Toddler found dead was ‘malnourished’ after religious fasting

A toddler who died of malnutrition and dehydration was subjected to religious fasting by his mother, a court has heard. The three-year-old weighed just 9.8kilos when he was found dead on a sofa bed next to his mother after police forced entry into the flat. Taiwo Abubakar was found in a state of decomposition at his mother’s flat in Cardiff, Wales, on June 29, 2020. His mother Olabisi Abubakar, 42, was also taken to hospital for treatment after becoming extremely thin.

A trial at Cardiff Crown Court on Thursday heard how Abubakar was a “deeply religious woman” who would often go for days without food or water.

She was said to have written notes giving thanks to Jesus Christ and asking God for mercy during the coronavirus pandemic when she became concerned about her and her son’s health.

Prosecutor Mark Heywood KC said Abubakar was suffering from delusions and has since been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He told the jury: “The prosecution’s case is Olabisi Abubakar consciously and deliberately neglected (Taiwo) by depriving him of food and water because of fasting as a religious act.”

Police found Abubakar lying next to her son at the first floor flat in Cwmdare Street, in Cathays, where she was “noticeably malnourished”.

It was clear that three-year-old Taiwo had been dead for some time and was “severely emaciated” and cold to the touch.

The curtains were drawn, the window were closed, there was the smell of decomposition and the flat was dirty with soiled nappies lying around.

The defendant, also known as Shola Phillips, is originally from Nigeria and came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 2011 and spent time living in London before being housed in Cardiff in 2017 along with her son Taiwo. She was a member of a number of Pentecostal churches and attended the Army Ministry Church.

There were no concerns about her relationship with Taiwo and those her knew her described her as “a good and devoted mother” with “obvious warmth” towards her child. But Abubakar raised with issues with friends regarding her asylum application and was “tired of God doing nothing to help her”.

Other church members said they were aware of her fasting practices and noticed an increase in the number of days she fasted – with some periods lasting up to a week.

Mr Heywood told the jury that fasting was considered “an act of devotion” to God but according to the tenets of Abubakar’s religion, children were not required to fast.

Abubakar stopped attending church at the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, and sent a text to a friend which read “By the grace of God we’ll survive.” She was described as being fearful about the dangers of coronavirus and relied on friend Chike Obi to deliver a weekly food shop.

In early June, Mr Obi visited the flat and described Taiwo as looking “very thin” and dressed only in shorts. The last time he had seen the three-year-old he described him as “fat, happy and healthy”, but on this occasion Taiwo appeared unhappy. He also described Abubakar as thin and she told him she had been fasting.

Mr Obi became worried for Abubakar on June 29 after she failed to answer her phone. He visited the flat and then heard the defendant ask him to call the police. Police then gained entry and found Abubakar and her child on the bed.

Mr Heywood said: “As you can imagine, the investigation into such unusual circumstances as these was painstaking and has involved many medical practitioners and other experts as well as the police themselves.” A post mortem was carried out on Taiwo on July 1, 2020, and the cause of death was given as malnutrition and dehydration.

In October 2020, Abubakar was arrested and later charged with manslaughter and child neglect, to which she has pleaded not guilty. She was seen independently by two psychiatrists who both diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia and had been suffering with delusions linked to this.

She was interviewed by police on eight occasions between October 2020 and March 2021, in which she denied subjecting her son to fasting. The defendant said she had become depressed by the behaviour of a neighbour who complained about noise coming from her flat.

Abubakar said she remembered nothing between falling asleep on June 27 and waking up on the morning of June 29. Mr Heywood said: “She described it as coming back to life. She believed she had been in heaven and could see relatives who had died in the past and heard angels singing. She said she did not want to die and the angels had brought her back to life.” She told police she had not fasted since April and last remembered feeding Taiwo on June 26 when he was given Weetabix in the morning and porridge at night. She said he had been playing and there was “nothing wrong with him.”

But a number of notes were found in Abubakar’s flat in which she referred to Taiwo fasting, both dry fasting (without water) and white fasting (only fruit). She also passed a note to a paramedic which read: “Me and my baby, I follow (him) down. (He is) in my house. I can’t stand up and I don’t know what happened. I saw my baby two days die. I can’t talk.” When asked about this, she couldn’t remember writing the note.

She described the pressures of life during the lockdown due to a lack of support, her fears of over coronavirus and over her immigration status. She described herself as “depressed” but was a religious person and believed God had heard and answered her prayers and would keep her safe. The defendant said she had lost weight but this was not as a result of fasting. Abubakar could not explain the notes and could not remember writing them, but denied Taiwo had been fasting.

In a statement read out the court, Abubakar’s sister Tinuolah Hassan said she had a close relationship with her sister, who she described as “quiet and calm”. She said they were both Christians and fasting was a way of committing themselves to God in their religion. But she children do not fast and a parent must not make a child fast.

Ms Hassan added: “I am upset about what happened to my sister and the death of of Taiwo. The death of Taiwo is very much a shock, nothing like this has ever happened in my lineage. As far as I am concerned, my sister is an easy going happy person. I know her mental health is not good but before this I have never known ever in our lives her to have issues with her mental health. She was a good mum and she would never do anything to hurt or harm (Taiwo).”

Addressing the jury, Mr Heywood said it was accepted by the prosecution and defence that the neglect by Abubakar of Taiwo caused his death and that she was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He added: “As a result of that recognised medical condition may have been suffering delusions and may not not have been aware of the nature and quality of the physical character of her actions, actions she would otherwise have carried out or not according to her usual abilities.

“The issue this raises for you is whether she may have been insane in legal meaning of this definition. In this case it’s open to you to return a special verdict, not guilty by reason of insanity. Unlike the issues of doing the acts and doing them with the requisite intent that remain throughout for the prosecution to prove so you are sure, the burden of proof on this issue lies on the defence to satisfy you, not so you are sure, but on the balance of probability that the Ms Abubakar was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act she was doing, or, if she did know it, that she did not know that what she was doing was wrong.”

The trial continues.

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