Parents sentenced over neglect of child on vegan-only diet


A Sydney vegan couple who had their three children taken away from them after police found their 20-month-old girl was severely malnourished and suffering from rickets have avoided jail over the neglect of their child.

Both sobbed in court as a judge slammed their behaviour as "reckless" and questioned their "inconsistent" statements to authorities about their daughter's health.

The couple was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, however they will not have to spend time behind bars with the sentence in the form of an intensive correction order. Both will undertake 300 hours community service.

Their baby daughter weighed just 4.89kg, looked like a three-month-old and had no teeth when she was taken into care.

She had been fed a diet of just oats and a few mouthfuls of vegetables daily for months and had never seen a doctor since she was born.

The mother, wearing a grey suit, silently cried in the dock and held her head in her hand dabbing her face with a tissue.

Her husband dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, sat impassively, at one point reaching out to comfort his wife. But as the details of his daughter's neglect were read out, he began to loudly sob.

The couple who cannot be named for legal reasons collapsed in each other arms crying as they found out their sentence.

The child was taken into care in March 2018 after her mother called triple-0 when the child started having a fit, looked "floppy" and lips began going blue.

Judge Sarah Huggett said there was "no greater responsibility for a parent to care and nurture and protect their child from injury".

However, these parents had shown a "reckless failure to provide the necessities of life" to their daughter.

The child had been fed a strict vegan diet and the mother said she was a "fussy eater".

The mother had become "increasingly fixated" in her beliefs including in their vegan diet, Judge Huggett said.

"There was a considerable danger of injury falling short of death."

The child has now recovered and weighs more than 12kg.

Court documents showed 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.

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 of 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 toddler's two older brothers, aged six and four, are also in government care and were also on vegan diets.

In May, a court heard a powerful victim impact statement from the baby's foster carer, who took the toddler in after she had been taken out of her parents' care in August 2018.

"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."

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

"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.

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

"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 about 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 was now "traumatised" by the monthly and bimonthly blood tests she must undergo and sometimes needed 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.

In January when she was about two and a half, the baby 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.

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

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, Crown prosecutor Julia 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 Huggett also hit out at the defence, saying the father was 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 was now living in Queensland and has been subject to an "vegan and anti-vax witch hunt" in the press.

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

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

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.

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