Parents' 'repeated failures' led to death of baby left in hot car

2:45 pm on 30 June 2017

Eight-month-old Isaiah Neil died after being left in a hot car for three hours, while his parents and grandmother smoked synthetic cannabis and went to sleep.

From left, Shane Christopher Neil, Donna Parangi and Lacey Te Whetu.

From left, Shane Christopher Neil, Donna Parangi and Lacey Te Whetu in court in Rotorua this morning. Photo: RNZ / Edward Gay

Grandmother Donna Parangi and mother Lacey Te Whetu were jailed for three years when they appeared for sentencing in the High Court in Rotorua today.

Isaiah's father, Shane Christopher Neil, has been given the option of serving his sentence on home detention, if a suitable address can be found.

Isaiah was strapped into his car seat in the back of the family's dark blue station wagon while his grandmother Donna Parangi and mother Lacey Te Whetu drove the 40 minute round trip from their home in Ruatoki to Kawerau - to buy synthetic cannabis.

They got home to Ruatoki in the heat of the day on 2 November 2015.

Justice Lang said Parangi told her daughter to leave the sleeping Isaiah in his car seat and the pair went inside to smoke the newly classified drug.

"By sending your daughter to have a rest, you acknowledged that you would take responsibility to care for Isaiah. When you elected to smoke synthetic cannabis, you must have known that this was going to have a significant detrimental effect on your ability to undertake that act."

It did, with Parangi soon falling asleep.

The temperature outside reached 22 degrees, but inside the car it soared to more than 40.

Isaiah was not checked on for three hours until his father realised his son was not in the house and found him in the car.

"It was clear that Isaiah was extremely ill at this point, he was limp, unresponsive and hot. Mr Neil brought him back into the address and showed him to Ms Te Whetu. She then put him into his cot and took no further action," said Justice Lang.

The adults then went back to sleep. It wasn't until waking at about 6.30pm that night, that they discovered Isaiah was still unresponsive and called emergency services. Isaiah was already dead of hyperthermia and dehydration.

Justice Lang said it was not clear from the expert medical evidence whether Isaiah would have survived, had his father called 111 after initially finding him in the car.

"Any death of a very young child is tragic. It is even more tragic when the death is completely needless and caused by repeated failures by parents and those trusted with his care. In the present case, there was no need for Isaiah to have died."

Defence lawyers compared the case to that of the tired heath professional who made the fatal mistake of leaving her child in a hot car in Whanganui. She was discharged without conviction.

Justice Lang said the two cases were entirely different as Parangi and Te Whetu knew where Isaiah was.

In sentencing Parangi, Justice Lang took into account the 52 year-old's previously clean record and her remorse.

Her lawyer, Sue Gray, said her client was a caring mother and grandmother and would have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

Te Whetu's lawyer, William Lawson, said his client went to bed thinking other adults in the house were looking after the children. He said his client had addressed her drug addiction and had returned clean tests in an effort to get her other children out of the care of Oranga Tamariki.

Justice Lang said drugs had had a huge effect on Te Whetu's life. Court documents showed she was spending most of her money on synthetic cannabis and phone data between her mother and a dealer showed Parangi was buying it every second day.

"Your family had in fact become concerned about your ability to care for the children. Your older sister had took the older children and cared for them, about a month before this offending because she was concerned about your ability to care for the children."

Neil's lawyer Roger Laybourn said his client did not know Isaiah had been in the car until he found him there.

He said for the rest of his life, his client will ask himself why he didn't call emergency services when he found his son lifeless in the car.

Justice Lang said Neil blamed himself for what happened. He gave both parents time off for their early guilty pleas and remorse.

The factor that persuaded the judge to consider home detention was it was unclear whether Isaiah was beyond help when Neil found him in the car. His sentencing was adjourned so a suitable address could be found.

Parangi will appeal her conviction but a bid for bail while she awaits her date in the Court of Appeal was unsuccessful.