The parents of a baby girl who put their daughter on a strict vegan diet, starving her of vital nutrients to the point she developed cerebral palsy, won't face jail despite a judge finding they failed in their basic parental duties.
The child was one when in August 2018 she was taken to a Victorian hospital where she was found to have bruising over her body, was cool to the touch, lethargic and had dark-coloured blood in her nappy. Doctors found a level of malnutrition akin to children in famine-hit countries.
From when the baby was four months old and her mother's breast milk supply waned, her parents shunned medical advice to supplement their daughter's diet with formula and instead fed her coconut milk, fruit juices, smoothies, plant-based foods and formula the father made.
A County Court judge on Monday said the girl, now aged three, faced daily struggles in her cognitive development, physical functioning and communication, and found her life's course was altered by her parents' actions.
The judge said she would normally jail the parents, if not that they were best placed to care for their daughter and address her high needs, although it was ironic those demands were attributable to their actions. The judge found the girl was now well cared for by her mother and now has a healthy and nutritious diet.
"You are in the best position to do that and [the daughter] deserves it," the judge said. The parents, aged in their 30s, cannot be named.
The judge convicted the parents and put them on 12-month community corrections orders. Both pleaded guilty to negligently causing serious injury.
The girl was born healthy and initially fed with breast milk but in late 2017 her parents rejected the advice of maternal health care nurses and GPs to use formula, and instead supplemented their baby's diet with "natural" alternatives.
By November 2017 the girl was losing weight, unable to keep feeds down and appeared unwell and malnourished. When one nurse tried to dissuade the couple from their approach, the father abused the nurse and refused to let her see their daughter again.
The father drove the use of the vegan diet, the court heard, as he had been a vegan since his 20s after weight problems as a child. The mother adopted the diet after they met and did not oppose the same for their daughter. The judge found both parents were equally culpable.
By August 2018, as the baby's health deteriorated, the father contacted a health clinic in the US that specialised in detoxification programs, and wrote in an email: "We really don't want to take her to the doctors or hospital because they just don't understand but we also don't want her to get so sick that we have no choice."
Two days later the parents took their daughter to hospital. She was critically unwell and spent the next month in intensive care, as authorities began investigating.
The judge said it was the duty of parents to provide two key aspects for their children: providing their needs for a healthy development and protecting them from harm.
"You both failed dismally in respect to this first part and adopted a course that was contrary to the sound and helpful advice that had been provided," she said.
"Your failure to seek medical assistance for your one-year-old … amounted to a gross breach of that duty."
While the community expected denunciation for those who failed to care for their children, the judge said this was an unusual case, as imposing a jail term would cause greater harm to a child already utterly dependent on her parents.
The parents also have a younger son but are now separated – the father still sees his children regularly – and have expressed guilt and grief at what they did. Both have excellent prospects for rehabilitation, the court heard, and the father has moderated his views on nutrition.
"The time you now spend with [the daughter] is a constant reminder of your actions and acts as extracurial punishment for both of you," the judge said.
Both must undergo mental-health treatment under their community orders and the father must complete 75 hours of unpaid work.
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