Queens Village vegan baby near death, docs testify

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A Queens Village child suffered from such severe malnutrition that she was in grave danger of dying, doctors testified as the prosecution completed its case against the parents accused of starving their daughter on a meager vegan diet.

The defense team, meanwhile, continued its strategy of suggesting that the 16-month-old baby's severe physical problems - which included rickets, bone demineralization and an almost complete lack of muscle tone - were due to her premature birth rather than the diet.

Joseph and Silva Swinton, both 32, are charged with first-degree assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child for feeding their daughter Ice a diet of nuts, seeds, herbal teas, beans, fruit juice, soy milk and cod liver oil. If convicted, they could receive a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

Debra Jenssen, a pediatrician who examined Ice at Schneider Children's Hospital in November 2001, said last Thursday in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens that the child was unable to perform any of the tasks normally associated with babies even 12 months younger, including holding her head steady or demonstrating extended reach and grasp.

Jenssen examined Ice after the Administration for Children's Services, prompted by an anonymous telephone call, removed the child from her parents' custody. A second child, born in July 2002, was removed shortly thereafter. Both are in foster care at the present time.

Jenssen told the jury of nine women and three men that in her professional opinion if the child had continued to remain in the care of her parents, "Ice Swinton would have died."

The doctor also read from notes a psychiatrist had made during discussions with Silva Swinton. The notes indicated that Silva Swinton saw other 16-month-old babies in public parks and thought they were "too large" and that she wanted to keep her baby "a more normal size." Ice Swinton weighed three pounds at birth and 10 pounds when she was examined at Schneider Children's Hospital more than a year later.

During cross-examination, however, Jenssen read other selections from the same set of notes that seemed to mitigate the earlier testimony: "Mother believes she was managing her child according to her belief system without knowing how harmful, detrimental it was."

In questioning that was at times confrontational, Christopher Shella, Silva Swinton's attorney, prompted Jenssen to concede that it was possible that Ice was born premature.

"I cannot say with 100 percent certainty that she was not premature," Jenssen said.

But Jenssen did not agree with the defense's contention that Ice suffered from bronchopulmonary dysplasia - a chronic lung disease seen specifically in premature infants.

The jury also heard testimony from an expert in malnutrition, Roy Brown, who said that at the time she was brought to the hospital, Ice had a 15 percent to 40 percent chance of dying.

He added that even following her treatment and dramatic recovery, since then "she's at risk of not reaching her full potential developmentally."

Under questioning from Swinton's attorney, Brown admitted it was possible that the diet Ice was fed contained proper nutrients but that its high fiber content made it difficult for the child's digestive system to absorb them.

The defense has begun presenting its case.

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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