Baby's starvation death under investigation
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 17, 2003
By Diana Marrero, Miami Bureau
The siblings of a 5-month-old girl who police say may have starved to death also appear to be malnourished, a medical doctor trained in child abuse and neglect told a juvenile dependency court judge Friday.
As detectives investigate whether Lamoy and Joseph Andressohn were responsible for their infant's death, the couple's four other children remain in the custody of the state Department of Children & Families.
The Andressohns, who followed a strict diet of uncooked organic foods devoid of animal byproducts for religious reasons, could be charged with the death of their daughter, Woyah, if autopsy reports confirm that the infant died of malnutrition, police say.
When she died early Thursday, the Homestead girl weighed only six pounds, about a third of what a normal child should weigh at her age.
The Andressohns appeared solemn during a court hearing Friday, while a judge decided where their other children would be placed.
"I'm grieving," Lamoy Andressohn told Miami-Dade County Dependency Court Judge Ivan Fernandez when he asked her if she was all right. "I'm going through a lot right now."
During the hearing, Fernandez said he is considering whether to place the children in the custody of an aunt while police investigate Woyah's death. The children's parents will be allowed supervised weekly visits during the course of the investigation.
Child welfare workers have already conducted a visit to the aunt's home and are waiting for the results of a background check on the woman's family.
Meanwhile, Fernandez ordered the agency to regulate the children's diets so that they consume enough protein and fats to meet their nutritional needs.
The Andressohns are members of the Hebrew Israelites, a group of African-Americans who consider themselves the true descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. Members are referred to as saints, and many take the last name "Ben Israel," meaning son of Israel.
Some of their customs include wearing only natural fabrics and maintaining a vegan diet void of all animal byproducts. They forbid smoking, drinking, drugs and even caffeine.
Dr. Walter Lambert, medical director of Miami-Dade's Child Protection Team, said he plans to devise a diet for the Andressohn children that would not violate their parents' religious beliefs. Nuts and soy products, for example, could provide the children with adequate amounts of fat and protein, he said.
Though neighbors described the Andressohns as a loving and caring family, someone was apparently concerned enough about the couple's dietary practices to call the state's child abuse hotline.
In the past two years, DCF received several abuse allegations that the children were not adequately fed, according to a source familiar with the case. It is not clear how child abuse investigators responded, but child advocates question whether DCF mishandled the case.
DCF received one abuse complaint to its hotline just days before Woyah's death on Thursday. Homicide detectives spent hours interviewing Woyah's parents Thursday but have not charged them with any crimes pending the results of an autopsy.
Woyah is the fourth child under the watch of the DCF Miami District to die in the past three months.
If the Andressohns are charged with Woyah's death, prosecutors would have to prove that the child died because of her parents' neglect and not from any other health condition, said Bruce Winick, a law professor with the University of Miami.
However, the parents' dietary practices and religious beliefs would not be a sufficient defense for inadequately nourishing their child, he said.
"They can't impose their religious or dietary beliefs if doing so places the child in physical jeopardy," he said.
In California, three members of a secretive group known as "The Family" pleaded guilty last year to felony child endangerment charges after a 19-month-old boy died of starvation. Prosecutors said the toddler's death was the result of his biological parent's strict vegetarian lifestyle.
In Massachusetts, a jury convicted a cult leader last year of
first-degree murder for starving his infant son to death to comply
with a religious vision.