In-home carer shook baby girl

September 14, 2017 | By More

A paid in-home carer who shook a five-month-old baby girl twice – possibly causing permanent brain injuries – has been granted home detention at her Christchurch District Court sentencing.

Emma Pieta Marie Dengel, 24, is herself a mother who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic attacks.

A psychiatric report was prepared ahead of her sentencing, which took place six months after the second incident,in which the shaking inflicted head injuries on the girl.

Dengel initially denied hurting the girl, but admitted shaking her in two separate incidents when the police re-interviewed her. She pleaded guilty to charges of recklessly causing the child grievous bodily harm.

Judge Raoul Neave said she had been totally out of her depth in the childcare work she was doing at her home, and told her: “Sending you to prison would achieve nothing of use to anybody.”

He imposed 12 months of home detention at an address outside Christchurch, with six months of release conditions to follow the term. Dengel must also complete 200 hours of community work.

He refused a request to suppress her name, saying, “It is simply part of the punishment.”

Dengel had been employed by a child-care organisation, looking after three children at her home.

The girl she shook when she would not settle received a broken arm, a subdural haematoma in her brain, and detached retinas. The baby was rushed to Christchurch Hospital and eventually transferred by air ambulance to Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland.

The underwent three surgeries, including a craniotomy.

The baby’s father, a pilot, read the family’s victim impact statement in court, saying: “I try to understand how somebody could come to shake a baby.”

He told Dengel directly: “We trusted you. I just can’t understand how this could happen, particularly in a professional environment.”

He told how he blamed himself for the harm to his daughter. “She had only been in the world five months and I had already failed her.”

Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes said the prognosis for the child was still “somewhat unknown”, while she continued to receive treatment.

Defence counsel Allister Davis said Dengel expressed her heart-felt apologies and remorse to the family and the wider community for the damage she had caused. It had been recklessness rather than deliberate action, and she had accepted her responsibility.

Dengel’s family had lost its business as a result of the earthquakes, had lost their home, and they were under financial pressure for her to continue working.

“She knew she had this mental illness, but could not afford to go to the doctor to get back on to the anti-depressant pills to maintain some stability in her life and the lives of others,” he told the judge. “You will appreciate that this woman is troubled, but she is now getting, tragically, the help she needs.”

He described the woman’s situation as “a perfect storm”.

Judge Neave said Dengel had shaken the baby by the arms when she would not settle. It had fractured her arm the first time, and the next time the child had become unresponsive and had life-threatening events including seizures.

It was clear the girl’s parents still felt guilt for what happened though they had absolutely nothing to reproach themselves for. It must have been frightening and humiliating to find themselves being investigated, before Dengel’s admissions to police.

Dengel had been young and immature in a job where she was seriously out of her depth. “You simply didn’t cope with the responsibilities placed on you,” he said.

The judge declined to comment on the checking that was done before her employment, without giving the organisation an opportunity under natural justice to comment.

He hoped that Dengel could eventually meet the family at a restorative justice meeting.

He reduced her sentence for her previous good character, her mental health issues, and her guilty pleas, and decided he could allow home detention in place of a jail term.

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