It was no secret that Dena Schlosser suffered from postpartum psychosis. So why wasn’t Maggie saved?
Editor’s note: Last week, prosecutors sought a second capital murder trial for Dena Schlosser. The first trial ended in a mistrial Feb. 25 after jurors failed to reach a unanimous decision on whether the Plano mother was not guilty by reason of insanity. This story is culled from facts and descriptions from interviews and testimony from the first trial.
This story contains graphic details.
Plano police Officer Mike Letzelter was there at the beginning and the end of 10-month-old Maggie Schlosser’s life.
Maggie was six days old the first time he entered her world. He was called after her mother ran down her street screaming about demons, Maggie’s 5-year-old sister pedaling furiously after her on a bicycle. Maggie had been left alone in the bedroom of the family’s West Plano apartment.
The next time Officer Letzelter saw the family, Maggie lay in a crib, blood-soaked and missing her arms. Her mother, Dena Schlosser, admitted that she cut them off. Ms. Schlosser sat in a chair, covered in blood, as Officer Letzelter and other responding officers ran frantically from room to room, searching for other injured children. Maggie’s two older sisters were safe at school.
During Ms. Schlosser’s capital murder trial, Officer Letzelter, a former Marine, squirmed and looked ill on the witness stand as he told jurors that Maggie’s death nearly made him abandon his career. The baby haunts him, and he’s troubled that doctors, caseworkers, police, the system – anyone – could not save her.
The trial was designed to determine guilt or innocence, sanity or insanity, prison or mental institution. But over and over during the two-week trial, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and witnesses kept coming back to a different question: Why couldn’t Maggie have been saved?
“The system failed Dena Schlosser. [Husband] John Schlosser failed Dena Schlosser,” prosecutor Bill Dobiyanski said in front of the jury box. “CPS failed. LifePath failed. … The treating doctors failed.”
Ms. Schlosser did not plummet into a psychotic break the day she killed her daughter. She slipped and skidded in and out of reality for the 10 short months of Maggie’s life.
Psychiatrists agreed that the support systems available to Ms. Schlosser did not do enough to treat her postpartum psychosis and depression. Her breakdown began after she gave birth – without pain medication – in the family’s Plano apartment.
For several months, she experienced religious delusions and hallucinations, which continued as she grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen and severed Maggie’s arms at the shoulders.
She said she believed it was the command of God.
The Schlossers lived in an apartment with their three children: baby Maggie and two other daughters, now ages 7 and 10.
The couple lost their home in Fort Worth when Mr. Schlosser lost his job as a computer specialist. He worked intermittently as a consultant during Maggie’s life, but the family struggled financially.
After Maggie was born, Ms. Schlosser gave up her job at a local child-care center to stay home with the kids.
Mr. Schlosser isolated his wife, her family members said. He ruled his home in the manner prescribed by their minister, Doyle Davidson, a self-appointed prophet and apostle at Water of Life Church in Plano. Ms. Schlosser did not have many friends, and her mother, Connie Macaulay, lives in Canada and has advanced Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Schlosser kept family members in the dark once his wife’s episodes began, according to testimony. He told no one that his wife had cut her wrist the day after Maggie was born. Once authorities were involved, he played down the severity of her illness and convinced doctors that she was better off at home.
He never told anyone that the family’s minister preached that mental illness was caused by demons and that medicine wasn’t needed if you had faith.
Ms. Schlosser’s best friend, a fellow church member, often asked Mr. Schlosser whether his wife was taking her medication. He told her not to pressure him, according to testimony.
Restless just days before Maggie’s death in November 2004, Ms. Schlosser took Maggie out for a walk in the middle of the night. She packed the baby into her stroller and walked the nearby streets.
Hearing the whir of a small engine, Ms. Schlosser concluded that the sound was a chain saw and that someone must be building an ark. She walked up and down the street in search of the woodcutter. God wanted him to have Maggie, she thought. She searched but never found what she was looking for.
She returned home downtrodden and told her husband what happened. God brought you home, he told her.
Forensic psychiatrist William H. Reid testified that Mr. Schlosser and the church prevented Ms. Schlosser from getting proper health care “when she needed it and when she wanted it.”
Through his attorney, Mr. Schlosser denied keeping his wife from care but said that, in retrospect, he should have done things differently.
George Elwell, president of the Collin County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the Schlossers appeared to have been brainwashed by the church.
“I think he’s the one who should be on trial – him [Mr. Schlosser] and the church. Not her,” Mr. Elwell said.
John Dornheim, a community liaison for Green Oaks Hospital, said more awareness of mental illness is needed so friends and family members can understand the warning signs.
“She made cries for help, but nobody interpreted them correctly,” he said. “Most people in a severe case like that are giving out signs. It’s a matter of can you interpret them or not. It sounds like her circle of friends would not.”
Child Protective Services
A doctor first diagnosed postpartum psychosis in Ms. Schlosser after she ran away from her home just after Maggie’s birth. She was taken to Medical Center of Plano, and Child Protective Services was called because she left Maggie alone.
CPS said they considered the case high risk. Ms. Schlosser was to have no unsupervised contact with her children. Her mother-in-law came to stay with the family for a month. Then CPS decided that Ms. Schlosser could again be alone with her children, but caseworkers continued to check in every weekday.
By the time Maggie was 2 months old, the agency was visiting twice a week.
Neither Ms. Schlosser nor her husband told CPS about another psychotic break when Maggie was 4 months old. This time, Ms. Schlosser wandered into the nearby Medical Center in the middle of the night and was found on a bathroom floor. Yet CPS closed its case three months later after a psychiatrist deemed that Ms. Schlosser’s mental health had improved. There was no further interaction with the agency until the day Maggie died.
Throughout the time CPS was involved, caseworkers wanted Ms. Schlosser to attend individual counseling, but she and her husband refused. The agency could have asked a court to order counseling, but it did not. The agency offers counseling to most clients, said spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales. She declined to discuss the Schlosser case because of privacy laws.
The clinical program director for Dallas’ Child Abuse Prevention Center said CPS has a difficult job in determining whether children are at risk, especially given high turnover and understaffing at the agency.
“When you’re looking at risk, you’re always doing an educated guess,” said Carol Duncan, who worked for CPS for 25 years.
At the same time that CPS was brought in, Ms. Schlosser was referred to LifePath Systems, the area’s public mental-health system for low-income residents. The family did not have medical insurance.
Doctors sent Ms. Schlosser to Green Oaks Hospital, a private psychiatric facililty, after her initial diagnosis at Medical Center of Plano just days after Maggie’s birth. There, she stayed in the psychiatric hospital’s 23-hour crisis stabilization unit, where patients are monitored to determine whether they can be released for outpatient treatment.
After her discharge, Ms. Schlosser was sent for follow-up treatment through LifePath, a public mental-health provider funded by state, county and federal money.
From February to June 2004, Ms. Schlosser met with LifePath psychiatrist Nasir Zaki for 15 minutes a month after an initial 45-minute meeting. Dr. Zaki testified that LifePath’s financial limitations prohibit longer or more frequent sessions.
“I think all of our doctors would like to have time to see clients on a more regular basis,” said Randy Routon, LifePath’s chief executive officer. “We cannot do nearly as much following up as we’d like to.” He also said few patients in the system receive psychotherapy because of tight funding.
There is no standard length for appointments, and the treating psychiatrist determines the time, said Tom Warburton, spokesman for ValueOptions, the managed-care company that the state contracts with to run its mental-health program.
Dr. Zaki stopped prescribing the antipsychotic drug Haldol each time Ms. Schlosser told him she did not want to take it. He said he did not pressure her to continue the medication because he could not force her to take it.
In May, the psychiatrist wrote a letter to CPS saying Ms. Schlosser was doing better. Later that month, she was found on the bathroom floor at the Plano hospital.
Doctors again concluded she was psychotic. But instead of going to Green Oaks, Mr. Schlosser talked doctors into releasing her into Dr. Zaki’s care. After that incident, Dr. Zaki started Ms. Schlosser on Haldol again. He said he did not know the full details of the bathroom episode, but he did not contact CPS.
Ms. Schlosser stopped going to LifePath after a July appointment in which she was incorrectly told that she would have to start paying $50 per appointment. Ms. Schlosser was never called to correct the error, a LifePath Systems employee testified.
Dr. Routon said he could not speak about Ms. Schlosser’s case, citing privacy reasons. But he said some patients might be required to pay $50 for appointments if they have been deemed ineligible for treatment. Other patients may owe smaller co-payments on a sliding scale, depending on their income.
Mr. Elwell, president of the Collin County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said more funding for mental health treatment might have saved Maggie’s life.
He said patients in the public mental health system are released from hospitals too soon and without adequate follow-up care.
LifePath’s Dr. Routon said the funds must be spread among too many patients.
“Obviously, this is one of the saddest cases we’ve ever seen in our community,” Dr. Routon said. “I think the public is not always aware that Texas is almost last in funding for mental health services in the nation. That affects our court system, how many people are in jails, how many people are having disturbances in the street and how many lives are unproductive. It shows up in a lot of ways.”
Water of Life Church
The day Pastor Davidson testified in Ms. Schlosser’s trial, he thanked the court in his gravelly voice for the opportunity to spread God’s word.
Throughout his testimony, he answered attorneys’ questions by quoting Scripture and giving his interpretation of the Bible, which other clergy members have described as out of the mainstream.
In addition to believing that demons cause mental illness, he preaches that women are possessed by a Jezebel spirit and must submit to their husbands.
“All mental problems, I’m convinced, is caused by demons,” he testified. “I do not believe that any mental illness exists that is not manifestation of demonic activity.”
Mr. Davidson was the only person Ms. Schlosser immediately put on her jail visitation list besides her husband. The minister was also the first person Mr. Schlosser called after his wife told him she had cut off Maggie’s arms.
Ms. Schlosser was obsessed with Mr. Davidson. She constantly spoke of him to her family and sent them tapes of his sermons. She told a psychiatrist that she began to believe that God told her that Maggie was to marry Mr. Davidson.
The day before Maggie died, the Schlossers argued in the church parking lot because Ms. Schlosser wanted to give Maggie “to God” or “to Doyle.” They continued arguing at home where, according to a psychiatric report on Mr. Schlosser, he spanked his wife with a wooden spoon.
The role that Mr. Davidson played in Ms. Schlosser’s life concerns some in the mental health field.
“Somebody has to start saying something about evangelical religion’s role in these tragedies we’ve had in Texas,” said Dallas psychologist Ann Dunnewold. She refers to Ms. Schlosser and another Texas mother, Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in 2001 because, she said, she thought Satan threatened them.
“I don’t think we know how to begin to address it, but I think it’s complicating things,” the psychologist said.
Like the Schlossers, the Yates family was deeply religious and corresponded with a minister whom Ms. Yates’ husband, Randy Yates, met while in college at Auburn University.
The preacher, who disparaged Ms. Yates’ Catholicism, taught that since Adam and Eve, women are a source of evil and inferior to men. Ms. Yates felt that she was a bad mother and that drowning her children would save them. And like Dena Schlosser, Ms. Yates, who home-schooled her children, was relatively isolated. Ms. Yates’ capital murder retrial is scheduled to begin Monday. A jury in 2002 rejected her claim of insanity but an appeals court later overturned the conviction.
Ms. Schlosser at times was well enough to care for herself. Medication helped, and she was judged by many around her as capable of making sound decisions.
But she and her husband repeatedly asked her psychiatrist to stop the antipsychotic drug Haldol. By all accounts, the drug was helping her.
She also refused counseling and was not forthcoming about her delusions and hallucinations when she was medicated.
She believed that a little boy who asked her for a glass of water in summer 2004 was Jesus. She believed that bloody streets turned into apostles heralding the Apocalypse. She believed that God told her to cut off Maggie’s arms, as well as her own arms, head and legs.
Dr. Routon of LifePath said that because there is no physical test for mental illness, doctors determine how someone is doing partly based on how they – and their families – say they’re doing.
“There’s not a litmus test you can give: ‘Are they doing great or not?’ ” Dr. Routon said. “A lot of the practice of psychiatry involves self-report.”
Many patients quit taking medications because they have started to feel better or because of what can be severe side effects.
Additionally, many women become adept at keeping quiet about postpartum depression, Dr. Dunnewold said.
“We have such taboos about mental health issues, but we have even bigger taboos about mothers being unhappy with motherhood,” she said. “Women are able to keep it sort of under wraps, and then it can flare up. You want to believe it’s coming together. Families want to believe it’s all coming together.”
Depression after childbirth
Postpartum depression can be caused by hormonal changes that can affect brain chemicals after giving birth. About 10 percent of new mothers experience some degree of postpartum depression. Treatment can include medication and psychotherapy.
Sluggishness, fatigue, exhaustion
Feelings of hopelessness or depression
Disturbances with appetite or sleep
Lack of interest in the baby
Fear of harming the baby or oneself
Postpartum psychosis is more severe and less common, occurring in one to two of every 1,000 new mothers. Of those, an estimated 5 percent commit suicide, and 4 percent kill their babies. Risk factors include a family history of psychosis, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Postpartum depression can evolve into psychosis after a dramatic or traumatic event.
Symptoms, which usually arise within three days of delivery, can include:
Delusions, for example, about a need to kill the baby, that the baby is possessed or a denial of the birth
Delirium, mania and frantic energy
Extreme confusion, memory loss or incoherence
Paranoia, irrational statements, preoccupation with trivial things
Refusal to eat
A woman who is found to have postpartum psychosis should be hospitalized until she is in stable condition, according to the National Mental Health Association. Doctors may prescribe a mood stabilizer, antipsychotic drug or antidepressant to treat the psychosis.
SOURCES: American Psychiatric Association; National Mental Health Association; Postpartum Support International
Postpartum Support International provides information for new parents, an online list of support groups, chats, discussion boards and a postpartum self-assessment test at www.postpartum.net.
The Dallas Association for Parent Education offers a free support group for women with post-delivery depression. Contact the association at 972-699-0420 or www.dallasparents.org.
Depression After Delivery Inc. provides information, support and links to information at www.charityadvantage.com/.
Crisis Line, 972-233-2233 or www.contactcrisisline.org
Suicide & Crisis Center in Dallas, 214-828-1000 or www.sccenter.org
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill – Collin County, 972-922-5095 or www.namicco.org
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill – Dallas County, 214-341-7133
Mental Health Association of Greater Dallas, 214-871-2420 or www.mhadallas.org
The state will prosecute Dena Schlosser again. A pretrial hearing is scheduled Thursday.
A judge or jury could decide the verdict in a second trial.
A recent change to state law would allow the defense and prosecutors to agree that Ms. Schlosser was insane when she killed daughter Maggie. The outcome would be the same as a jury deciding that she was not guilty by reason of insanity: Ms. Schlosser would go to the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon until state District Judge Chris Oldner decides that she should be released.