An eight month old boy who died of vomiting and diarrhoea was the victim of poverty, the Tongan Supreme Court has ruled.
The Hon. Justice Cato described the case as tragic.
He made the statement in acquitting the child’s parents of charges of manslaughter by negligence.
He said the child’s death was avoidable, but that the baby and his parents were victims of poverty.
He said the parents were “perhaps lacking also in education and awareness.”
He said the defendants, Siulolovao Mafi and Teni Latu were very ordinary Tongan people, living by hand to mouth by Mr Latu’s fishing. They lived in very basic accommodation with four children.
The child died at the beginning of 2014 after being ill for several days.
He became ill on January 30 of that year and died on February 2. He was not attended by a doctor and was not taken to hospital.
Dr Aho, a paediatrician at the Vaola Hospital, gave the cause of death as dehydration. Dr Aho said if the child had been brought to the hospital as late as the morning of February 2 and been treated, he would have lived.
The Crown’s case was that the accused grossly neglected their child over this period, rendering them liable to an offence of manslaughter by negligence or in the alternative had both been guilty of wilful neglect by not seeking medical assistance or taking the child to hospital.
Hon. Justice Cato said that when considering his verdict, he took into account, among other matters, whether somebody in the same position as the boy’s parents would consider their conduct criminal.
He said neither of them seemed to fully understand how serious their baby’s condition was and in any case they were absolutely destitute and had no money with which to take their child to hospital several kilometres away.
He said that Mafi had relied on the wife for an assessment of the boy’s condition and had also spoken to his own mother. Tongan medicine had been tried, but failed. Teni’s sister believed the boy was possessed because they lived near a cemetery.
A local pastor was called to pray for the boy, but he too had apparently failed to realise the seriousness of the boy’s condition.
The pastor arrived in a vehicle, but did not offer and was not asked to take the boy to hospital.
The father had tried to obtain a vehicle from his patents, but they refused to lend it to him.
Hon. Justice Cato dismissed a suggestion that the boy’s mother should have taken her son and tried to hitchhike several kilometres to the medical facility.
He said the child’s feeding had been disrupted by a shortage of breast milk and the substitution of inadequate liquids instead of formula which in Tonga is expensive and he lost weight.
The mother had been giving the boy Milo and water and she and her sister had tried to fed the baby with chicken, breadfruit and juice while he was ill.
The judge said inadequate diet or hygiene may have caused his stomach ailment.
He said the parents did not, in his view, wilfully neglect, or abandon their child, but sought a vehicle or money and assistance from the extended family which was not forthcoming.
“I do not think that a parent who is unable to take a sick child to the hospital because he or she did not have the means to do so should be found to have wilfully neglected the child,” Hon. Justice Cato said.
“Perhaps they may have done more over the three day period, but taking into account their lack of means it is not clear to me, on the evidence I have heard, what more they could have done.
“This case is very sad and tragic.”
The main points
- An eight month old boy who died of vomiting and diarrhoea was the victim of poverty, the Tongan Supreme Court has ruled.
- The Hon. Justice Cato described the case as tragic.
- He made the statement in acquitting the child’s parents of charges of manslaughter by negligence.
- He said the child’s death was avoidable, but that the baby and his parents were victims of poverty.