Mother on trial as girl dies weighing 50st girl

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The Independent Online
A year ago last November, a 13-year-old Californian girl, Christina Corrigan, was found dead at her home, covered in sores and surrounded by filth.

This week, her mother, Marlene, is standing trial for child abuse. Mary Dejevsky reports on a case being described by some as a West Coast version of the Louise Woodward case.

Christina died, naked and surrounded by empty fast-food containers, on the sitting-room floor of her home north of San Francisco. But she was no emaciated waif: she weighed almost 700lb (50st) and the post-mortem examination found that she had died from heart failure, due to obesity. She had not attended school for a year and spent her last days watching television, and eating.

Ms Corrigan, 48, a single parent with a full-time job, says that she did her best to look after her daughter, but things got out of control.

Since 1991, the girl refused to see a doctor, and kept asking for food. Ms Corrigan was unable to lift or even move her daughter. Providing food was the line of least resistance. She says that she did not neglect Christina.

Lawyers for both sides in the case stress that the charge of child abuse does not relate to Christina's weight, but to the conditions in which she lived. The prosecution also claims that Ms Corrigan should have known about the sores and called a doctor. The defence says Christina told her nothing about them.

The legal arguments may centre on the Corrigans' living conditions - Ms Corrigan's housekeeping, as her lawyer put it scornfully - but ever since details of the case came to light last year, it was Christina's gross obesity that shocked. The case also prompted awkward questions about the treatment of the increasing number of overweight people in America, and the rights and obligations of parents in relation to their children.

While there was widespread public horror that any child should have eaten herself to death, some asked why the local authority and doctors did nothing about a child who was four times overweight for her age from the age of three and visited a nutritionist more than 30 times. There was initial care, but no continuing treatment, and from 1991, when Christina became too embarrassed to go to a doctor, no follow-up.

The case has prompted an outcry, too, from those concerned about discrimination against the obese and restrictions on personal freedom. Was anti-fat prejudice responsible for making Christina was too embarrassed to see a doctor or go to school? And could the situation supply a precedent for prosecuting parents with fat children?

Counsel for Ms Corrigan had requested that the case should be tried by a judge alone, on the grounds that pictures of Christina would arouse such strong emotions as to cloud jurors' judgement.

"People aren't used to seeing a 5ft 3in, 680lb little girl," said Ms Corrigan's lawyer, Michael Cardoza. This request was rejected, however, and a jury will decide Ms Corrigan's guilt or innocence. If convicted, she faces up to six years in prison.