Cornwall couple spared jail over malnourished girl

Truro Crown Court
Image caption Teachers raised concerns about the girl's weight after she was seen to "eat and eat"

A couple who let a girl become so malnourished she had to be admitted to hospital have been spared jail.

The two women, from Cornwall, were convicted of child cruelty after the jury at Truro Crown Court found they wilfully neglected the girl by failing to seek medical attention soon enough.

The eight-year-old weighed half the normal weight of a child of her age.

The women, aged 25 and 40, were given 12 month prison sentences, suspended for two years.

The pair, from the south-east of the county, had been caring for the girl after the older woman separated from the child's father.

'Not deliberately starved'

The court was told that 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".

She was later diagnosed with coeliac disease, which prevented her body from absorbing nutrients from the "inappropriate" food provided, the court heard.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition caused by intolerance to gluten - which can be found in foods like pasta, bread, cakes and cereals.

Judge Peter Johnson said it was "not suggested that you could or should have diagnosed the coeliac disease [or] that you deliberately starved the girl [but] the jury found the girl needed medical attention that she did not receive".

"This was a serious neglect... severe malnutrition which had endured for at least six months, and almost certainly up to two years."

He said that generally where parents were convicted of child neglect, they could expect to go to prison, but the "circumstances of this case are so exceptional", the pair were given a suspended sentence.

'Extremely thin'

The court heard teachers had raised concerns about the girl's weight after she was seen to "eat and eat" and steal food from other pupils' plates at lunchtime.

However, the girl was not taken to the doctor until four months later on 26 January 2011, when she weighed just over two stone (13kg).

Judge Johnson said the doctor she saw had said she "appeared thin, extremely thin".

"The doctor couldn't help but wonder why you waited so long before seeking medical help [and] an experienced consultant paediatrician had not seen a child so malnourished in 20 years."

The judge 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.

Malcolm Clark, defending the girl's mother, said it was "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," he said.

Barrie van den Berg, defending the mother's partner, said: "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 added the couple had separated since their three-day trial in September and his client had moved to the north of England.

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