System failed us: widower

ATTACKED: Steve and June McGowan.
ATTACKED: Steve and June McGowan.

A man whose wife was killed by their mentally ill son says his life is over, and it is "ridiculous" that his son was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Steve McGowan's wife June was stabbed to death in their west Auckland home on September 11 last year by their son Max, 34, who was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Steve McGowan was also stabbed in the head and chest during the attack.

Earlier this month, Max was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He has been receiving treatment as a "special patient" at Auckland's Mason Clinic.

McGowan said: "My life is over. I'm not being dramatic. June was my life and now she's not here, my life is finished."

The couple met as next-door neighbours in Liverpool when Steve was 18 and June 14. When he first met her, Steve turned to his friend and said "I'm going to marry that girl". Marrying June was the best thing that had happened to him.

"We had so many plans. We were going to buy a house in Cyprus and travel, and cut back on work."

Their 40th wedding anniversary party was just a week away when she died.

McGowan hasn't seen his son since the attack.

"I don't blame him in some ways, because he was obviously mentally unwell. But if I visited him, all I'd see is him assaulting his mother, and that won't be a good thing.

"I may relent in the future but at the moment it's not happening."

However, McGowan's eldest son, Jamie, has been in regular contact with Max, and McGowan understands Max is beginning to comprehend his actions.

"In December he sent me a Christmas card he'd made himself. I was sobbing for most of the day just thinking about it," he said.

McGowan said the mental health system had failed his family. Not long before the fatal attack, June had met Max's GP and told her they were concerned about his deteriorating mental condition.

McGowan said nothing came of June's conversation with Max's GP.

"The GP said ‘it's up to Max to take the medication'."

Privacy laws meant the doctor would not discuss anything further with the parents, he said.

"Given the fact he had a history, it should have been enough for us to get help for him."

McGowan said the treatment Max was now receiving had come far too late, and that if he'd had the same level of care earlier, things would have been different.

Max had suffered from mental illness since his teens, and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Medication helped, but when he stopped taking it his paranoia and delusions would return.

He completed a university degree in media studies but was reclusive and suffered panic attacks, and had lived with his parents most of his life.

McGowan said that before the killing, he was sometimes fearful of his son, especially at meal times, when he would tightly grasp his knife and fork and glare. He had discussed his fears with June and suggested they put a lock on their bedroom door.

He was concerned now that no one was being held responsible for what had happened - not even his son.

"The insanity defence is a ridiculous law. He's my son but I still believe he should have been found guilty."

Waitemata DHB's mental health services clinical director Dr Murray Patton said that before Max's arrest in September, the DHB hadn't been involved in Max's care for nearly 10 years.

He said that when patients with mental health symptoms went to a GP, the doctor would first consider whether the patient was confident to manage the condition themselves.

"GPs may also seek specialist advice or refer the person to the appropriate mental health service or provider.

"Management of psychiatric illness can be short- or long-term and a patient is monitored after diagnosis depending on their individual need."

He said patients or families with an imminent concern about safety or violent behaviour should call the police. DHB mental health service crisis teams were available 24 hours a day and could also be contacted directly.

Sunday Star Times