Neglected vegan baby’s sad future

In seven weeks time, we will know the fate of the Sydney parents who neglected their youngest daughter - allowing her to become severely malnourished on a plant-based diet and developing rickets.

As they sat separated from each other in a sparse courtroom at Sydney's Downing Centre on Thursday, their lawyers told the judge that the 4.89kg 20-month-old girl, who looked like a three-month-old and had no teeth when she was taken into care, had made an incredible recovery.

They said the child has been reunited with her two older brothers and was now living in their extended family's care.

The happy image was conjured in an attempt to persuade the judge to consider a non-custodial community sentence for the parents, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

The crown prosecutor said the child faced an uncertain future due to lack of nourishment in her first year of life. Picture: AAP Image/Hanna Higgins
The crown prosecutor said the child faced an uncertain future due to lack of nourishment in her first year of life. Picture: AAP Image/Hanna Higgins

However, the bleak reality of what they had done and the ongoing impact of their neglect on the baby girl was laid bare by the crown's prosecutor Julia Dewhurst at the end of an emotional day in court.

She said that while the baby's recovery has been painted as "remarkable" by the parent's lawyers, in reality the child had an "uncertain" future.

She told the court that although the child's weight has increased significantly since she was taken into care, her height remains stunted and her body is so disproportionate that she qualifies for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

"She remains significantly delayed and has delayed motor skills," Ms Dewhurst told the court.

"The fact that she qualifies for the NDIS shows that the future is unclear for her."

As the baby girl's mother wiped away tears, the court also heard a powerful statement from the toddler's former foster carer who took the child into her care in March last year - shortly after she was taken out of her parent's care.

"For the first 19 months of her life (the baby) did not receive the basic care that she needed to grow and develop," she said in a victim impact statement read out in court. "As she was a baby during this time, she can't tell us about her experience."

The girl’s mother’s lawyer claimed her client was suffering from depression after the baby’s birth. Picture: AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi
The girl’s mother’s lawyer claimed her client was suffering from depression after the baby’s birth. Picture: AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi

She said the baby was "defenceless and unable to protect herself from her parents' inadequate care".

The first time the carer saw the baby lying in a hospital bed, she said the 20-month-old weighed just 4.89kg, looked like a three-month-old and had no teeth.

"She was being fed through a tube in her nose," she said in the statement. "I remember thinking, how terrifying this must be for such a small child.

"I was also shocked by how far behind (she) was compared to other children her age I had looked after - they had been able to run around, talk to you, play games.

"Caring for (her) was caring for a very young baby. She couldn't sit up, she couldn't speak any words, she couldn't feed herself or hold a bottle, she couldn't play with toys.

"She spent the day in her cot rolling back and forth. She couldn't roll over all the way."

She said hospital staff cheered when the baby achieved her first milestone of rolling over, something normally achieved by babies aged around four months, when she was 19 months - and she needed the help of an occupational therapist to do so.

The baby went home from hospital, she had a medical appointments every day of the week, the carer's statement states.

"Currently, (the toddler) has ongoing appointments for weekly occupational therapy, monthly appointments with physiotherapy, speech therapy, a paediatrician and dietitian," the carer said in the statement, written in January.

She said the baby is now "traumatised" by the monthly and bimonthly blood tests she must undergo and sometimes needs to be held down by medics so they can draw blood.

"She begins to scream and cry if she goes into a medical room and the door is closed," she said in the statement.

She said the baby, who was approaching two-and-a-half years of age in January, was only 76cm tall - the height for size zero clothing for a standard one-year-old.

"Her growth and diet needs ongoing monitoring by medical staff," she said in the statement.

She said the baby's weight had become disproportionate to her height, meaning she had become "technically obese".

"It's like the body is storing calories in case she needs them for the future," she said.

She said finding clothes for the child had become difficult, and also finding shoes because the child's feet were proportionate to her reduced height.

The parents can’t be identified for legal reasons. Picture: The Australian
The parents can’t be identified for legal reasons. Picture: The Australian


She said the baby was "so behind other children" but has hit milestones after "hours of persistence and hard work" from medical staff.

She said the baby will need to keep up this "intensive input for the foreseeable future".

"I worry about the longer-term physical consequences for (the child) in the future," she said in the statement.

She said strangers ask how old the child is upon seeing her because they are "shocked" by she how small she is.

The court also heard how the relationship between the girl's parents had broken down over suspicions of an affair. The solicitor for the toddler's father - who is not vegan - suggested his client was "powerless" to prevent his daughter from falling ill.

The father's defence barrister, Frank Coyne said the mother, who had previously worked in childcare, "dictated" the household, and claimed his client was the sole provider and would do all the driving, shopping, cooking and cleaning.

Mr Coyne said his client was busy with work and thought the toddler was healthy. His partner was the primary caregiver, he said.

"She decided the diet of the household ... he is not and was not a vegetarian or a vegan," Mr Coyne said.

He said the only time their youngest child fell seriously ill, the father called triple-0.

However, Ms Dewhurst hit out at the girl's father's defence, saying he "lied to hospital staff" about the child's development and he made a "conscious decision" not to vaccinate her.

She said that while he drove his children to school, he sent them there with "two pieces of bread and an apple."

"He cannot now claim the decisions were solely made by (the girl's mother)," she said.

Judge Sarah Huggett also hit out at the defence, saying the father is an "educated man" who should have known something was wrong.

"She wasn't walking or talking, she wasn't hitting milestones" she said.

"He did nothing. He could have picked her up and taken her to a doctor.

"He is older than the mother and could have just as easily have done something.

"I do not accept that he was powerless."

The father's lawyer said his client is now living in Queensland and has been subject to a "vegan and anti-vax witch hunt" in the press.

Police allege the father, 34 and mother, 32, - who cannot be named for legal reasons - fed their 20-month-old girl a strict diet "severely lacking in nutrients for her to thrive".

The parents first faced court in May last year, two months after their toddler suffered a seizure at home. They both pleaded guilty to failing to provide for a child and causing serious injury.

After her seizure, the sick toddler spent a month in hospital where doctors and nurses frantically worked to give her the nourishment she needed.

Within just six months, the girl put on 6kg and was able to crawl and stand on her own.

The baby's mother's lawyer said medical reports show her client was suffering from depression.

He said she left hospital just three and a half hours after the child's birth, didn't register the birth or have the baby immunised.

Court documents show the toddler's mother told doctors her daughter would generally have one cup of oats with rice milk and half a banana in the morning, and a piece of toast with jam or peanut butter for lunch.

The court heard that the child will need ongoing therapy. Picture: AAP Image/Hanna Higgins
The court heard that the child will need ongoing therapy. Picture: AAP Image/Hanna Higgins

For dinner, she said her daughter would be offered tofu, rice or potatoes. But she said the girl was a "fussy eater" so she might just have oats again.

This diet resulted in severe deficiencies in nutrients across the board for the infant, including a lack of calcium, phosphate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, iron and zinc.

Her levels of vitamin D - which can cause bone disease if found to be too low - were "undetectable".

Rickets is a preventable bone disease that affects babies and young children and causes soft and weakened bones. Children are typically diagnosed with rickets due to a lack of vitamin D, calcium or phosphorus.

The girl's condition was only brought to the attention of doctors in March last year, when doctors attended to the infant after she suffered a seizure.

She was just over a year old, but weighed only 4.9kg - which is barely double what she weighed when she was a newborn.

One doctor described her as "floppy" and said the tiny one-and-a-half-year-old didn't crawl or talk during the month in care, according to court documents.

In an investigation into the girl's medical history, doctors found an absence of immunisations, no follow-up check-ups after she was born and no birth certificate or Medicare number.

The parents will be back in for sentencing on June 28. They each face up to five years in prison.

Continue the conversation on Twitter via @bengrahamjourno


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