Father and son convicted after leaving woman to die covered in bedsores, insects and filth

Woman, 64, left to die covered in bedsores, insects and filth • Husband and son get jail sentence, suspended for four years

Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech was outraged by the neglect
Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech was outraged by the neglect

A horrific case of domestic neglect which led to the death of a woman was decided by the courts, which found Salvatore and his son Stanley Chircop of Birkirkara guilty of involuntarily, through negligence, causing the death of Serafina Chircop in 2014.

The pair were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, suspended for four years and ordered to pay €732 in costs.

Serafina Chircop was taken to hospital by ambulance on 7 June, 2014, but died shortly after.

She was just 64 but looked twenty years older, witnesses said, who told police she had been admitted in a state of appalling hygiene, covered in bedsores – one of which had exposed her hip bone – and was in danger of death.

It emerged that the patient had suffered from advanced arthritis for seven years and had ended up bedridden, but would refuse all medication besides painkillers. She did not want to be touched because she was in so much pain.

Salvatore Chircop would take care of the house and do what he could to feed his wife and hold her cigarettes as Serafina was a heavy smoker. The court was told that the woman also had burns to her chest which had been caused when she was unable to swallow hot soup which her husband had been feeding her.

Her husband had described her as “the pillar of the house” before her health deteriorated.

A police sergeant despatched to Mater Dei hospital to deal with the report found the woman in the foetal position, covered in bed sores and filth. The sergeant spoke of “massive negligence on the part of her family members for not taking care of her,” adding that a necklace she had been wearing was embedded in her skin, such was the level of grime. “Her hip bone was literally exposed because the skin had been eaten by worms. Although her eyes were open, she was not conscious, in the sense that she would be looking at you blankly.”

Despite medical staff’s efforts to resuscitate her, Serafina Chircop died in hospital.

The police sergeant said the home of the accused had such an unbearable stench that she could only briefly look at the woman’s bedroom before having to go outside. “Upstairs there was a filthy bed… grime that defies description. There was blood and some long-ago dried liquid on the bed, many flies circling a patch on the bed, not to mention the dogs who were allowed to lick these filthy sheets.”

A nurse who arrived in an ambulance told the magistrate that one of the woman’s eyes was stuck to the sheets and that no colour was seen in her iris, possibly as a result of this. She would only respond to painful stimuli. When she was turned over, her lower side was found to be flat and stuck to the sheet. The nurse said it had been a niece who had called the ambulance.

The ER doctor who treated her testified that the “patient was evidently unable to take care of herself well and neither be cured. When the patient… was washed and we moved her, a lot of insects emerged from underneath her and there was also evidence of many matchsticks underneath her.”

Serafina Chircop was also suffering from broken bones which had been left untreated, with old fractures in both her femurs. There was also a new spiral fracture in her left femur. She had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis but had refused two knee replacements.

The woman’s sister testified that Serafina Chircop was terrified of hospital. She would speak to her on the phone every day but would not visit her often because she had to take care of their mother. During those phonecalls Serafina would cry because she was in a lot of pain, explained the witness. The sister had called for the ambulance because she had seen her sister in so much pain, she claimed.

Under cross-examination, she had confirmed that the accused would regularly tell their mother that she needed to go to hospital but that she would always refuse.

Accused Stanley Chircop testified that a lift had been installed at their home and that his father had bought a van to be able to transport the woman in her wheelchair. On one occasion, he had found his mother in tears after a surgeon had told her that they were not going to operate on her and that she would be wheelchair-bound. From then on, she refused to go to hospital, he said.

“We couldn’t move her, she couldn’t move from the bed. She didn’t want to move from the bed… I don’t know exactly what was underneath her because I’m telling you, we’d go to turn her and she wouldn’t let us… we couldn’t do anything,” he said.

Under cross-examination, he said that the woman had been refusing to go to hospital for over a year.

But despite this, no carers were employed. Instead, a niece of the woman would go once a week to wash her. But after Serafina started to give her trouble, the washing started to become superficial, Stanley Chircop claimed. The court observed that this account did not tally with the abysmal state the woman was found in.

The woman had given up on life, husband Salvatore said, and he felt that he shouldn’t defy her wishes. He could not afford a carer, he said, but the court pointed out that there were state-funded options for care.

Magistrate Donatella Frendo Dimech was outraged by the neglect. “It was only thanks to her sister and niece that Serafina was taken to hospital. Her husband and son, who used to live with her, took no initiative to have their mother treated and instead left her to rot and be taken over by muck, worms and insects.”

“It is clear that Salvatore and Stanley Chircop abdicated from their duty to Serafina, abdicated from the duty of care that they placed themselves under when they decided to keep her at home without medical or professional care. They failed to predict the consequences of their inaction.”

Forensic and medical experts certified that the deceased woman’s emaciated state led them to believe that she had died of pneumonia caused by bedsores, malnutrition, lack of circulation and poor hygiene.

The court said the men had chosen not to refer Serafina to hospital and had assumed a far greater duty of care by keeping her at home, and that such actions of neglect which led to Serafina’s death were “undoubtedly voluntary” as well as “inexcusable and unjustifiable.”

Noting that the accused were not first-time offenders and that the crimes were aggravated by the relationship between the accused and the deceased, the court opted not to impose a prison sentence, saying the facts of the case “militated towards the giving of a maximum suspended prison sentence.”

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