Parents jailed over rickets baby death

Nkosiyapha Kunene and Virginia Kunene Nkosiyapha and Virginia Kunene admitted the manslaughter of their son

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The parents of a five-month-old boy who died from acute rickets have been jailed for manslaughter.

Nkosiyapha Kunene, 36, and Virginia Kunene, 32, of Erith, south-east London, were sentenced to three and two years in prison respectively.

Their son Ndingeko Kunene died in 2012 from the bone condition which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D.

The Old Bailey heard the boy's medical care was neglected because of his parents' religious beliefs.

Richard Whittam QC for the prosecution told the court the couple's beliefs arose out of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which does approve of medical care.

Rickets

  • A condition that affects bone development, making them soft and weak
  • It is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D and calcium
  • It is brought on by a poor diet or if another condition affects how vitamins and minerals are absorbed in the body
  • It was common in the past. However, it disappeared in the Western world because of vitamin D being in foods such as cereal and margarine
  • Any child can develop rickets, but children with dark skin (as more sunlight is needed to get enough vitamin D) or children born prematurely are more susceptible

However, an overarching belief held principally by Nkosiyapha was that there was a god in heaven who would guide the family when it came to any matter that affected life.

Mr Whittam said: "There is no suggestion of any ill treatment in the conventional way of neglect or cruelty, it is a neglect to seek proper medical care and then to call medical care at the end.

"There was, throughout the better part of pregnancy and into early life, a rejection of either medical advice or advice from relatives to seek medical advice."

The court heard Nkosiyapha was baptised into the church in 2000 and in 2009 was recommended to be a delegate to its South England Conference.

It was also told he worked as a nurse at King's College Hospital and did not reject medical treatment outright, but believed medicines were given to patients without much thought as to whether they were appropriate for their condition or not.

Mr Justice Singh said he was aware of the couple's religious beliefs but that "their views (in particular Mr Kunene's) appear to be very extreme and do not reflect the official doctrine of that church".

The court heard Nkosiyapha accepted on 14 June that Ndingeko might die but did not call for medical assistance.

His wife said she wanted to seek medical attention but her husband said it would be a sin.

Kerim Fuad QC, defending Nkosiyapha, said: "The loss of their son haunts them, and will do, for the rest of their lives.

'Blinded' common sense

"The covenant he had sworn with God blinded his objectivity and common sense."

Mr Fuad told the court the baby was discharged from the hospital at Darent Valley without vitamin D being given to his mother who, as a vegan, would have been more susceptible to a vitamin deficiency.

He said had the vitamin D deficiency been diagnosed, the parents would have been alert to the need to be vigilant, but the vitamin D levels were not tested until after the child's death.

Mr Justice Singh said he had heard evidence the hospital played a part in failing properly to advise the couple and prescribe vitamin D supplements and a serious case review had been taking place.

Sallie Bennett-Jenkins, defending Virginia Kunene, said: "She has confronted the reality that she failed the child, by virtue of her view that it would be a breach of a covenant made between her, her husband and their god, and an abandonment of her sincerely-held religious views."

Mr Justice Singh said: "The law respects the right of everyone to freedom of thought and belief.

"However the right to manifest one's religion is not absolute. It is limited in particular by the rights of others.

"The state has a particularly important duty to protect the right to life, especially when a young child is concerned."

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