Turkish newspapers used headlines such as “Monster Mom” to cover the tragedy. Not a single newspaper questioned the flaws in child protection services or the possible role of negligence on the part of officials or those around the woman. (Photo: Today’s Zaman)
Women’s rights organizations and media watchdogs were outraged by the Turkish news media’s appalling coverage of the tragic story of a two-month-old baby who died because of starvation when his obviously deranged mother left him at home to visit her parents in another city earlier this week.
The woman left her two-month-old home in his crib over the nine-day Eid holiday to visit her family, who reside in another town. Her baby had died — possibly due to starvation though the complete forensic report is not yet ready — in his crib when she returned. Oblivious to this fact, she took the child to the hospital, nonchalantly complaining to health workers that her baby didn’t seem to want to eat. The woman was put under arrest immediately without any psychiatric evaluation in spite of her obvious detachment from reality. (She said she had left two feeding bottles next to the baby in her testimony; the police also found recently reheated baby formula when they searched the house later, indicating that she indeed tried to feed the baby.)
The baby didn’t yet have an ID card, but she told the police she was going to name him Berk.
Yet the Turkish media openly reported on her marital status (divorced with baby recently born out of wedlock); her profession (school teacher, which is admittedly worrisome) and published her full body pictures, calling her “the monster mom,” and “the evil mom” and similar descriptions in their headlines. HaberTürk published the full name of the woman. Reader comments and user comments on popular sites — such as the user-created-content dictionary Ek$i Sözlük — were full of messages condemning the “mother from hell.” How Turkey’s health services — whose employees have on more than one occasion called up fathers of young women to let them know that their daughter is pregnant — could skip this baby who was born prematurely and spent 19 days at a hospital; or how the woman’s neighbors did not even know of the baby is not exactly interesting for anyone. This baby did not exist as far as anybody who could have actually helped him is concerned.
Women’s groups also rightly noted that although stories about children killed by their own fathers in moments of temporary insanity are not uncommon in the press, male perpetrators are never demonized the way this woman has been. The case also indicated problems with Turkey’s cultural bias against women who have children outside a marriage: The woman said her family did not know about the baby and that’s why she couldn’t take him with her.
The media campaign against the mother — who might not even have criminal liability, something that will come out later at the end of psychiatric evaluation — is unacceptable, according to women’s rights groups and media experts. Üsküdar University Rector and psychiatry professor Nevzat Tarhan said: “A thorough investigation must be conducted first, before declaring anyone guilty.” Tarhan said a psychiatric evaluation is necessary to understand the mental state of the woman. However, he noted that currently doesn’t have legislation necessary to prevent such tragedies.
“We urgently need social services checks immediately [to prevent such cases],” he said, drawing attention to the obvious lack of state intervention in such cases. Children with perfectly sane parents are also often victims of abuse and crime, and Turkey does not have a viable social protection system to catch such instances. This could partially be remedied if communities were more sensitive, but this obviously is not the case. As Tarhan noted: “Everyone should be asking themselves whether such a thing could be happening to the people around them. This [case] also indicates that neighborly relations in our society are also weak.”
Although it is not their fault, how the neighbors failed to hear the screams of a starving baby is another question that begs answers. Some of the neighbors who were interviewed by the media said they did not even know the baby existed, much like the state, although this baby spent 19 days at a hospital. The mother was also a school teacher, against whom a number of parents had filed complaints for “acting strange” around the kids. This started a new discussion on background checks because the school’s principal played down the complaints and she kept her job, thankfully without causing another tragedy at her place of employment. But could Baby Berk have been discovered had the principal been more meticulous in handling complaints? The baby’s father, reportedly a police officer, said he didn’t know of the child. How could he or others around the woman miss a 35-week long pregnancy? The same question applies to the woman’s neighbors and colleagues who must have seen her during her pregnancy.
Tarhan also said local governments should take more responsibility in their districts. “Unfortunately municipal services in Turkey are only seen as building roads. Local governments should be undertaking social responsibility projects. This woman should have had a place to call in that moment of crisis. The Family and Social Policy Ministry is trying to set up such a system, and such efforts should be supported.”
During his brief existence that ended miserably, Baby Berk was not seen or heard by the Turkish state or society, which is now pouring out their hate toward a person whose sanity has not even been confirmed. One shudders to imagine the number of babies with similar fates Turkey’s media and society so readily ignore every year.