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Woman who poured boiling water on infant son jailed for seven years

The court heard that the infant had sustained 18% total body surface area scald burns to his face and upper body.

A KNIFE-WIELDING mother who “drenched” her infant son in boiling water and said ‘I want to kill my children and myself’ whilst falsely imprisoning a social care worker has been jailed for seven years.

Passing sentence on the woman today at the Central Criminal Court, Mr Justice David Keane said one of the aggravating factors in the case was that the “dreadful injuries” perpetrated on her 20-month-old son which caused him permanent disfiguring scarring “was a breach of trust of the most fundamental kind”.

The court heard that the infant had sustained 18% total body surface area scald burns to his face and upper body, which has left him with permanent scarring.

The judge commended the social care worker today on her “remarkable presence of mind and courage” in protecting the boys and said there could be little doubt that her response to the accused’s action averted an “even greater tragedy”.

He accepted that the accused was suffering with a mental disorder at the time in the form of a depressive disorder and that she had a mild intellectual disability. The court was previously told that the defence of insanity was not available to the accused due to its high threshold.

The judge said today that mental illness may reduce culpability even when the offender acted deliberately.

At the woman’s sentence hearing last July, the court heard a victim impact statement from the social worker where she said that she is kept awake at night by the “vivid images” of the 20-month-old victim’s skin peeling from his “raw and pink” face and his high pitched screams.

The social worker had barred a door to try and prevent the mother getting close to the children and later placed herself between the mother and her two boys before carrying them to safety, the court had also heard.

The accused woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was originally charged with two counts of attempted murder of her two sons, then 20-month-olds, on 9 October 2019 at her home. She failed in a bid to have the attempted murder charges against her dismissed last year.

Last June at the Central Criminal Court, the mother pleaded guilty to intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm to one of the two children on the same date.

She further pleaded guilty to producing an article capable of inflicting serious injury in the course of a dispute, to wit a large kitchen knife, in a manner likely to unlawfully intimidate another person on the same occasion.

In addition, she admitted falsely imprisoning a female social care worker on the same date and location.

Before delivering the sentence today, Mr Justice Keane said the accused was afforded four hours of supervised access to the twins once a week but that during the visit the defendant’s behaviour began to strike the social care worker as “unusual or strange”.

“At various times, the accused tried to coax one or more of the boys upstairs or into the kitchen,” he said.

The judge said the social care worker had observed the accused “keep going in and out of the kitchen” and repeatedly switching on an appliance.

At one stage, the social worker could hear one of the boys “babbling” in the kitchen before “abruptly going quiet” and that the social worker left the living room as she felt something was wrong, said the judge.

When the social worker went into the hallway, the child was standing in the kitchen door “soaking wet” and not making any sound but looked to be in shock, he said. The child’s skin was hot when the social worker went to lift him, he said, and that the accused had a large kitchen knife in her hand when she said: “I want to kill my children”.

The judge added: “[The child] began screaming and blisters began to appear on his face. The social worker realised the full horror of what had occurred in the kitchen, specifically the appliance that the accused was switching on was the kettle and that the accused had just used it to pour freshly boiled water on [the boy's] head and body”.

Referring to the boy’s injuries, Mr Justice Keane said the boy had sustained 18% total body surface area scald burns to his face, neck, right upper limb, left chest and left neck area which has left him with permanent scarring.

As there was a risk of swelling to his airway he had to be intubated and was taken to intensive care where he got treatment for his “very severe burns”, he said, adding that the burns were “deep dermal” and produced significant areas of disfiguring.

Fortunately, the child healed rapidly and satisfactory and didn’t require skin grafts but remained in hospital for almost a month until 7 November, he continued.

The judge said the boy was left with several areas of problematic scarring and that the whole area of the burns were intolerably itchy despite moisturising cream and anti-itch medication. “The itch has now reduced and he is now able to sleep through the night without waking up to itch,” he said.

In addition, the judge said doctors will not be able to tell until the boy reaches his mid to late teens if he will require further surgery to insert extra skin or release the tight scars.

Mr Justice Keane said he sympathised with the boy’s foster parents on the trauma they have experienced in dealing with these “dreadful injuries” inflicted on their foster child. He also offered “his sincere best wishes” for the boy’s recovery and to both children for their “future happiness through the care of such impressive foster parents”.

Referring to the social care worker, the judge commended her on the remarkable presence of mind and courage she had demonstrated in dealing with the accused, protecting the boys and contacting the gardai. He also said there could be little doubt that her response to the accused’s action averted an “even greater tragedy”.

Mr Justice Keane said the accused had been diagnosed with recurrent depressive disorder, which she is currently in remission for and a minor intellectual disability. She had also been prescribed antipsychotic and anti-depressive medication. “Mental illness may reduce culpability even when an offender acted deliberately,” he said.

The court also heard today that the defendant told a doctor after the incident that she had been in low mood for several days prior to the offence during which time she was not consistent in taking her prescribed medication.

The aggravating factors in the case included that the harm caused was severe, that the assault perpetrated on her own infant son was a breach of trust of the most fundamental kind, that the assault was perpetrated as part of a protracted ordeal and that the assault was premeditated rather than impulsive.

Further aggravating factors, the judge said, was that her level of culpability was increased by her not taking her medication in the days leading up to the incident and that her failure either to notify the community mental health team or social services concerning the difficulties she was experiencing, as she had done in the past, or to advise the social care worker that she was unwell before or at the commencement of the visit.

The court set the headline sentence for assault causing serious harm at 14 years imprisonment.

The judge said that the main mitigating factors was the woman’s guilty plea, that she had apologised to her two sons, their foster parents and the social care worker, her previous good character and that prison is and will remain particularly difficult for her given her ethnicity, social isolation, limited English language skills, recurring depressive disorder and a mild intellectual disability.

The judge said the appropriate deduction from the headline sentence to take into account the woman’s mitigation was five years, which resulted in a sentence of nine years imprisonment.

The judge also imposed a sentence of nine years imprisonment for the charge of false imprisonment and two years for production of the large kitchen knife.

He suspended the final two years of the nine year sentence imposed for assault causing serious harm and false imprisonment for a period of two years.

The woman’s sentences are to run concurrently and were backdated to 9 October 2019.

Prosecution counsel Kate Egan BL said the State wished to enter a “nolle prosequi” – a decision not to proceed with the case – on the two counts of attempted murder.

Alison O'Riordan