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Vegan Australian parents who left baby girl severely malnourished avoid jail

Andrew Quinn
Veganism has grown in popularity in recent years - AFP

An Australian couple who fed their baby daughter a strict vegan diet that left her severely malnourished have avoided a jail sentence. On Thursday, the 35-year old man and 33-year old woman from Sydney, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were given an 18-month jail term which will be served as a community order. 

The girl, now three, looked like a three-month-old at 19 months due to the scale of her malnourishment, according to a foster carer, and she had no teeth when she was taken in to care.

Her diet had consisted of oats, rice milk, vegetables, rice, potatoes and tofu. She was occasionally given a mouthful of fruit or sultanas as a snack.

As a result of her diet the girl had rickets, thin bones, and missed key developmental milestones, as well as being severely malnourished.

Hospital tests uncovered multiple severe nutritional deficiencies and doctors said that the girl's bones had not developed since birth. 

It was discovered that she was severely malnourished in March 2018 when her mother called emergency services after she suffered a seizure.

Australian Associated Press said that she had blue lips, cold hands and feet, low blood sugar and little muscle tone.

The girl was subsequently taken into care. Her foster carer said the baby was "behind other children".

In a victim statement in May the carer said: "She couldn't sit up, she couldn't speak any words, she couldn't feed herself, she couldn't play with toys... she couldn't roll over all the way."

She added that the child weighed only 4.89 kilograms (10lb 12oz) at 19 months, but she would interact when played with or cuddled.

"When she meets new people they ask her questions about her age and are shocked... She stands out as different."

At the sentencing at Sydney's Downing Centre Court, Judge Sarah Huggett called the child's diet "completely inadequate".

She said: "This child was severely malnourished, underweight and undersized and delayed as far as age-appropriate milestones were concerned. 

"It is the responsibility of every parent to ensure the diet they choose to provide to their children... is one that is balanced and contains sufficient essential nutrients for optimal growth."

The couple first appeared in court in May last year, where they pleaded guilty to failing to provide for a child and causing serious injury.

They were sentenced to an 18-month corrections order and 300 hours of community service on Thursday. 

While psychiatrist Dr Yvonne Skinner did not think that the mother's postnatal depression was severe enough to affect her ability to care for the girl, Dr Stephen Allnutt believed that her ambiguity towards decision-making and lack of motivation were symptoms of major depression.

Judge Huggett accepted that the mother had depression and reduced her moral culpability when sentencing her and the father.

She said that the couple were "initially unable to accept that their daughter's condition was due to malnutrition."

The mother had become "increasingly fixated" on her beliefs - including her veganism.

The pair had two other children that they had raised without injury. The girl and her two siblings are being cared for by a paternal aunt and both parents have supervised access to the children.