Worn out and depressed from working 18-hour days, a 23-year-old Indonesian domestic helper gripped, punched and pressed a crying baby’s neck with all her strength in order to get some sleep.
One-year-old Richelle Teo Yan Jia was found dead by her father in their Simei flat hours later on the morning of 8 May 2016, which was Mother’s Day. The child’s death came less than a week after her first birthday.
At the time of the discovery, the maid had left home on her first off day since she began working for the family 18 months earlier.
On Thursday (22 November), the High Court sentenced 25-year-old Maryani Usman Utar to seven years’ jail after she pleaded guilty to one charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Baby fell off bed, vomited
The court heard that Maryani began working for the family of 46-year-old Teo Kok Eng, the victim’s father, on 15 January 2015.
She had previously worked in Saudi Arabia for about four-and-a-half years, starting from when she was aged 15, for a family with a one-year-old daughter. Her duties in Teo’s household included taking care of his three-year-old son and Richelle. Maryani usually worked from 6am to midnight.
On the night of 7 May 2016, Maryani patted Richelle until she fell asleep, then went to prepare her night-time feed. The baby usually woke at about 2am or 3am to feed. Maryani returned to the bedroom with the milk bottle, milk container and thermos flask and went to bed at about midnight next to the baby.
Just as she was about to fall asleep, Maryani heard a thud followed by Richelle crying. She saw the baby lying face down on the floor.
Maryani picked up the baby and patted her buttocks to coax her to sleep. She did not check for injuries as the baby had fallen off the bed a few times in the past without being injured. Maryani patted the baby for about half an hour before falling asleep next to her.
At about 2am, Maryani was again woken up by Richelle’s cries. She prepared milk and fed the baby, then patted her back. The baby burped and vomited, staining both her and Maryani’s clothes. The helper then changed the baby’s clothes.
Shortly after, Richelle began to cry louder and Maryani had to pat the baby for what felt like a very long time. Angry from the lack sleep, Maryani then punched the left side of the baby’s neck with all her strength.
This made the baby cry even louder, which further infuriated Maryani. She then gripped the back of the baby’s neck with all her strength for about 30 minutes, by her own estimate.
Maryani also simultaneously pressed her right fist against the left side of the baby’s neck.
She applied and maintained continuous pressure on the two areas of Richelle’s neck until the baby stopped crying. Maryani only released her grip about five minutes after the baby stopped crying, when the latter’s eyes had closed.
She went to wash Richelle’s soiled clothes and changed her own clothes. She then went to sleep next to the baby.
Maid left home, baby rushed to hospital
The helper woke up at about 7am and prepared for her day off. She left home at about 7.50am, without checking on Richelle.
At about 9am, Teo went to check on the baby as she usually needed to be fed around that time. He found the baby’s body cold and that she was not breathing.
Teo and Richelle’s mother, Florence Ng Lai Fong, then called the police and requested for an ambulance, before rushing the baby to a hospital in a neighbour’s car. Richelle was pronounced dead at about 10.10am.
Police located Maryani near Merlion Park at about 1pm. She admitted to the officers what she had done.
A government psychiatrist found that she had been suffering from depressive disorder of at least moderate intensity in the months prior to the incident. She had also experienced an acute stress reaction in the days immediately prior to the incident.
The doctor issued a report stating Maryani’s mental condition had impaired her mental responsibility in committing the acts.
Maid tried to change employers thrice
According to the prosecution, Maryani had tried to change employers three times.
In May 2015, she asked to leave as Ng scolded her daily over incomplete chores and the quality of her work. At the time, Ng persuaded her to stay. She stopped scolding the maid in August that year after the latter lent her some money.
Two months later, after paying off her agency loan, Maryani again asked to leave as she was not allowed to own a mobile phone. Again, Maryani was convinced to stay on with Teo’s family.
In April 2016, Maryani again made a request to leave. This was initially granted, but Ng changed her mind as she was unable to take care of her children on her own.
During the course of her employment, Maryani was not allowed to own a mobile phone – which was one of her reasons for wanting to leave the family. Two phones found in her possession had also been confiscated by Ng.
The court also heard that Maryani was never ill-treated and was given sufficient food. However, that same month her workload increased, with her being made to clean the kitchen cupboards daily instead of weekly and to clean the house more thoroughly.
The following month, Maryani spoke to her mother over the home’s landline phone and was told that her mother, sister and cousin would be visiting Singapore.
A few days later, Maryani requested for a day off on 8 May 2016 to spend time with her family. Ng acceded to the request. This would have been Maryani’s first day off since she began working for the family.
Punishing schedule, little contact with family
Deputy Public Prosecutors Kelly Ho and Bhajanvir Singh urged Justice Hoo Sheau Peng to impose at least eight years’ jail for the “senseless killing of a young infant who was completely defenceless”.
In mitigation, defence lawyer Mohamed Muzammil Mohamed sought five-and-a-half to six years’ jail for Maryani.
He pointed out that Maryani’s daily routine started at 6am with preparing breakfast for Teo and Ng’s children, walking their son to kindergarten, household chores such as laundry and cleaning the house, and preparing dinner for the family.
Ng would return home from work at 8pm on weekdays and Maryani would wash the crockery and clean the kitchen, then set the children to bed.
“Maryani only wished that her female employer would help her to attend to the needs of Richelle at night so that she could have sufficient rest and sleep before she continued with the next day’s routine,” said Muzammil.
The maid felt working for the family to be unbearable as she was frequently scolded for not performing work according to expectations, the lawyer said, and she was not able to cope with the workload in the house. Although she was never subjected to physical abuse and was given sufficient food, she found Ng rude to her at times, the lawyer added.
“During the course of her employment, the standing rule imposed by her employers on her was that she was not permitted to use a mobile phone and not given a day off. Instead, her salary included her working on Sundays,” said Muzammil, who noted that Ng wanted to deduct $20 from Maryani’s pay for the day off she took.
“During the one-and-a-half years of working for the Teo family, she was only able to make about six telephone calls to her family.”
Maryani also loaned Ng $3,150 when the latter was unemployed, of which Ng owed her an outstanding $100. The helper had been too afraid of asking for the remaining amount for fear of being scolded, the lawyer said.
About one week before the incident, Maryani was also told by her mother during a call that the latter’s business – which had been set up with money remitted home – had failed and the family had lost their home. Her mother asked for more money to be sent back. The news left Maryani sad and depressed.
“Maryani genuinely and sincerely apologises to Mr and Mrs Teo and other family members for causing the death of Richelle. The guilt will remain with her throughout her life even after she returns to her village to reunite with her family,” added the defence lawyer.
Maryani’s sentence was backdated to the date of her remand on 10 May 2016. The judge allowed Indonesian embassy officials to speak to her in court after sentencing before she was brought back to prison.
Maryani could have been jailed for up to 10 years and also fined.
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