Details of Romy Zunde’s week in the lead up to the tragic death of her 22-month-old son, Noah, in 2015, would be familiar to any parent of young children.
After overcoming a struggle with post-natal depression following the birth of her first child in 2010, which she had again endured during her pregnancy with Noah, Ms Zunde still described herself as an anxious mother, “helicoptering her children all the time trying to do as best as she could to care for [them]”.
Then, adding to an already “stressful” week in which Noah had trouble sleeping, a dog attacked the family’s pet pigs on February 10 – wounding the pigs and ultimately leading to a decision by the local ranger to destroy the dog.
To make matters worse, just days later, Romy and her partner, Andrew Krespanis, came down with gastro, leaving Romy in particular, seriously ill.
On February 16, while still nauseated herself, Romy spent the night caring for her five-year-old daughter, who by now was also vomiting frequently.
As Andrew told State Coroner Sara Hinchey, Romy was exhausted.
“She is always exhausted but has been in a dire state since an incident involving a dog attacking our pet pigs … both our pet pigs were injured and required treatment,” he said.
“A vet came out and saw them. This created additional stress for Romy who is very sensitive to things of this nature.”
By the Tuesday, February 17, Andrew said Romy “was clearly a wreck from all the cleaning and comforting she had done during the night”.
Then on the night before Noah died, the almost-two-year-old had an “almost unprecedented night of not sleeping”.
“Andrew came home, while I was trying to settle him and because Noah was in high distress, we brought him into our bedroom and distracted him for some hours with books and toys and photos,” Romy told the coroner.
“Any attempt to settle him resulted in a return to his distressed state, so around midnight we decided to just let him sleep in our bed. What followed was a restless few hours of him wanting to lie on top of me and sit up, he slept a few hours, although I could not.
“I didn’t really sleep at all, so come Thursday I was really wiped out.”
Out of sight
On February 19, the temperature in Kyneton ranged between 20.1 degrees at 9am and 31.6 degrees at 3pm.
Feeling somewhat better, Romy was relieved she would have some time to catch up on chores while Noah and his sister were at school and day care.
Her parents were to arrive the next day to look after the children while she and Andrew enjoyed a weekend away, their first time ever away from the kids.
Then, running late after a night of interrupted sleep, Andrew forgot his myki card.
It would be the latest in a chain of events that would lead to what memory expert Matthew Mundy would describe to Coroner Hinchey as a “false memory phenomenon”.
“This phenomenon comes about when a memory failure occurs in the short-term memory system. It is then possible for a person’s long-term memory to ‘fill in the blank’,” associate professor Mundy told the coroner.
“A person replaces a missing item with a memory from a previous event which has been stored in the long-term memory.”
Realising the mistake after being driven to the station by Romy in the family’s dual-cab Hilux with the two children in the back seat, all four returned to the family home, collected the card and finally dropped Andrew back at the station for his morning commute.
In saying his goodbyes, Andrew kissed Noah on the forehead before catching the 7.20am train to Melbourne.
Back at home, Romy dressed the children and placed Noah back in his rear-facing child restraint in the back seat of the ute, and his sister in her booster, facing forward.
After dropping Noah’s sister at school, Romy placed his lunchbox on his lap – he had become attached to it since the older child started school and liked to hold it – where it was out of her line of sight.
“The last thing I clearly remember on that drive was hearing a nice poem on an audiobook I was listening to … [and] despite being tired, feeling happy that I was coming out of gastro in time for a weekend away,” Romy told the coroner.
“I can’t remember anything between that and starting the chores at home.”
But instead of continuing on to Noah’s day care centre as she had the previous Thursday, Romy drove straight home.
“I can only assume I automatically made a right turn instead of left, in the haze of sleep deprivation,” she said.
“It is almost certain Noah was asleep in the car after his tough night, because he usually made noise in the back and always, always squawked with excitement when we came into the drive after I turned off the engine. He made no noise on that day.”
‘It could happen to anyone’
In handing down her report on Wednesday, coroner Sara Hinchey concluded Noah’s death was a tragic accident that “could happen to anyone”.
“I accept Romy’s evidence that she did not deliberately leave Noah in the vehicle on the day he died,” she wrote.
“I am not satisfied that an indictable offence has been committed in connection with his death. Accordingly, I do not exercise my referral power to the [Director of Public Prosecutions].
“I convey my sincerest sympathy to Noah’s family and loved ones.”
In his evidence to the inquest, associate professor Mundy identified five factors that may have contributed to the fact Romy did not remember that Noah had not been delivered to child care and remained in the vehicle, including:
- Recent changes to a weekly child care routine;
- Romy’s “severe” sleep deprivation;
- External stressors including the family’s illness and the attack on the pet pigs;
- The “false memory phenomenon” which caused Romy to “fill in” the missing information and prolong her belief that Noah was at child care;
- And the lack of external “cues” to alert Romy to Noah’s presence in the vehicle together with a series of distractions including thoughts of leaving the children for the first time.
“The objective ‘importance’ of an item sought to be remembered in the short term memory is of no consequence to the likelihood that it will be forgotten,” associate professor Mundy told the coroner.
“That is, due to the nature of the processes of the short-term memory system it does not discriminate between each item. Consequently, even items of high significance are as readily forgotten as less important matters.”