FAIRFIELD — The case of a Fairfield woman who killed her newborn infant and then discarded the remains in a garage fits a pattern documented from other instances across the country.

There were warning signs that Kayla Stewart — who pleaded guilty earlier this month to a charge of manslaughter in connection with the baby’s death — needed help before the incident took place.

That’s according to at least one expert who has studied and written about the phenomenon of mothers killing their children.

Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in California, has written two books on the subject. She said that Stewart’s case fell distinctly into a pattern and that more often than not these cases tend to look the same. They involve women who did not make a plan for going into labor and who are described by mental health professionals as having “profound denial” about their pregnancies, so much so they often convince themselves they aren’t pregnant.

Many of the women end up giving birth in a bathroom, thinking the labor pains are bowel movements.

“The power of the mind to wish away the pregnancy is that great,” Oberman said in an interview.

Nearly one year to the day after being accused of killing her newborn baby in her garage on Norridgewock Road in Fairfield, Stewart, now 21, recently pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter. The baby’s body was discovered wrapped in towels and trash bags behind an oil tank, and the case set the stage for multiple high profile court hearings.

Stewart was sentenced to 15 years in prison with all but nine years suspended and four years probation after her release. Stewart had been facing a murder charge, but that charge was dismissed when she pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Stewart’s profile and those described by experts overlap.

During the Jan. 4 court hearing in Skowhegan in which she pleaded guilty to manslaughter, Stewart’s adoptive parents spoke of her struggles with mental illness.

Her defense attorney, Pamela Ames, also spoke of Stewart’s struggles, saying her biological mother suffered from schizophrenia and she had a strained relationship with her adoptive mother. She said Stewart would often be isolated, as the infant’s father, Nicholas Blood, worked long hours, and the couple struggled financially.

She said Stewart’s psychological makeup led her to avoid problems.

“She didn’t know what to do — what she did was nothing,” Ames said at the hearing.

Stewart’s defense attorney previously had argued that Stewart had a miscarriage and panicked, so she was not responsible for the child’s death.

Ames had said that Stewart had become convinced she was going to deliver a stillborn baby. Stewart was in the garage of the home she shared with Blood on the night of Dec. 30, 2015, when Ames said Stewart had a contraction and delivered the baby, who was named Evan James Blood. Ames said Stewart checked for vital signs to make sure the baby was stillborn. From there, Stewart wrapped the baby in towels and trash bags, then put the baby behind an oil tank.

Ames said Stewart put the baby behind the oil tank not as a way to hide him, but to keep the baby with her.

“She was overwhelmed with her life,” Ames said.

State prosecutors said Stewart gave birth to a full-term, healthy baby boy and killed him by either smothering or suffocating the child or by leaving him in a cold, unheated garage to die, later telling a state police detective that she “made sure” the baby was dead. The baby’s body was found by authorities on Jan. 11, 2016, in the garage.

INFANT KILLINGS STUDIED

The act of killing an infant 1-year-old or younger is known as infanticide. When the killing occurs within the baby’s first 24 hours of life, it is then known as neonaticide.

Oberman, the law professor, said often the mothers who end up committing neonaticide are in denial and believe, whether correctly or not, that they would be ostracized for having the baby or their life would be negatively affected by it.

Many times the situation involves a younger girl living at home who fears she will be kicked out by her parents if they find out about the pregnancy.

She said this is a hallmark of adolescent thinking and what she called “magical thinking,” an attempt to wish away the pregnancy and not think about long-term consequences.

Oberman said cases of neonaticide tell the story of isolated and ambivalent women. In cases where no one knew the woman was pregnant, Oberman said this often means there weren’t enough people involved in the woman’s life.

In Stewart’s case, she and Blood lived with her parents at one point before moving to the home on Norridgewock Road, where she gave birth. During the Jan. 4 hearing, Ames said Stewart was essentially a single parent, since Blood was often out of the house working.

Ames said Stewart didn’t bond well with her adoptive mother, and her biological mother suffered from schizophrenia. While Stewart was close to her adoptive father, Ames said she suffered depression and she avoided problems in her life.

She also said Stewart “smoked and did drugs” during her pregnancy and became convinced the baby was dead.

“Kayla was terrified she wouldn’t be a good mom,” Ames said at the trial.

In Maine, “safe haven” laws allow a person to drop off a newborn baby with an employee at any law enforcement agency, medical emergency room or medical services provider, so why would someone resort to killing a baby? It seems almost unthinkable someone, let alone a mother, would kill a newborn baby.

Scholars and experts have studied the issue over many years and found that, by and large, the people who commit these crimes tend to fit a pattern.

While the Stewart case was a shocking moment for this region, experts believe neonaticides occur hundreds of times a year in the United States. Some estimates put the numbers as high as 300 a year, though accurate statistics are hard to come by.

Pregnancies can often be hidden or unknown, so it’s likely cases are never discovered in the first place, experts say. Infanticide and neonaticide are far more commonly committed by females rather than males. According to a study published in World Psychiatry, almost all instances of neonaticide are committed by mothers. The study describes neonaticidal mothers as often young, unmarried women with unwanted pregnancies who receive no prenatal care.

The term neonaticide was first coined in 1969 by psychiatrist Phillip Resnick. Maternal filicide, the term used for mothers killing their children, is generally a rare occurrence.

In Maine, Stewart’s might be one of the most publicized cases in recent memory, but there have been other instances.

SIMILAR PATHOLOGY

Resnick’s studies concluded there are five motives for maternal filicide: The mother kills the child believing it is in the child’s best interest. The mother is psychotic or delirious and kills the child seemingly without a motive. Death is not the intended outcome, but is likely the result of abuse or neglect. The mother thinks the child will be a hindrance. And the rarest motive is when a parent kills a child to emotionally harm the other parent.

A study by Brown University analyzed more than 30 years worth of filicide arrests, estimating there are roughly 500 such each year. The study said nearly three-quarters of those involved children under 6, and roughly one-third were children under the age of 1 year old. The study looked at more than 15,000 arrests in that time, indicated the numbers have drifted slightly down since the 1990s, and have not increased during periods of population growth. The Brown study also said fathers were equally as likely to kill an infant as the mother, but were more likely to be the alleged murderer of children older than a year, especially when the children were adults. Overall, fathers were the accused just over 57 percent of the time.

Neonaticide differs from other types of infant deaths in that the women who commit neonaticide are typically young and acting out of psychotic motivaters, according to an article published in 2013 by the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University in the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality. The report says there are two conflicting theories about these types of killings: Women suffer from symptoms that culminate in a psychotic break at the time of the infant’s birth that results in spontaneous killing, or women, typically adolescents with minimal resources, kill the infant because it is not wanted and they don’t have the means to care for it.

The study, authored by Julie Spain, says adolescents commit neonaticide more frequently than any other group of women and share several characteristics. They are likely in their late teens, living with their parents and unmarried. They typically have low socioeconomic status, and their personalities are passive and are immature for their age.

“While not all women who commit neonaticide share the same pregnancy and birth experiences, many of them experience similar pathology leading up to and resulting in the death of the newborns,” the study reads.

FINDING SAFE HAVEN

The report from the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality said the media plays an “under-assessed but highly influential role” in determining how the legal system addresses neonaticide.

The report says that in the 1990s, newspapers, medical journals and the public began viewing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome differently. There was once a sympathetic view toward families who experienced SIDS, but that view changed and became a more criminal outlook.

“Criminalization of women whose infants had died of unknown causes increased, and medical experts shifted their work from looking for apnea-related causes of these deaths to seeking out signs of foul play,” the study reads.

The report suggests the way in which the media reports on cases in which children have died can shape public perception.

Oberman said the American legal system has “a penchant” for blaming individuals for social problems. The problem, she said, is that neonaticide is a very complex social and psychological issue, but one that gets a broad range of sentencing.

She said she has seen cases where the individual didn’t serve time and others where the person got a life sentence. She said the average charge ends up being manslaughter with a year’s worth of jail time. While she said she didn’t want to ignore the taking of a life, she said these cases were “distinct from murder” in that they are not calculated and consciously deliberated killings.

Calls to the National Safe Haven Alliance and Maine Department of Health and Human Services were not returned.

The best remedy to all this, she said, is to have better knowledge and resources available early on. Oberman said not nearly enough money is spent on “safe haven” education that could make a difference in a case similar to Stewart’s. For instance, Oberman said a school teacher who talks about safe haven then becomes a safe person, someone who students can approach if they have concerns about someone who may be pregnant. This person may have to ask difficult questions, but Oberman said “silence is not an answer.” She said announcing yourself as a safe person and asking the uncomfortable questions is a step in the right direction and could be a way to respond to potential future neonaticides.

All it takes is one person, she said.

“I think it’s important to be specific and knowing the resources that are out there,” Oberman said. “You can go to this hospital. Adoption is out there. You can relinquish your baby. It’s the first step that’s where we’re stuck.”

Oberman said typically the women in these cases are not proactive enough to make a plan to give birth and then get to safe haven. They deliver the baby on their own without any kind of medication and are therefore in a considerable amount of pain and dealing with blood loss, panic and denial.

The best hope, she said, is to publicize safe haven laws as a way to mobilize people. She said things as simple as billboards and telephone hot lines begin the conversation.

“If we’re going to accept there’s a number of women who will panic and deny it, then the best we can do is try to get someone in her life to make sure she’s as safe as possible,” Oberman said.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis