A grieving mother is pleading with parents never to leave their young children alone in water after her infant son drowned in a bath.
The 13-month-old was face down in the water when she returned to the bathroom after being away for nearly eight minutes.
The 29-year-old mother, who cannot be named, was charged with manslaughter. But yesterday, a jury in the High Court at Wellington found her not guilty after only two hours' deliberation.
Auckland criminal defence specialist Steve Bonnar said later that the Crown could have pursued the lesser charge of criminal nuisance.
"That is an offence where someone fails to comply with a legal duty, and their failure to comply is one that they know could endanger the life of a person."
Mr Bonnar said had the Crown pursued this charge, it would have been required to prove the mother knew she was endangering her child.
During the trial, safety experts told the court babies and toddlers relaxed when they slipped under water, going into an in-utero state rather than fighting for breath.
In a statement after the verdict, the mother said her son lost his life due to her lack of knowledge about infant drownings and how they occurred.
She said infants have a valve that shuts off once water is inhaled into the lungs, which prevents more water entering but also means they go unconscious quickly and die silently.
"Parents, please never leave your child alone near any body of water for any amount of time.
"You may think the chance of drowning is remote but if you hear my story and still choose to tempt fate and risk leaving your child unsupervised you are playing dice with death and the very real possibility your child could lose their life and you will regret it for the rest of your life."
After the verdict was read, a group of about a dozen supporters of the mother cried with relief and hugged one another in the public gallery.
Outside court, the mother said her faith in the justice system had been restored. "I feel that it's so good that it's over and we can focus on his life now rather than the circumstances surrounding his death."
In her closing address, prosecutor Sally Carter said leaving the infant alone in 18cm to 19cm of bath water was a "major departure ... of the standard of care that was expected".
The boy drowned because of his mother's decision to leave the room for 7 minutes and 56 seconds, she said. "It's not a short period of time."
But defence lawyer Noel Sainsbury said the case was about whether the community marked a mistake with a conviction for manslaughter.
"There are things that happen that are terrible and tragic but we don't criminalise [people]; we deal with them in different ways."
His client bore the burden of her actions. "The sense of guilt and responsibility is very intense and it's very raw ... We all make mistakes, we are not machines."
Water Safety NZ chief Matt Claridge said the drowning was a tragic reminder of what could happen when a child was left alone.
Plunket's safety advice
Children can easily slip and drown in the bath.
• An adult (or responsible teenager 14 years and over) needs to stay with them at all times until they are at least 5.
• While babies are young, keep your hand on them as they are being bathed.
• Never use a baby bath seat, as it can tip and trap an infant.
• Take the phone off the hook so you are not disturbed.
• Take to the bathroom everything you need.
• If you have to leave the bathroom for some reason, take your child with you.