Criminally prosecuted cases of child starvation

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32 Scopus citations


Objective. Here we describe the clinical findings and legal outcomes in 12 prosecuted cases of infant and child starvation. Methods. Medical records, investigation records, and transcripts of court testimony were reviewed in the cases of 12 infants and children from locations throughout Texas who had been starved deliberately. The children's ages ranged from 2 months to 13 years. The caretakers of all children received both civil and criminal charges; cases were tried over an 11-year time span. Clinical presentations, examination findings, laboratory findings, symptoms of refeeding syndrome, and legal outcomes were examined. Two illustrative cases are presented in detail here. Results. Of the 12 cases reviewed, the median age was 2.7 years, with a range of 2.25 months to 13 years 7 months. Half of the children died shortly before or soon after presentation for medical care or to law enforcement. Survival was more common in older children than in infants. Most of the children were secluded from others, and all had access to food denied or severely restricted. Caretakers claimed few, benign, or no past medical illnesses in the children. Based on weight and height measurements, 10 of the children had severe wasting and stunting, and 2 had mild or moderate wasting. There was a tendency toward more severe wasting in the fatal cases. All children manifested multiorgan effects of starvation. All survivors manifested complications with refeeding. Approximately half of the children had past or present injuries or history suggestive of physical or sexual abuse. Parental rights were terminated in all cases. A total of 25 individuals were charged criminally; 23 were found guilty or pled guilty, and trials for 2 individuals were pending at the time of this writing. The types of criminal charges and punishment varied from deferred adjudication to a life sentence. Conclusions. Life-threatening criminal starvation of infants and children is a rare and severe form of child maltreatment. In our series, infants were more wasted at the time of presentation and less likely to survive prolonged starvation than were older children. As with other forms of child abuse, caretakers' histories regarding the children's illnesses were inconsistent with the severity and chronicity of the children's degree of wasting. All victims in our series showed multiorgan effects of chronic malnutrition and deprivation, and all survivors developed refeeding complications and required prolonged periods of recovery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1309-1316
Number of pages8
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2005


  • Abuse
  • Legal issues
  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Stunting
  • Wasting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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