News Carer who kept 77yo woman in ‘squalid’ conditions pleads guilty

Carer who kept 77yo woman in ‘squalid’ conditions pleads guilty

Michelle Leanne Stitt at the Ipswich Magistrates Court in October. Photo: ABC News/Baz Ruddick
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A carer who neglected a chronically ill elderly woman so badly she was in intensive care for weeks has pleaded guilty to two counts of failing to provide the necessaries of life.

Paramedics were called to a property at Tarampa, west of Brisbane, in May 2019, when Margaret Hoffman had gone into cardiac arrest.

The 77-year-old was admitted to Ipswich Hospital, which prompted police to search her carer’s property.

Officers uncovered “squalid” conditions that they said had caused Ms Hoffman’s health to deteriorate.

Michelle Leanne Stitt, 58, was charged with grievous bodily harm and failing to provide the necessities of life.

She was set to go to trial over the matter, but after a committal hearing in October, on Wednesday entered a guilty plea to two counts of failing to provide the necessaries of life.

Standard of care went unchecked

Crown prosecutor Clayton Wallis told the court Ms Stitt was a seasoned caregiver who provided appropriate care to Ms Hoffman between 2009 and 2015.

He said the standard of care declined to “appalling levels” between 2015 and 2019.

“The complainant was not provided her prescription medication, not taken to medical practitioners and required to live in squalid conditions, fending, in the main it would seem, for herself despite the commensurate decline in her health.”

He said the defendant’s standards of care went largely unchecked by officials.

“Eventually on May 29, 2019, as a consequence of the defendant’s protracted and systemic failings, the complainant experienced a traumatic event requiring hospitalisation.

“At that point the complainant’s impoverished state was identified and police were contacted.

“Had authorities acted appropriately … the defendant would never, it is likely, have been allowed to assume the responsibility of being a primary caregiver of another.”

Mr Wallis told the court that while this was considered an early plea of guilty, it was of concern that this was not the first case of carer abuse that brought Ms Stitt before a court.

Not the first case for Ms Stitt

Ms Stitt was sentenced over an incident in 2007 where she was seen to have repeatedly hit a 55-year-old intellectually impaired man in her care, something she initially denied.

She was sentenced to a good behaviour bond and no conviction was recorded.

Mr Wallis said while Ms Hoffman was subject to squalid living conditions, Stitt lived in the same conditions.

“[This] suggests she was either ambivalent to them, or was simply incapable of overcoming them,” he said.

“A case entirely indifferent to one which a person lives in luxury while those for whom they care are left in squalid conditions.”

‘Extreme hoarding, excessive animals’

Defence lawyer Simon Lewis referred to Ms Stitt’s mental health conditions in his submissions.

He submitted reports from four different practitioners that he said showed she should not go to prison.

A report from a psychiatrist said: “Ms Stitt appears to be over low/average intelligence and displays considerable difficulty in managing certain situations, easily becoming overwhelmed.”

He said Ms Stitt was an extreme hoarder and had an excessive number of animals, which overran the lower level of the house.

She also had an inability to look after the excessive number of livestock and financial pressures, the court was told.

“Although Ms Stitt had cared for Ms Hoffman for 14 years, when she became overwhelmed by these other pressures she seemed to develop the misguided impression that Ms Hoffman would actually be able to feed and support herself,” he said.

The report by the psychiatrist also criticised the authorities for not checking on Ms Stitt’s living situation and ability to meet her responsibilities as a carer.

“She had received NGO [non-government organisation] support who were aware of her hoarding tendency but elected not to visit her property,” the report said.

“She had also received a carer’s pension yet no-one seems to have assessed whether she was providing the due care and attention required of this responsibility.”

GP said Ms Stitt had complex mental health issues

A report by a GP highlighted that Ms Stitt had complex mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and PTSD.

His report said she had made progress and now has support.

“She has support from a psychiatrist, family who have significantly cleaned and decluttered her house and a mental nurse.

“She has taken responsibility for her treatment … the patient is not a danger to the community and with the continuing support and treatment that she is receiving I feel her prognosis is very positive.”

Defence lawyer Simon Lewis told the court Ms Stitt “should never have been responsible for the care of another”.

“It is respectfully submitted that the system failed both the defendant and the complainant in this matter,” he told the court.

“There is a clear causative link between the offending and the defendant’s mental health conditions … they reduce her moral culpability in these circumstances.

“A term of imprisonment would be more difficult for her than the average prisoner taking into account her mental health condition.”

Ms Stitt will be sentenced in the Ipswich District Court on May 20.