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Mum jailed for near-fatal attack on 'vulnerable' tot

Anna Leask

Anna Leask is a senior crime and justice reporter for the New Zealand Herald

A South Auckland woman has been jailed for a near-fatal assault on her 6-month baby daughter - who had already defied the odds after being born at just 24 weeks.

Shana Tooman, 29, assaulted the baby so severely she was left "lifeless" and was left with permanent brain damage.

A police source told the Herald it was a miracle the little girl survived and her injuries were among the most severe they had encountered in more than two decades investigating child abuse.

After the assault Tooman fled to Australia and it took police here more than year to have her extradited back to face charges.

Tooman denied harming the baby in July 2017 but after a trial in the High Court at Auckland she was found guilty of a single charge of causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do so.

She was sentenced by Justice Anne Hinton yesterday.

During the trial the jury heard that the baby was due to be born in April 2017 but Tooman gave birth prematurely in January that year when she was just 24 weeks pregnant.

Tooman and her partner were initially told the little girl was unlikely to live - but after being in incubation for almost four months she was strong and well enough to be discharged from hospital.

The baby - the youngest of four children - suffered from a number of medical issues as a result of her prematurity including chronic neonatal lung disease, anaemia and impaired vision.

Tooman and her partner were living in Australia but moved back to New Zealand in mid 2017.

She stayed home with the children while he went to work with her father.

By all accounts, the children were happy, healthy and well cared for.

But in July something terrible happened.

The court heard that the baby was unwell, displaying "a number of flu-like symptoms including a runny nose and noisy breathing".

Her parents did not consider the symptoms to be serious, nor did they think the baby needed medical attention.

On the day of the assault - during the school holidays - Tooman's partner left for work at about 8am.

She was at home with the four children and her brother who was staying with the family in a sleepout at the property.

At some point in the afternoon Tooman assaulted the baby so severely that she "was not responding and was lifeless".

At 3.40pm she called 111.

The baby - whose name cannot be published to protect her privacy - was rushed to Middlemore Hospital and then transferred later that evening to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Starship Hospital.

She was diagnosed with a number of serious injuries which included skull fractures - described as being "almost circumferential" - extensive bleeding under her skull, spinal trauma, a severe brain injury caused by cardiac arrest, extensive retinal haemorrhaging and fractures to her right femur and left ankle.

Tooman initially told police she did not know what had happened to the baby, but noted her 5-year-old was "always picking the baby up".

Justice Anne Hinton. Photo / Michael Craig
Justice Anne Hinton. Photo / Michael Craig

Months later she told her partner and police that she had lied and in fact, she had caused the baby's injuries when she "fell" with the child walking back from the mailbox.

The baby hit her head on the concrete step and Tooman fell on top of her, she claimed - but she was "scared" to tell anyone.

During the trial that claim was discounted by experts, who told the court that the baby's injuries were unlikely to have resulted from an accident.

Starship clinical director Dr Patrick Kelly said the most likely scenario was Tooman holding the baby by her legs and "slamming her against something like a thinly padded surface or a surface with some other give".

Kelly said the little girl's ultimate prognosis was not known - but she would have a severe permanent neurological disability which will cause her to have limited quality of life.

The extent of her disability will only be known as she ages.

The child, now 3, has been with caregivers since September 2017 and they are in the process of obtaining legal guardianship of her.

They told the court the child had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and her physical and social abilities are severely limited.

"She cannot physically move around the daycare centre on her own and she is a long way off being able to play alongside others and develop friendships" the court heard at sentencing.

"Even eating and swallowing are difficult for her.

"She will require medication and treatment throughout her life, including surgery, and will always be partially blind in one eye."

Justice Hinton praised the caregivers for "the sacrifices they have made and the love they have provided" to the young victim.

She said Tooman's violence towards her baby was "extreme".

"It is clear the injury will have long-lasting and no doubt lifelong effects for the victim.

"The victim was extremely vulnerable being of very young age and wholly dependent on you for her care and safety.

"Your actions in inflicting the injuries obviously constitute a gross breach of trust because as caregiver you should be expected to keep the baby safe rather than inflict injuries of this magnitude on her.

"I accept there was extreme violence but note that unlike some of the cases it seemed this was a single act.

"I note it does not take much violence to cause serious injuries to such a small vulnerable child."

Dr Patrick Kelly, child abuse expert at Starship Children's Hospital. Photo / Nick Winter
Dr Patrick Kelly, child abuse expert at Starship Children's Hospital. Photo / Nick Winter

While the defence claimed it was a one-off assault, the Crown said otherwise.

At trial evidence was presented to the jury of text messages between Tooman and a friend where she threatened to "hurt this baby" and admitted "I just squashed the shit out of her".

"I gotta f**kin stop," she messaged.

She later admitted in another message that she argued with her partner and "took it out on the baby" which she conceded was "f**ked".

"I'll continue to take it all out on bub I don't give a f**k no more," she said.

Justice Hinton said there was no evidence of earlier injuries to the baby, but the text messages were an insight into Tooman's abuse.

"I accept… that the text message evidence does show that you knew of the risk that you might inflict injury on your child and did not take steps to try to stop that."

Tooman refused to leave her cell in the court building and was not in the courtroom for sentencing.

After being shown a victim impact statement written by her daughter's new caregivers she wrote to Justice Hinton saying she did not want to attend her sentencing and consented to it going ahead without her in the courtroom.

Justice Hinton "reluctantly" allowed Tooman to stay in the cells, but directed her legal team to communicate the sentencing result and the reasons for it to her in full before she left the court precinct.

She outlined a pre sentence report which gave insight into Tooman's life including her diagnosis of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, other mental health issues and criminal history.

Tooman has three "relatively minor unrelated convictions" from her time living in Australia but has no offences to her name in New Zealand.

"The report writer notes you continue to deny the offending and maintain it was an accident, but are resiled to the fact you have been found guilty and presented motivated to complete any rehabilitation that will help you," said Justice Hinton yesterday.

"You reported having mental health diagnoses of borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety.

"You have experienced feelings of self-harm and suicide ideation and prior to being in custody were engaged with mental health services and prescribed medication by a psychiatrist."

Justice Hinton revealed that after the assault Tooman had completed several parenting programmes of her own volition.

Several pre sentence reports were presented to the court, the first from a psychologist.

"You acknowledge that your communication when you are triggered is problematic, and that you come across as aggressive," she said.

"However, you say you are open to help with this.

"You are described as being very impressionable and vulnerable, and in your relationships prone to being manipulated, but also jealous, demanding of attention and hostile.

"You are aware you have difficulties and are open to ideas and support.

"Interestingly, you appear non-defensive which bodes well for any future psychological therapy input."

A neuropsychologist reported that Tooman does not "comprehend things".

"You get your mind stuck on something and it is hard to reason with you… you are currently rigidly saying that you will get out of prison in one year and then you will see your children," said Justice Hinton.

"You do not seem to realise the consequences of what has happened and do not realise that, in you will not be allowed into Australia or to see your children.

"You did not ask… about the victim or show any realisation that the victim will be living with brain damage for the rest of her life."

While Tooman maintained her innocence, experts did believe she had "some capacity for rehabilitation" - should the correct approach be taken.

Justice Hinton sentenced Tooman to a total of six years in jail for the assault.

"I strongly recommend that you receive the treatment set out in the specialists' reports to minimise the risk of repeat offending with the devastating consequences here," she said.

Shana Tooman. Photo / supplied
Shana Tooman. Photo / supplied

Who is Shana Tooman?

Tooman was born in New Zealand but moved with her mother to Australia when she was five.

She gave a rundown of her life to pre sentence report writers, explaining that she had to "grow up fast" and care for her younger siblings while living with a mother who put "limited boundaries in place" including letting Tooman use cannabis from the age of 13.

Tooman's grandmother told the court that her daughter drank during pregnancy.

While Tooman had never heard of FASD and did not believe she had the disability, experts had diagnosed her with it.

"You also said you had experienced difficulty at school including poor attendance, bullying and difficulty with school work," said Justice Hinton.

"Your mother was "like absent but she was there" and consequently you said growing up all you learned was to be a mum.

"You looked after your siblings – your younger brother and two younger sisters. Your mother was a single mum. Your brother has FASD.

"You have used alcohol and a variety of illicit substances including P, and have made what appear to have been multiple suicide attempts, but at other times very drastic attempts at alleviating distress by cutting."

The court heard that her relationship with the father of her four children was tumultuous.

The pair were in a relationship for 10 years - they got together when Tooman was just 14 or 15 - but that ended when she was charged with assault.

He is about 16 years older than her.

She told report writers that there was regular verbal abuse "towards each other" and he would "trigger" her with name calling which would spark feelings of rage towards him.

The children were also exposed to domestic arguments.

Tooman gave birth to her first child in 2007.

Before that she worked in hospitality and had cleaning jobs.

After she had children, work was "intermittent".

"You said you did not use alcohol or drugs on the day of the offending, but beforehand used drugs especially during pregnancy as you found it difficult to cope with nausea, and cannabis would help," Justice Hinton said in court.

Despite her difficulties, drug use and mental health issues, Tooman was mostly an adequate mother.

"You were able to keep house and meet the needs of your children, who were well fed and clothed and sent off to school daily with lunches," Justice Hinton said in court.

But things were not entirely well and good behind closed doors.

"Your partner remained the dominant one in the relationship and you never seemed to have a life of your own outside the home," the judge revealed.

"He managed the finances… you struggled with the children and she noted that the oldest girl had always taken a caring role with the 3-year-old who seemed to have significant behaviour problems."

Tooman was of Māori descent but had little knowledge of her background or culture until she returned from Australia.

"You say since moving back to New Zealand you have become more aware of your Māori background and affiliate with the Tūhoe iwi," said Justice Hinton.

"You are open to learning more about your whakapapa and have made more connections with your whānau.

"You identified your father and paternal grandmother who reside in New Zealand as your main support people and said you felt if you had been brought up in New Zealand with her father, you would not be in the position you are in now."

Are you worried about the safety of a child?

If you have concerns about the immediate safety of a child, call 111.

Alternatively contact your local police station - click her for a list.

Or, contact Oranga Tamariki, Ministry for Children on 0508 326 459 for advice or click here to visit the agency's website for more information.