On average, 27 children are killed by their mother or father every year in Australia.
It’s a crime that can go unnoticed, but in many instances the disturbing nature of the crime makes headlines and captures the public’s attention.
In her first book, forensic pathologist Dr Xanthe Mallett looks at the stories behind some of country’s most hated women and asks the question: Why?
When it comes to abhorrent stories of maternal filicide, one woman stands alone.
Born in 1967, Kathleen Megan Donovan was still a blonde-haired baby girl when her father stabbed her mother 24 times.
The following day, with her mother dead and father charged with murder, Kathleen was made a ward of the state and placed into foster care.
But Kathleen’s fractured childhood and the devastation of her past pales in comparison to what she would, and will always be, remembered for.
On Thursday, April 19, 2001, Kathleen Megan Folbigg (she married Craig Gibson Folbigg, a Newcastle steelworker, in 1987) was charged with murdering her children.
On the same day, at 4.45pm, Folbigg - dressed in tight, blue mock denim shorts and a yellow sports shirt - entered Maitland Courthouse.
Then aged 33, Folbigg showed no emotion as the court heard of the deaths of four children, ranging in age from 19 weeks through to 19 months.
It was alleged Folbigg was at the scene of each death, with each body still warm when they were found.
Much has been said, reported and considered regarding the case of Kathleen Folbigg.
And while Folbigg steadfastly maintains her innocence, others have begun questioning the fairness of her trial, including British forensic anthropologist Xanthe Mallet, who explores the Folbigg case in her new book Mothers Who Murder.
“This case has created a lot of controversy and, of all the scenarios in this book, it causes me the most concern in terms of whether an innocent woman is in jail for crimes she has not committed,” Dr Mallet said.
“And what concerns me most about this one is the medical background because it’s so problematic.
“I need to be clear here: I am not saying that Kathleen Folbigg is innocent.
“What I am saying is that I do not believe that the evidence (including the lack of any forensic evidence that indicates that Kathleen intentionally harmed any of her children) demonstrated guilt beyond the legal criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt.
“But there is only one person who truly knows what happened and that’s Kathleen.”
Canada-based academic Emma Cuncliffe also believes Folbigg has been wrongly convicted (as detailed in her book Murder, Medicine and Motherhood), while the University of Newcastle Legal Centre is working on a submission seeking a judicial inquiry into the case.
But it’s hard to ignore the circumstances surrounding Folbigg’s disturbing conviction.
On February 1, 1989, Kathleen gave birth to son Caleb Gibson. Initially, the baby appeared healthy but upon leaving hospital he was diagnosed with a breathing problem. Later the diagnosis changed to that of a lazy larynx.
At 8pm on February 19 Kathleen put Caleb to sleep in a room adjoining the one she and Craig shared.
During the night Caleb stirred and Kathleen attended to her baby’s cries and subsequently smothered him.
The death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Seven months later Kathleen fell pregnant again and on June 3, 1990, her second son Patrick was born.
On October 18 Kathleen put Patrick to bed. Soon after, Craig was awakened by the sounds of his wife screaming and found her standing at the baby’s cot.
He noticed the child wasn’t breathing and attempted to revive him by cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Patrick was later diagnosed with epilepsy and cortical blindness. He died the following February with the cause of death noted as asphyxia consequent to an epileptic fit.
After Patrick died, the couple moved to Thornton and Kathleen fell pregnant with her third child. Sarah Kathleen Folbigg was born on October 14, 1992.
The baby died 10 months later with her death registered as SIDS.
In 1996, the couple moved to Singleton and on August 7, 1997, Laura Elizabeth Folbigg was born.
By March 1, 1999, Laura would be dead and while the cause of her death was not determined, SIDS was ruled out.
In April 2001, Folbigg was charged with murdering her four young children over a decade.
The two-year police investigation involved extensive histological investigations, which included conducting core blood sample tests from each of the infants.
The trial lasted seven weeks with the prosecution alleging Kathleen murdered her four children by smothering them.
On May 21, 2003, Folbigg was found guilty by a Supreme Court of NSW jury of three counts of murder, one count of manslaughter and one count of maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm.
On October 24, 2003, she was sentenced to 40 years in jail, with a non-parole period of 30 years, but on appeal this was reduced to 30 years with a non-parole period of 25 years.
Due to the nature of her crimes, Folbigg is in protective custody at Silverwater Women’s Jail.
In an interview for the ABC’s Australian Story in 2004, the man behind the investigation, former Maitland detective Bernie Ryan, said: “The investigation has been an uphill battle because it’s very, very hard to believe that a mother can kill her children. If we could’ve found an illness, or some disorder that has caused the death of these children, we would have gladly found it. We searched and searched and searched and searched but, unfortunately, we couldn’t find anything.
“All we found ... everything we found, led us to Kathleen Folbigg.”
In her book, Dr Mallett also revisits other high-profile cases of suspected filicide, including the miscarriage of justice that led to the imprisonment of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton for the murder of Azaria and Rachel Pfitzner who murdered her son Dean Shillingsworth and disposed of his body in a suitcase in a duck pond.
Dr Mallett also looks at Kristi Abrahams who, along with her partner Robert Smith, killed her daughter Kiesha Weippart, 5, and Keli Lane who was found guilty of murdering her baby Tegan despite no body ever being found.
“This journey [writing the book] has been challenging for me in ways I could not have imagined,” Dr Mallet writes.
“Perhaps one of the biggest changes has been that before I wrote this book I would have told you that I do not believe anyone is purely evil.
“I would have said that everyone is a mix of good and bad, and that regardless of what terrible act someone has performed, there will be a reason, a stimulus, for their actions.
“What I’ve read has made me re-evaluate some of the fundamental beliefs I’ve held my whole life.
“Before, I thought pure evil did not exist.
“Now I believe in monsters.”
Mothers Who Murder will be released today.
Dr Mallett will also host a one-off, Channel 10 special that will air on Thursday, August 7, also titled Mothers Who Murder.
The following extracts from Kathleen Folbigg’s diary were read out during Crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi’s opening address in the Supreme Court.
June 3, 1990 - This was the day that Patrick Allan David Folbigg was born. I had mixed feelings this day. Whether or not I was going to cope as a mother or whether I was going to get stressed out like I did last time. I often regret Caleb and Patrick, only because your life changes so much and, maybe, I’m not a person who likes change. But we will see?
January 1, 1997 - Another year gone and what a year to come. I have a baby on the way, which means major personal sacrifice for both of us. But I feel confident about it all going well this time. I am going to call for help this time and not attempt to do everything myself anymore. I know that was the main reason for all my stress before and stress made me do terrible things.
February 4, 1997 - Still can’t sleep. Seem to be thinking of Patrick and Sarah and Caleb. Makes me seriously wonder whether I’m stupid or doing the right thing by having this baby. My guilt for how responsible I feel for them all haunts me. My fear of it happening again haunts me. My fear of Craig and I surviving if it did haunts me as well.
October 25, 1997 - I think Laura is beautiful compared to Sarah - she was cute but Laura has a special look about her. Her slight difference in looks gives her a beautiful face. Not just pretty, cute and cuddly, gorgeous and beautiful. Well so far anyway. Looking at the video, Sarah was boyish looking. Laura has definite feminine features. They are chalk and cheese. And truthfully just as well. Wouldn’t of handled another one like Sarah. She’s saved her life by being different.
November 9, 1997 - With Sarah all I wanted was her to shut up. And one day she did.
December 8, 1997 - Had a bad day today. Lost it with Laura a couple of times. She cried most of the day. Why do I do that? I must learn to read her better. She’s pretty straight forward. She either wants to sleep or doesn’t. Got to stop placing so much importance on myself. Must try to release my stress somehow. I’m starting to take it out on her. Bad move. Bad things and thoughts happen when that happens. It will never happen again.
December 31, 1997 - Getting Laura to next year ought to be fun. She’ll realise a party is going on. And that will be it. Wonder if the battle of the wills will start with her and I then. We’ll actually get to see. She’s a fairly good natured baby, thank goodness, it will save her from the fate of her siblings. I think she was warned.
January 28, 1998 - Very depressed with myself, angry and upset. I’ve done it. I lost it with her. I yelled at her so angrily that it scared her. She hasn’t stopped crying. Got so bad I nearly purposely dropped her on the floor and left her. I restrained enough to put her on the floor and walk away. Went to my room and left her to cry. Was gone probably only five minutes but it seemed like a lifetime. I feel like the worst mother on this earth. Scared that she’ll leave me now. Like Sarah did. I knew I was short tempered and cruel sometimes to her and she left. With a bit of help.