domestic drudgery - and as, in some ways, the real guilty party in the case. In opinion columns and on the airwaves, suggested penalties for Russell Yates have ranged from a vasectomy to charges of criminal negligence to sharing in whatever punishment was imposed on Andrea Yates.

More recently, several fathers' rights advocates, including attorney Jeffrey Leving of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children and physician Ned Holstein of the Massachusetts-based Fathers and Families, have spoken up in defense of Russell Yates. ''This is an unfortunate situation and we are turning it into the typical `hate-male' agenda,'' Kay Schwarzberg, a Michigan lawyer who mostly represents fathers in custody cases, said on CNN.

Leving, Holstein, and Schwarzberg (all of whom I know personally) have done admirable work on behalf of fathers and children. But this time they have joined the wrong crusade. Whether or not Russell Yates can be held legally accountable for his actions, or lack thereof, his moral culpability seems pretty straightforward.

This is a man whose wife had been hospitalized several times for psychiatric problems and had attempted suicide at least twice. The psychiatrist who treated her for postpartum psychosis after the birth of the couple's fourth baby had strongly warned them against having more children. Yet Russell and Andrea Yates disregarded that advice, apparently deciding that since her condition could be treated with a powerful antipsychotic drug, they could take the risk.

Shortly before the murders, Russell Yates tried to get psychiatric treatment for his wife. By his account, he was displeased that she was sent home and taken off medication. Yet he let her continue caring for five small children and home-school the older ones, staying alone with them for extended periods of time.

The decision to have more children and to home-school them may have been mutual, but that doesn't get Russell Yates off the hook. He was supposed to be the sane one of the two.

Has gender bias played some role in the public judgment of Russell and Andrea Yates? Possibly. A mother whose children were killed by her mentally unstable husband might have received more sympathy - or more blame for leaving them in his care. The bias could have worked either way: Generally, we still expect fathers to be their children's primary protectors, but we also expect mothers to be the primary caregivers. A great deal depends on personalities. It doesn't help that Russell Yates has shown little contrition, blaming the children's deaths on everyone but his wife and himself.

On CNN, Schwarzberg argued that Andrea Yates's relatives who are now slamming Russell Yates as a bad husband and father didn't look out for her, either. There's some truth to that. But the father isn't just another person in the mother's support network: He is the other parent, with the same rights and responsibilities. And ''responsibility'' is not a word that comes to mind when thinking of Russell Yates.

Given the amount of father-bashing and male-bashing in our culture in recent years, I understand why fathers' advocates would be tempted to defend a father under attack. But the attacks, while sometimes intemperate, are not undeserved. The National Organization for Women gave itself a black eye in this case with its knee-jerk support for Andrea Yates. Fathers' groups should not go down the same road of gender-based excuse-making.

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