A Sydney naturopath who told a breastfeeding mother to go on a raw food diet to heal her baby son’s eczema will serve prison time, after the seven-month-old lost 1.6 kilograms and almost died.
Marilyn Pauline Bodnar, 62, was sentenced on Thursday afternoon to 14 months in prison, with a non-parole period of seven months, for the role she played in the baby's starvation.
In February 2015, she advised the mother, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, to eat raw food only to heal her then-6-month-old son’s eczema, saying the skin condition may have been caused by the mother’s diet and toxins in her body.
The son, referred to in court by the pseudonym “Tony”, was being exclusively breastfed at the time.
After starting on the diet on April 10, 2015, the mother and baby lost weight — but Bodnar told her to keep going, saying Tony was fat and needed to lose weight. After Tony had high temperatures in early to mid-May, Bodnar told the mother to stop eating altogether and drink only water.
“The situation reached a critical stage on or around the 21st of May 2015 when Tony was unsettled," District Court Judge Peter Berman told the court. "His mother believed he needed more food.
“Ms Bodnar suggested that she could give him some goat’s milk but when the mother tried this, Tony vomited it up. Ms Bodnar suggested that the mother try to dilute the goat’s milk with water and try again but Tony vomited that also.”
After six weeks of the diet, the mother took Tony to a GP and was referred to a children's hospital, where doctors believe he would have died within days if he had not received medical treatment.
He had gone from weighing 8 kilograms to 6.4 kilograms, was in a "shrunken state" and had lost body fat and muscle, and appeared dehydrated.
“The criminal law does not often get involved in the choice of a person to give or to accept advice based on alternatives to conventional medicine,” Berman told the Downing Centre courtroom on Thursday afternoon.
“Thus people are perfectly entitled to portray themselves as able to cure illnesses through the placement of crystals on the body, the use of highly diluted solutions, and the eating of activated almonds.”
But when people are harmed – or almost killed – by such advice, the law must intervene, he said.
“Those who purport to be qualified to give medical advice, whether doctors or not, have an obligation to provide advice which is based on proved results, not merely fake science and faith.”
Bodnar had pleaded guilty to the charge of aiding, abetting, counselling, or procuring the mother in committing a criminal offence — that is, failing to provide Tony with the necessities for his life. The charge has a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Berman said her crime was “objectively serious” because she gave the advice over a period of three months, either didn’t monitor or ignored Tony's health during this time, and because of Tony’s age.
“It’s not as though Tony was able to feed himself,” Berman told the court.
Over the course of his mother’s six-week diet, Tony underwent a concurrent developmental delay. At eight months, he had the development of a 3-month-old, and had to stay in hospital for more than a month after being admitted in May 2015.
“He still needs to be assessed by medical experts over the next few years in order to ascertain whether or not he will suffer any long-term developmental delays as a result of what has happened to him,” Berman said.
No prison guards were present as the sentence was handed down, so Bodnar quietly spoke with her lawyers for a few minutes as she waited in the dock.
She asked “Now?” when the guards explained they were taking her downstairs to the cells, before reluctantly handing over her phone and glasses case to her lawyers and leaving the courtroom.
As he explained the sentence, Berman said it was “a serious thing to do” to imprison a 62-year-old woman with no criminal history, but he felt a custodial sentence both reflected the gravity of the offence and deterred others from doing something similar.
“It is a serious matter, but not necessarily a crime, to tell a breastfeeding mother to restrict her diet,” he said.
“It is even more serious when such advice continues after being told that both the mother and child have lost weight. And it is serious indeed and highly criminal for such advice to continue to the state where a child was at risk of death within a few days, in circumstances where the person giving the advice hadn’t even seen the state the child was in as a result of his or her advice being followed.”
He said Bodnar has suffered significantly since the charges were brought, noting that her business had suffered, she had been abused on social media, and that her stress had to led to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Earlier on Thursday, Bodnar’s lawyer had told the court she would never treat children again.
Tony's mother was previously given a sentence of 14 months in prison that was suspended due to her offer to testify against Bodnar.