French mother jailed for hiding baby in car boot

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image captionRosa Maria Da Cruz is believed to have concealed her daughter's existence from her partner

A Frenchwoman who hid her baby in a maggot-filled car boot for 23 months has been sentenced to five years in prison, three of them suspended.

Rosa-Maria Da Cruz kept her daughter, Séréna, between the Peugeot 307 and an unused room in her house for two years.

She is said to have hidden the pregnancy and birth from her partner and three older children.

Now aged 7, Séréna has a disability and autistic traits which experts say were caused by sensory deprivation.

The little girl, who does not speak or socialise, has been placed in foster care.

Da Cruz, 50, was charged with negligence causing mental disability.

How was the baby found?

Baby Séréna was discovered in 2013 by a garage mechanic in Dordogne, who heard noises when the car was brought in for repairs. He opened the boot to find the child surrounded by excrement. She was dirty, dehydrated, and weighed less than half what she should have.

Guillaume Iguacel, the mechanic, said of the scene: "There was a horrible smell, a smell of death in the car. Finding a child in this state - it's unimaginable."

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image captionEvidence brought before the court included a filthy baby seat stained with urine and excrement

Da Cruz's partner Domingos Sampaio Alves, an unemployed bricklayer, said he had never been told the child existed.

"I don't know why she did this," he said in court, describing her as "a good mother" to their older children, aged nine, 14 and 15.

Séréna was never brought before the jury. "To bring her here would destroy her a little more," said Isabelle Faure-Roche, lawyer for the local council.

"Entering a car for this little girl is a daily test."

According to France Info, the expert who examined Séréna shortly after she was found said she was suffering from a rare form of "deficient autism," also observed in Romanian orphanages in the 1990s.

A childhood specialist described his "discomfort" watching the child, saying: "We are in front of a kind of wall, without reaction, without anything."

Why did the mother do it?

Da Cruz told the Assize Court in Tulle, central France, that she could not explain her actions.

During the five-day trial, a paediatrician described her three older children as having been "perfectly raised".

Psychiatrists said Da Cruz was emotionally immature, but "not psychotic", "not manipulative", and "absolutely not perverse".

Defence lawyers argued that she displayed "a denial of pregnancy", saying she had never accepted she was having a fourth child. It emerged that she had initially failed to reveal two of her other pregnancies to her partner.

Da Cruz said she had viewed Séréna as "a thing" until she was 18 months old, when the baby smiled at her. She sometimes forgot to feed her for entire days.

"I would like to ask Séréna for forgiveness for all the harm I have done to her", the mother said in court. "I realise I hurt her a lot, and that I'll never see my little girl again."

image copyrightAFP/Getty Images
image captionDa Cruz had initially hidden two of her other pregnancies from her partner, it emerged in court

Prosecutors argued that the trial was not about denial of pregnancy, but a wilful cover-up, "deprivation of care and food, and the violence committed".

"There is only one victim, not two, and that's Séréna," said Ms Faure-Roche.

Why did the court suspend her sentence?

The president of the Assize Court, Gilles Fonrouge, said Da Cruz's sentence would enable her to educate her three other children.

France Info reports that he told the mother: "The court wanted to take into account your background, and this decision may disappoint many parties."

The Assize Court also ordered that she be permanently stripped of parental authority over Séréna.

Da Cruz will be monitored by social services for five years, and will receive psychiatric treatment.

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