Why do female offenders get lenient sentences?

October 2013

Female couple avoid jail despite letting their daughter waste away to half the size of a healthy child

  • The couple said they believed her condition was due to ‘fussy eating’

  • Experienced paediatrician ‘had not seen a child so malnourished in 20 years’

  • They were convicted of child cruelty but sentence was suspended

Looe, Cornwall

A female couple have walked free from court despite neglecting their daughter – letting her waste away to little more than two stone.

Doctors found the girl, who was eight years old at the time, was stunted and weighed half the normal amount for a child of her age.

The child’s mother, 40, was looking after the girl in the Looe area of Cornwall with her 25-year-old lover, after separating from the father.

Both women, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had attempted to feed up the girl and believed her condition was due to ‘fussy eating’.

Truro Crown Court heard she was later diagnosed with the digestive condition Coeliac disease, which prevented her body from absorbing nutrients from the ‘inappropriate’ food provided.

The couple were convicted of child cruelty, after a jury found they wilfully neglected the girl by failing to seek medical attention for her in proper time.

Judge Peter Johnson imposed a 12-month custodial sentence for both of the women but said it could be suspended for two years due to the ‘exceptional’ nature of the case.

‘It has not been suggested that you could or should have diagnosed the Coeliac disease,’ the judge said.

‘It is not suggested that you deliberately starved the girl. The jury found the girl needed medical attention that she did not receive.

‘This was a serious neglect involving a young child that went on for many months. This was severe malnutrition which had endured for at least six months, and almost certainly up to two years.

‘This is an extremely unusual offence of its type.

‘Generally where parents are convicted of child neglect they can expect to go to prison but the circumstances of this case are so exceptional that it is only proper to suspend the sentence for the good of the children as well as everyone else.’

The court heard the girl, born in September 2002, moved to Cornwall with her mother and siblings in 2010.

Teachers raised concerns about the girl’s weight after she was seen to ‘eat and eat’ and even steal food from other pupils’ plates at lunchtime.

But the girl was not taken to the doctor until four months later on January 26 2011, where she was found to weigh 13.7kg, or 2st 2.2lbs.

Judge Johnson said: ‘To the doctor, the girl appeared thin, extremely thin. She was weighed and found to weigh about half the weight of an average child of her age.

‘The doctor couldn’t help but wonder why you waited so long before seeking medical help. The girl was admitted to hospital and doctors found her to be suffering from Coeliac disease.

‘An experienced consultant paediatrician had not seen a child so malnourished in 20 years of practise. Coeliac disease meant the girl was unable to absorb any nutrients from most of the foods you were feeding her.

‘She now appears to be thriving although her height may be affected by her wholly inappropriate diet.’

The judge said that in interview, the mother claimed the girl ‘wasn’t eating properly because the food wasn’t to her liking’.

He accepted the pair were trying to feed the girl but said they were ‘not acting with her best interests at heart’ by failing to seek medical attention sooner.

Prosecutor Philip Lee said the girl’s mother was of previous good character, while her partner had one caution for an unrelated matter.

Malcolm Clark, defending the girl’s mother, said: ‘This wasn’t a case of singling the child out, this was not malicious behaviour.

‘It is quite clear she did try to resolve the issue, albeit by giving the child the wrong food. It is clear the child loves the mother.’

Barrie van den Berg, for the mother’s partner, said his client had taken on parenting the girl and her siblings ‘to her credit’.

‘Here are two parents who were doing the best that they could, kind people, not someone who wanted to do any harm to any of their children,’ Mr Van den Berg said.

‘The jury thought their best was not good enough.’