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Parents who failed to provide necessaries of life to toddler get conditional sentence

Child ended up in the intensive care ward of the Stollery Children’s Hospital “severely malnourished” and on the verge of death.
WES courthouse pano web

WESTLOCK, Alta. – Parents of a then 23-month toddler who ended up in the intensive care ward of the Stollery Children’s Hospital in the fall of 2020 “severely malnourished” and on the verge of death, each face a nine-month conditional sentence that includes a portion of strict, 24-hour-a-day house arrest.

In Westlock Provincial Court Sept. 28, the couple, who sat together but were represented by different defence lawyers, each pleaded guilty to a single count of failure to provide the necessaries of life, while a second identical count was withdrawn by joint-Crown prosecutors Heather Fraser and Katrina Stewart Lund — defence counsel asked for and received a publication ban that bars reporting anything that could identify the child.

Judge Karl Wilberg agreed to a joint-sentence submission from the Crown and defence lawyers Richard Forbes and Karl Teskey that’ll see the father under three months of 24-hour-a-day house arrest, then under six months of a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, while the mother faces six months of 24-hour-a-day house arrest, then three months of an identical curfew. At the end of the nine months the pair, who have five children together, will be on probation for 24 months under a host of conditions — one includes the mother attending counselling for nutrition or mental health on the advice of the probation supervisor.

Judge Wilberg said although the incident could have had a tragic end as the child “according to the agreed statement of facts he was quite literally … his time on Earth was coming to an end”, the now almost four-year-old boy has recovered and is doing well “and that’s a very fortunate result.” He said this case was distinct from others in that the parents weren’t addicted to drugs or alcohol or “narcissistic or self-involved” but were “successful” and “well-meaning” parents who accepted responsibility and “ended up in this situation by virtue of not using sound judgement.” The judge also declined to impose a victim-fine surcharge “given the stress that the whole family has been under.”

“As someone who’s been involved in the system for decades as a defence lawyer, then as a Crown and then as a judge, I can say that it’s obvious to me counsel worked really hard on this and it shows,” said Judge Wilberg. “It has resulted in a sentence that one would think has its best chance of achieving the ultimate goal of restoring the couple, their own community and their children to their best possible state, yet at the same time letting it be known to the public, as much as they can know given the (publication) ban, that the children are very important and must be treated like the treasures that they are.”

While the father declined comment, the mother did speak expressing her “sincere appreciation” for everybody who cared for her child who spent just under a month in hospital. Forbes noted that the child is no longer malnourished and has “made great leaps in his developmental milestones … and is now on par with age peers.” He said the couple, as well as the children, have been involved in counselling, and received help from Children’s Services and called the joint sentence a “best-case outcome for this young boy and his parents” as the family is now “thriving.”

“I love him so much, he is so precious to me. I want him to be healthy and happy and I recognize the extraordinary work of many medical professionals in saving his life,” said the mother. “My greatest hope is to move forward in caring for my family and creating a strong future for my children.”

The case

Reading from an agreed statement of facts, Fraser told court that on Oct. 8, 2020, the father took his then 23-month son to the emergency room at the Westlock Healthcare Centre with swollen feet, hands and legs.

“He appeared to be malnourished and the history provided by the father to the staff indicated that his nutrition history was inappropriate for his age,” said Fraser. “He did not have the strength to hold himself up or stand.”

Fraser said that the child had “regressed” in terms of standing, walking and crawling and “was not talking appropriately for a child of that age.”

Doctors in Westlock “were concerned his life was in danger” and he was taken by ambulance to the Stollery Children’s Hospital.

“Ambulance staff who transported him to Edmonton said he had no fight left. He would not even move away from attempts to administer an IV in the way most children would,” said Fraser.

The child was transferred to the intensive care unit and although he was listed in stable condition, he was diagnosed with “severe malnutrition.”

A report from the Child and Adolescent Protection Centre notes the boy had to be fed intravenously and there were many abnormalities in his blood and low levels of vitamin B12, tyramine, iron, vitamin D, zinc, copper and selenium.

“His feeds and micronutrient supplements were closely monitored by a dietician in order to minimize the effects of re-feeding syndrome, a potential life-threatening complication that can arise when feeds are restarted in a severely malnourished patient,” Fraser explained.

On Oct. 10 while still in intensive care, the boy had a “life threatening” drop in his blood pressure and by Oct. 13 his condition had stabilized, although a brain MRI showed the impacts of his malnourishment.

In the days before he was released from hospital Nov. 4, staff noted the child didn’t chew his food and doctors wanted his mother to discontinue breast feeding him. The father told investigators that at the age of three to four months the boy would vomit so his mother removed dairy and latex foods from her diet “and the vomiting decreased.”

At around six months of age the boy started eating solid foods but was vomiting again and his mother restarted breastfeeding at eight months.

“At the time of his admission to hospital, he was essentially getting only breast milk from his mother. He did not walk, he would stand and walk along furniture, but he had not yet walked,” said Fraser.

She said that by July 2020, the boy had regressed and stopped standing, crawling or playing with his siblings, while his parents then also noted swelling in feet which would track up his calf.

“At the time of his admission to hospital he was eating very little solid food, at best a little rice each day.”

Experts at the hospital were concerned that the mother may also be malnourished “due to her restrictive diet” and one believed she may be suffering from orthorexia, “an unhealthy obsession with eating in a healthy way.”

Fraser also noted that throughout the summer of 2020, extended family and even the midwife recommended they take the child to the doctor, but the couple did not follow through on the advice.

On Dec. 4, 2020, all the children were removed from the home by Children’s Service and placed with their paternal grandparents.

Since, the child showed steady improvement, as a report from July 2021 indicated that he had grown to 29 pounds, compared to the fact he was only 14 pounds when he was admitted to hospital. The report also noted that he still had “deficits” but was starting to walk and communicating with sound and following dental surgery has begun eating solid foods.

The children were eventually returned to their parents Dec. 14, 2021, with a supervision order in place — that order expired Sept. 14, 2022, and Children’s Services has closed the file and are satisfied with the child’s improvement.

“A report from January 2022 illustrated further improvement. He was behind in speech but was gaining meaningful vocabulary at a fast pace and was otherwise meeting his milestones. He had gained more weight and was being seen by a pediatrician,” said Fraser.

George Blais,

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