Mother accused of scalding son to death was on drug withdrawal and grieving dead relatives, court hears

Mother accused of scalding son to death was on drug withdrawal and grieving dead relatives, court hears

hot water dispenser
Photos from court documents showing the hot water dispenser used in the alleged offences.

SINGAPORE: A mother of several children accused of scalding her five-year-old son until he died was suffering from adjustment disorder with depressed mood, three psychiatrists found. 

An adjustment disorder is a psychiatric disorder where a person has problems coping emotionally with certain external stressors.

Azlin Arujunah, 27, is on trial along with her husband Ridzuan Mega Abdul Rahman for murder with common intention by pouring hot water on their son until he collapsed and later died in hospital in October 2016.

Institute of Mental Health (IMH) psychiatrist Kenneth Koh took the stand for the prosecution and described his diagnosis of Azlin, whom he said explained some of her reasons for her actions.

While he agreed with two other psychiatrists that she suffered from adjustment disorder with depressed mood, he differed in the diagnosis of the severity of the mental illness, saying it did not impair her significantly.

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"There were many serious social stressors that inflicted her that year, principally the death of her grandma, followed quickly by the death of her mother in a short space of a few months preceding the alleged offences," said Dr Koh.

The boy had been fostered out shortly after birth to his aunt and returned to his family when he was about four.

He was allegedly subjected to abuse by both his parents from July 2016, being splashed with hot water, pinched with pliers, and confined overnight in a cat cage barely the length of his height.

HUSBAND ALLEGEDLY ABANDONED HER BRIEFLY, ABUSED HER WHEN HE RETURNED

Dr Koh said Azlin also suffered other stressors, such as her husband leaving the household and "abandoning her without financial resources".

The family lived in a one-room flat, with both parents unemployed and relying on financial aid and what Ridzuan could make selling items on Carousell.

Dr Koh said Azlin told him that her husband returned to the family and allegedly abused her physically.

"There were also the additional stressors of the deceased child not being particularly endeared to Azlin and not recognising her as a mother," said Dr Koh. 

She also said the boy irritated her by pestering her with conduct like stealing milk powder. He also purportedly lied that she had not fed him.

"She said that she had poured hot water on the child because she wanted to punish the child," he said.

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MOTIVES FOR ABUSE WERE ANGER AT CHILD OR DISPLACED ANGER AT HUSBAND

"Her motives for pouring the hot water on the child and the acts she inflicted on the child were borne out of anger at the child, or anger at the husband that was displaced onto the child, and not so much because she had multiple stressors in her life causing her to be of low mood or anxious," said Dr Koh.

A defence psychiatrist had found a causal link between Azlin's adjustment disorder with the alleged offences, which the prosecution refutes.

Azlin told Dr Koh that she had caned another child, "but my impression was that it was nowhere near the level abuse inflicted on the victim".

He said all her anger and violence seemed to be "honed in onto the victim and she was able to restrain herself from attacking the other children, which therefore showed she had quite a large amount of restraint".

Azlin also had arguments with her husband over legal adoption of the victim, said Dr Koh.

To cope with her problems, Azlin took methamphetamine to "improve her performance and that led to her functional status being fairly normal so the end result was that she was still able to function", said Dr Koh.

He said substance abuse usually aggravates violent behaviour, and opined that Azlin was probably suffering withdrawal symptoms on Oct 22, 2016, the day her husband allegedly splashed hot water on the victim until he collapsed.

"She told me she had been taking Ice for several days in increased amounts prior to Oct 22 and by that time she was already becoming a bit agitated near the end because she had no more supplier and was running short of the supply of ice," said Dr Koh.

Defence lawyer Mr Thangavelu questioned Dr Koh on why he had not requested copies of the accused parents' statements to the police and instead relied only on his interviews with Azlin.

"The answers are there, the answers are in the statements," said Mr Thangavelu, who represents Azlin along with a team of lawyers.

"As I said, she told me she was upset because her grandma had passed away and that she was very close to her grandma, who had largely raised her from the time she was a child," said Dr Koh.

AZLIN HERSELF WAS AN ABUSED CHILD: DEFENCE

Mr Thangavelu said Azlin left her parents when she was about four to five years old and she was "also an abused kid".

"Her father was a drug addict and he was in prison, her mother did not show her love," said Mr Thangavelu. "She went to her grandmother, (and) her paternal uncle and aunt who took care of her."

The loss of her grandmother was "unbearable" to Azlin, said the lawyer.

When the elderly woman died, Azlin attempted to repair her relationship with her mother, and was "making some headway" but her mother died as well on the first day of Hari Raya, three months after Azlin's grandmother died.

Despite questioning by the defence lawyer, Dr Koh maintained his position that the circumstances did not cause significant impairment to Azlin.

He pointed out that she could still function, taking care of the household, feeding the children and even watching television.

It did not seem that her adjustment disorder amounted to a loss of control amounting to the alleged offences, said Dr Koh.

He said the actions were not impulsive, but were multiple and repeated.

"They are quite complex in their formulation in that she had a certain goal in mind when she wanted to scald the child and she said that she wanted to do this to punish the child," said Dr Koh.

"So it was goal-directed, it was intended, it was planned, and the actual action of scalding the child is also not an impulsive off-the-cuff action, because it involved quite a complex sequence of events from the time she formed the idea to scald the child to the time she actually threw the water at the child."

He said Azlin "was well aware of the rightfulness or wrongfulness of her actions". Azlin teared at points during the hearing, with the public gallery again packed to the brim.

The trial continues.

If found guilty of murder, Azlin could be sentenced to death, or life imprisonment. Her husband, if convicted, faces caning if not sentenced to death.

Source: CNA/ll(rw)

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