Sixteen years ago, Andrea Yates summoned police after systematically drowning her five children in the bathtub of her Clear Lake, Texas, home. The 36-year old mother had telephoned her husband Russell “Rusty” Yates at NASA, where he worked as an engineer. Although it was only about ten a.m., she insisted he return home. Then she called police. Two officers arrived. Chaos ensued.
Like almost everyone else in the United States, Houston-based attorney George Parnham heard the news about the Yates family shortly after it happened in 2001.
“I told [my wife] ‘I wonder who is going to get that case?’” says Parnham.
A few hours later, his answering service relayed an urgent message. “I didn’t return the call right away,” says Parnham. “I knew this case would change the lives of everyone involved.”
Now 77, Parnham sits behind the desk of his private office at his Houston law practice, dressed in an off-white suit and striped tie. He doesn’t look appreciably older than he did 16 years ago when his face appeared in news photos around the world. He still has the striking snow-white hair, closely-cropped white beard, and rimless glasses he occasionally peers over when making a serious point.
A framed newspaper clipping hangs on the wall not far from his desk. The photo shows a distressed and tearful Yates seated at the defense table, flanked by Parnham and his partner Wendell Odom, both leaning in to comfort her. Yates’ eyes are closed and she is tightly clutching Parnham’s hand.
Long before the Yates case, Parnham had built a national reputation as a go-to criminal defense attorney. He’s worked on high-profile murder cases, kidnappings, frauds, cases involving the estate of Howard Hughes, the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald, and countless others. He’s never had a client receive the death penalty, although over the years about six of his clients, including Yates, faced the possibility of that ultimate punishment.
“I truly believe in the oath we take to defend clients to the best of our ability, with truth and honesty,” he says, leaning back in his leather chair in an office filled with photos and memorabilia including some from household-name entertainers, celebrities and clients. “I have never turned down a case. Well, perhaps once when I was a very young attorney.”
He decided to answer the message requesting he defend Yates, and ended up doing much of the work pro bono. When he arrived at the jail the night of June 20, Yates’ family members and close friends greeted him, anxious to talk.
He tried to quickly absorb and unravel the tumble of words pelted at him by Rusty Yates, Andrea’s mother Karin Kennedy, Rusty’s mother Dora Yates, and others who had gathered.
He learned that overdoses, suicide attempts, postpartum depression (PPD) and psychotic incidents became commonplace after Yates married in 1993, had her five children in rapid succession, and lived an increasingly nomadic life. She joined her husband in following the teachings of a fire-and-brimstone street preacher who was said to have told her she was evil and her children were damned. Only killing them would keep them from burning in hell for eternity.
After Yates’ family left, Parnham went to the small booth where Plexiglas separated him from his client. He leaned down so she could hear him through the blue grillwork speaker.
“Is there anything else I can do for you tonight, Andrea?” he asked.
Her response: “Don’t leave me.”
Parnham sat down, making small talk for more than 30 minutes until Yates was calm enough to return to her cell.
That meeting would change not only Yates’ life, but Parnham’s as well. Today, 16 years after the children’s deaths, national media and attorneys often contact him, asking for his opinion on cases involving women with PPD. He’s a featured speaker at many PPD training sessions for health care professional, lawyers, emergency responders, and the public.
“When I got the call that night of June 20th, I really didn’t know anything about postpartum depression. Her case literally sparked an awareness of women’s mental health,” says Parnham.
Newspapers, magazines and television shows around the world delved into the details of the Yates case. For many readers and viewers, it was the first time they had ever heard of postpartum depression. In the years that followed, PPD received more coverage, and celebrities including Brooke Shields and Courteney Cox began to speak openly about their own experiences with PPD.
Parnham was particularly moved. Almost as soon as the first Yates trial ended, he began to travel throughout the U.S., speaking out about the need for more resources for women with PPD.
“George was speaking to groups all over the country about it, but we wanted to do more to make sure women had screenings, education and support,” says his wife Mary Parnham, who has joined her husband in his office. Dressed in an elegant tan dress, heels and understated gold jewelry, she takes a seat in one of the upholstered guest chairs in front of her husband’s desk.
Inspired by the Yates case, the Parnhams founded the Yates Children Memorial Fund (YCMF) three months after Yates’ conviction. Their main goal was to educate the public about warning signs and train professionals to screen women for postpartum depression so a Yates tragedy would not be repeated.
“Mental health issues – even today – have such a stigma,” says Mary Parnham, the current chair of the YCMF and a board member of the Postpartum Support International Board of Directors. “You combine that with five dead children and people didn’t want anything to do with it.”
The group’s lifeline came from Mental Health America (MHA) of Greater Houston. After talking to Mary Parnham by phone and repeatedly meeting with the couple, the group agreed to take the new nonprofit under its tent. Then things started to change.
In 2003, the Texas House of Representatives passed the Andrea Yates Bill that mandates new mothers receive information about postpartum depression and resources. The YCMF was involved in launching a collaborative program with the City of Houston Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to screen low-income mothers for perinatal depression, and outreach to federally qualified health centers to receive perinatal mental health training.
Countless other informational sessions, screenings and fundraising events continually increase awareness and diagnosis of postpartum illnesses. At last count, the Fund had enabled the training of 3,000 health care professionals and distributed more than 600,000 informational brochures.
“What the Memorial Fund does has a huge impact,” says Tiffany Ross, director of Education and Outreach, MHA of Greater Houston, noting the organization’s work has helped spearhead legal and medical changes throughout the U.S. “It is a very, very big deal and has made a huge impact.”
Thanks to the Parnhams’ efforts front-line staff and community groups regularly come to the organization seeking information about PPD. “Mary and George are incredibly passionate about women’s mental health and postpartum depression,” said Ross. “They are the realest [advocates] I have ever met.”
Still, PPD remains a dire issue for many women. The Centers for Disease Control estimates between 11 and 20 percent of women who give birth have postpartum depression. Postpartum psychosis, which can follow PPD, as it did with Andrea Yates, impacts just over three percent of women, according to the Psychiatric Times.
Psychiatrist Rhoda Seplowitz, M.D. of Bellaire, Texas, says stereotypes keep people from taking postpartum depression seriously. Seplowitz talks about a recent case of a woman who told her physician she had thoughts of harming her child. A trip to the hospital, expedited by her physician, almost resulted in her commitment to a psychiatric hospital rather than needed treatment for postpartum illness.
“There is still work to be done but the YCMF has had an incredible impact,” she says. “There’s still a stereotype of who has postpartum issues. A lot of the residents don’t know much about Andrea because they were so young when it all occurred. It’s not until we mention she was a nurse at MD Andersen Cancer Center, right in Houston, that they really listen. She was a nurse. She had a good job. She led a full life. She wasn’t deranged.”
Yael Israel, a clinical social worker in Arlington, Virginia, was a new mother when Yates was originally sentenced to life in prison. She remembers following the case and later understanding that she, too, had postpartum depression. She now helps other mothers break out of the mindset that postpartum depression is unique to them through her work.
“There’s still such a stigma around postpartum depression. When you have a baby, you’re supposed to be happy. If you aren’t, you are pretending to be and not addressing your own needs,” says Israel. “There’s an element of self-care that is just not a priority.”
Four years after founding the YCMF, Parnham led the way to have Yates’ conviction overturned. A 2006 retrial found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was remanded to a state mental hospital. Parnham expects her to remain there the rest of her life. It’s her home now, he says.
But Yates is far from abandoned. She meets with a select group of family and friends including the Parnhams. Yates spends some of her days creating greeting cards and sewing aprons that she sells anonymously to raise money she contributes to the Yates Children Memorial Fund. When she speaks to Parnham – who she always addresses as Mr. Parnham or Mr. P – she’s always interested in the news of the Fund.
“I drive past the cemetery where the children were laid to rest and I take flowers. I know Andrea would like that,” says Parnham. “It’s stunning to think that the children could have died in vain had Andrea been executed. Nothing positive could have come out of this tragedy. The positive results are not due to anything I have done, but due to so many people who want to prevent such a future tragedy.”