In-home Porse child carer shook baby twice causing possible permanent brain injuries

In-home childcare worker Emma Pieta Marie Dengel, 24, leaves the Christchurch District Court after she was sentenced to ...
STUFF

In-home childcare worker Emma Pieta Marie Dengel, 24, leaves the Christchurch District Court after she was sentenced to home detention for shaking a 5-month old baby girl in two separate incidents, causing her brain injuries.

An in-home carer "seriously out of her depth" shook a 5-month-old baby girl twice, leaving her with brain injuries, a broken arm and detached retinas.

Emma Pieta Marie Dengel, 24, who was looking after three children at her Christchurch home, initially denied hurting the girl, but when police re-interviewed her she admitted shaking her in two separate incidents.

As she was sentenced to home detention in the Christchurch District Court on Wednesday, Judge Raul Neave said Dengel, a mother herself and contracted to in-home childcare service Porse, was out of her depth in the job. 

Porse General Manager Kerry Henderson says the company has conducted a review following Dengel's actions.
SUPPLIED

Porse General Manager Kerry Henderson says the company has conducted a review following Dengel's actions.

Dengel suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and panic attacks, but was under financial pressure to work.  

Porse, which relied on applicants to disclose any mental health issues, was reviewing its policy because of the incident. 

Dengel first shook the baby by the arms in April when she would not settle, which fractured the girl's arm. 

After the second shaking, the child became unresponsive and had life-threatening events, including seizures. She suffered a subdural haematoma in her brain and detached retinas.

She was rushed to Christchurch Hospital and eventually transferred by air ambulance to Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland, where she underwent three surgeries, including a craniotomy.

Crown prosecutor Barnaby Hawes said the baby's prognosis was still "somewhat unknown" while she continued to receive treatment.

The baby's father, a pilot, told Dengel in court: "We trusted you."

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"I try to understand how somebody could come to shake a baby," he said in the family's victim impact statement. 

"I just can't understand how this could happen, particularly in a professional environment."

He said he had blamed himself for the harm to his daughter.

"She had only been in the world five months and I had already failed her."

Police initially investigated the girl's parents before Dengel admitted her actions, which would have been frightening and humiliating for them, Judge Neave said. 

Dengel pleaded guilty to charges of recklessly causing the child grievous bodily harm. 

The judge said Dengel was 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".

Defence counsel Allister Davis described Dengel's situation as "a perfect storm".

Her family lost its business as a result of the earthquakes, had lost their home and 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," Davis told the judge.

"You will appreciate that this woman is troubled, but she is now getting, tragically, the help she needs."

Dengel expressed her heartfelt apologies and remorse for the damage she caused, Davis said. 

Porse general manager Kerry Henderson on Wednesday said the company had only just discovered Dengel suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and panic attacks.

She said the company relied on applicants to discloses issues, including mental health, that could affect their ability to fulfil the role. It was not aware of Dengel's mental health issues.

"This was not disclosed to us, despite this being part of the registration process," she said.

"Under legislation, we rely on people to declare health conditions that might affect their ability to undertake their responsibilities.

"Our educators undergo a screening and vetting process through us to become registered before they are referred to families." 

The registration process included police checks, reference checks and an interview.

Henderson said Porse provided Dengel with training and resources at her home.

"In February she achieved her child first aid certificate and had training in the home on how to meet the regulatory requirements," she said.

Dengel was given resources and information on how to develop respectful relationships between adults and babies, health and safety expectations, supporting babies natural motor development and how to play with and observe children.

She attended a Child Protection Workshop in April, Henderson said. 

"Therefore, this came as a shock to us and we are deeply saddened by what has occurred," she said.

Porse suspended Dengel when the allegations against her were made. It terminated her registration when charges were laid. 

Henderson said the incident was a reminder of "the importance of full disclosure of any mental health issues by educators on registering".

"We will be looking into this further and working with our regulators to see if there is more we can do to ensure child safety," she said.

The review of Porse's child protection policy was done in consultation with its regulators "to ensure our policies and procedures are as robust as they can be."

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said variety was "one of the strengths" of New Zealand's preschool education.

In-home care could be "a little more challenging" compared to centres that were required to have a number of qualified staff, he said.

"There are some [services] that could improve on all sides. As a sector, we need to be able to ensure parents that their child is going to be safe and happy.

"It's extremely unfortunate when you see something bad happen."

Judge Neave hoped Dengel could eventually meet the family at a restorative justice meeting.

He imposed 12 months of home detention and 200 hours of community work, saying prison "would achieve nothing of use to anybody".

The judge refused to grant Dengel name suppression, saying it was "simply part of the punishment". 

He reduced her sentence for her previous good character, her mental health issues and her guilty pleas.

The baby's father declined to comment further when contacted by Stuff

 - Stuff

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