Parents Accused of Starving Infant to Death

A Florida couple accused of starving their baby to death are scheduled to face two of their surviving children in court today.

Joseph Andressohn, 36, and Lamoy Andressohn, 30, are charged with aggravated manslaughter and neglect in the death of their daughter, Woyah, who was 6 months old when she died in May 2003. The Andressohns also face four counts of child neglect stemming from the care of their four surviving children who are living with a relative under state supervision. The Andressohns say Woyah died from a genetic disorder that caused her malnutrition.

Two of the Andressohns surviving children, ages 6 and 8, are scheduled to testify for the prosecution today. The Andressohns had another child after Woyah's death, a girl named Joya, who is now 6 months old and is being cared for by a guardian.

Paramedics found Woyah's lifeless body on the floor of her parents' living room in May 2003 after her parents placed a frantic 911 call. The little girl's body was described as "emaciated" in a medical report, with ribs clearly visible through her stretched skin. An autopsy showed Woyah never learned to sit, stand or lift her head on her own. In the weeks before her death, she had trouble keeping her eyes open, and they would spontaneously roll back into her head. She weighed less than 7 pounds when she died, just a few ounces more than when she was born and less than half of an average 6-month-old.

Prosecutors say the Andressohns starved Woyah to death by restricting her to a raw food diet, also known as a vegan diet or a "living foods lifestyle," feeding her only wheat grass, coconut water and milk made from almonds.

"Those parents caused their child Woyah to suffer malnutrition so severe that it turned that child into a bag of skin and bones," said assistant Florida state attorney Herbert Walker in court. "Baby Woyah's body was eating itself because it wasn't getting enough nutrients."

The defense will argue the Andressohns had no reason to believe Woyah was developing abnormally since her parents and grandparents are "small" and their first four children were also small until they reached the age of 1.

The Diet

The two main principals of the raw food diet is that humans aren't meant to eat animal products such as meat or dairy, and that cooking diminishes the nutritional value of food. Followers of the diet believe heating food above 118 degrees will kill the enzymes in it, diminishing its nutritional value.

"For a child that is 6 months old, they don't have any intestinal ability yet to digest raw foods," said Heidi Skolnick, a nutritionist and contributing editor for Men's Health magazine. "Most babies, you don't even introduce solids for four or six months."

The entire Andressohn family adhered to the diet, although Joseph Andressohn has been known to smoke and eat meat.

The Andressohns say they were trying to keep their children from becoming "obese." Joseph Andressohn had struggled with a weight problem, and at one time reached 250 pounds. Friends say he was determined to save his children from repeating his mistakes.

The Andressohns say they attended conferences, watched educational parenting shows and read books before deciding to put their children on the diet. It has also been reported the family's diet may have been connected to their religion, known as "Hebrew Israelite" which promotes raw food and natural eating.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled parents have the right to raise their children according to their spiritual beliefs, but have held that religion may not be used as a defense in cases of abuse and neglect of medical treatment for a child.

Woyah had no medical records and the couple told police they did not believe in traditional medical care. They said they avoided doctors except in extreme circumstances, administering wheatgrass enemas to cure their children's sickness.

None of the Andressohn children received immunizations, none has ever been to a doctor and all were born at home.

The defense insists Woyah did not die from starvation, but of a genetic disorder that caused her malnutrition.

"It didn't make a difference what the diet was for the child was who died because she was doomed because of these congenital defects," said the Andressohn's attorney, Rubin Ellis.

The prosecution will present its case today, and two of the Andressohn children are expected to testify on a closed circuit TV because prosecutors say they are too afraid and traumatized to be in the same room with their parents.

At the time of Woyah's death, all of her siblings were found to be below average height and weight for their age and at least one showed signs of rickets, a bone deficiency caused by a lack of vitamin D. The children told court psychologists they were given forced enemas and beaten with a belt for violating the diet.

The defense says the children have been "brainwashed."

"When she was first interviewed 28 months ago, there were no such allegations," Ellis said of one of the children. "Gradually they changed their testimony. Little children can be brainwashed, of course.

"The child died because of a congenital defect which, when the child swallowed, the fluid came back up the esophagus," Ellis said. "This child inhaled some of that … some of the food particles went into the lungs and caused pneumonia and the child died."

The trial is expected to wrap up within the next two weeks. If convicted on all charges, the Andressohns could face more than 17 years each in prison.