Mother gets lots of blame in death of obese daughter, little sympathy She's charged with abuse after Calif. girl, 13, died in ,, '96 weighing 680 pounds

December 27, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MARTINEZ, Calif. -- Marlene Corrigan has been tried in the court of public opinion and found terribly wanting.

Now she stands before a Superior Court judge and is charged with abusing her 13-year-old daughter, Christina -- a child who was as invisible in life as she is sensationalized in death.

Thirteen months ago, Christina Corrigan died in the living room of her home in El Cerrito, Calif. She weighed 680 pounds and was covered with bedsores, naked but for a sheet.

There were feces in the folds of her body. She had not been to school in a year, had not been out of the house for three months, had not moved for days from the spot where she died.

Details of Christina's life and death have transfixed an increasingly overweight country obsessed with obesity and blame. They have provided fodder for talk shows around the world and raised troubling questions about parental responsibility and control, about doctors and diets.

They have filled Judge Richard C. Arnason's courtroom with journalists and activists from the "size acceptance" movement. And they have elicited an international chorus of "How could you's" directed at a mother who could be sentenced to six years in a state prison if convicted:

How could you let your child get so fat? How could you not know she was in such bad shape? How could you let her die in squalor? How could you let the doctors ignore her? Again, and again, and again, how could you let your child get so fat?

To which Corrigan's defense attorney Michael Cardoza responds: "To blame her for this is unbelievable. The truth is that this little girl fell between the cracks every step of the way."

Yes, Marlene Corrigan's daughter died at a weight rarely reached by human beings, but their life together was more than just a parable of pounds, Cardoza argues.

It was the modern American existence taken to extremes: Single mother of troubled child and sole caretaker of elderly parents reaches the end of her rope, and no one cares.

Corrigan, a 48-year-old federal worker, also tended a mother with dementia and a father suffering from diabetes. Her father died eight months before Christina; her mother died a month after.

"If the child in this case had been an average-sized child, I don't believe there ever would have been a case," says Marilyn Wann, a self-described "fat rights activist" who attends the trial in support of Corrigan. "There would have been sympathy for the mother. Wow, your daughter died. That's too bad."

That's all well and good, said Deputy District Attorney Brian Haynes, who is prosecuting the case against Corrigan. But the mother still should have noticed and taken care of more than 100 deep bedsores that afflicted her child from torso to feet.

"The chief theory in our case is the wounds," Haynes said in an interview. "Marlene Corrigan either knew about them or reasonably should have known."

Haynes argues that Corrigan is not being prosecuted for felony child abuse for having a child who was grossly overweight. But he admits that weight cannot be separated from the prosecution of this high-profile case.

"She would not have developed the bedsores if she had not been immobile," he says. "It is unlikely she would have become immobile if not for the weight. The immobility led to the bedsores."

Christina Ann Corrigan was born in March 1983, a normal 7 pounds 11 ounces. She went on her first diet at age 2, when her doctor -- affiliated with a Kaiser Health Plan HMO -- suggested replacing whole milk with skim.

By the time Christina was 5, she weighed 114 pounds, went to a dietitian and was restricted to 1,300 calories a day. Thyroid tests seeking an answer to the weight gain came back negative.

At 7, she was 190; at 8 she weighed 237 pounds, when the average is 55 pounds. She last saw a Kaiser doctor at age 9, according to medical records. She never saw a specialist about her weight.

"This little girl is not only off the chart; she's off the page," Cardoza said in court to Dr. Anjana Ray, who was the pediatrician for the child as a young girl. "Did that not alert you to send her to a specialist?"

"No," the doctor testified, defending her and Kaiser's care of the child. "If the trend had continued, she would have been referred."

By the time Christina refused to return to Kaiser, her mother had taken her to the doctor some 90 times. But they also simply had not shown up to regularly scheduled weigh-ins and dietitian appointments, according to medical records.

After she graduated from elementary school in 1995, Christina was never in a classroom again. Her junior high school was only seven blocks from her home, but they were steep blocks, and she could not traverse them.

Her mother asked the school for help, Cardoza said, but was rebuffed. A family member, alarmed, reported Corrigan to Child Protective Services, but an investigation ended with no charges.

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