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Court orders suspended sentence and rehabilitation for mom whose baby perished in fire

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A SINGLE MOTHER of six young girls who has turned her life around since the death of her infant son, has been given a chance at rehabilitation and was not ordered to serve an immediate jail sentence for manslaughter and abandonment.

The life of Tamara Lavia and her family changed drastically on January 26, 2018. Lavia, then a mother of five children, lived in an abandoned house with her children, including her eight-month-old son Simrique Lavia.

On that night, the mother asked an elderly man named ‘Grandpa’ who lived on the premises to “cast an eye”, saying that she was leaving to come back. However, while away from her home, Lavia got into an altercation with the father of her children and sustained facial injuries so that she was away for longer than she anticipated. While mom was still out, a candle that had been lit and left in the area where the children were , set the house ablaze and burnt the baby. Little Simrique died a few hours after the inferno.

Lavia was taken into custody on the same night, and charged the following day with manslaughter and abandonment of a child under the age of two years.

The case worked its way through the court system before it arrived at the High Court, before Justice Angelica Teelucksingh.

An earlier case with very similar circumstances involving a Vincentian was highlighted by Lavia’s lawyer Michelle Fife. In this case Vanesha Baptiste’s five-month-old baby perished in a fire caused by a lit candle after she left her two children unattended at home. The Judge in this case saw it fit to impose a prison term of three years, suspended for three years, and Baptiste was also obligated to participate in parenting classes, counselling and be a part of a skills programme. Her progress was to be checked every three months.

“…We submit that the accused in the case at bar was less reckless or negligent…” than in the Baptiste case, counsel Fife wrote in her submissions, “…in that she did not leave her children completely unattended but had asked a neighbour to ‘cast an eye’.”

“Whether this was enough is debatable, however, the accused did not leave her house to attend a social event like the accused in the case above, but left to pursue the father of her children who was the only financial contributor to her household at the time”, Fife posited.

“The issue was important and pressing as the accused was indigent poor at the time and the house she was living in abandoned without electricity or water.” The lawyer indicated that Lavia met her children’s father, but was apparently beaten about her face. When on her way to report the matter to the police, she heard about the fire and its consequences.

“The accused lost her only son in the fire that prevailed in January 2018 and was not allowed to see him after his demise as she was already in police custody, neither was she permitted to attend her son’s funeral as she was awaiting bail. These are punishments and scars the accused must live with for the rest of her life as she was the biological mother of the child who is now deceased,” Fife explained.

Lavia’s is a case with major mitigating factors, she said.

Her client is a single mother of six children aged between 12 years and three months, all female, for which she is the sole provider.

Lavia was in her late twenties at the time of the incident, and “She is now gainfully employed at a school and meeting the expenses of rent, utilities and educational expenses of her children by herself by doing cosmetology on the side at the same time.”

Lavia herself had no mother from a young age, and she and her siblings were left to fend for themselves “vulnerable and open to poverty, abuse and neglect.

“The accused in now becoming gainfully employed and having all of her children with her in living conditions that are better than what they were when her only son perished is an outstanding example of how anyone can turn their lives around,” Fife added.

The young mother had committed no known criminal offences before January 26, 2018.

During her submissions the lawyer reached a point where she considered whether a suspended prison sentence would be applicable in this case. She used the non-exhaustive list outlined in the practice direction pursuant to Rule 7(1) of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court(ECSC) (Sentencing Guidelines) Rules of 2019.

“Can appropriate punishment only be achieved by immediate custody? Does the officer present a risk or danger to the public or to the victim? Has there been a history of poor compliance with Court Orders? Is there a realistic prospect of rehabilitation? If sentencing a person under the age of 21, is there a realistic prospect that incarceration will so affect an offender as to turn that person more towards criminality and less toward rehabilitation? Is there strong personal mitigation? What will be the impact of an immediate custodial sentence on dependent relatives, employees and the community?

“In answering each point, the accused has suffered enough emotionally, mentally and physically, by the loss of her only son, further punishment cannot be achieved by immediate custody,” Fife concluded. She is not a danger to the public, her lawyer noted, and she has always complied with court orders.

“…There is a realistic prospect of rehabilitation because the changes to her life that the accused has made have demonstrated this, while the accused is not under the age of 21, incarcerating her will still likely turn her more towards criminality and less towards rehabilitation.”

A major factor was that her six young female children “would be separated and scattered into different families by the state which would present a problem to the state in terms of placing children into homes in a timely manner against the backdrop of the Covid 19 pandemic and recent volcanic eruptions and flash flooding,”Fife continued.

“These children are likely to feel the direct and insufferable pain of the sudden loss of their mother if the accused were to be imprisoned,” Fife reasoned.

In the end, the counsel expressed the belief that the degree of criminal culpability of her client was “virtually nil”, and therefore rehabilitation should be the primary focus.

The crown, represented by crown counsel Kaylia Toney, is said to have agreed that a suspended sentence was suitable in the circumstances.

In Justice Teelucksingh’s order, made on May 28, it is noted that Lavia is a good prospect for rehabilitation. In the factors listed by the judge, the mitigating factors were more than the aggravating.

On the count of manslaughter, the court ordered a sentence of one year, and one month imprisonment, suspended for one year and one month on the condition that Lavia does not commit any criminal offence within this period. Further, that she enrols at the Young Parent Programme and the Youth Assistance Programme at Marion House. Also at this institution, she is to receive counselling every week.

On completion of the programmes, a progress report is to be made to the court.

On the second count of abandonment of a child under the age of two years; the sentence is the same.

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