CLEVELAND - The parents of an 8-year-old boy who died from Hodgkin lymphoma after suffering for months from undiagnosed swollen glands were sentenced to eight years in prison Thursday following their guilty pleas to denying him medical treatment.
Attorneys for Monica Hussing, 37, and William Robinson Sr., 40, had said the parents had financial problems and tried to get checkups for their son but couldn't afford it.
The couple was given the maximum sentence by Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Astrab, who accepted their guilty pleas last month to attempted involuntary manslaughter in a last-minute plea deal before their trial was about to begin. They were handcuffed and taken into custody immediately. Both plan to appeal the sentence.
"I loved my son," Robinson told the judge, occasionally wiping his eyes with a tissue. He said he was sorry.
"I tried to help my son," Hussing said as family members in the courtroom quietly sobbed.
Hussing's sister, Shelia Slawinski, cried as she stood before the judge and gave voice to her nephew, Willie Robinson: "I am so in pain ... please take me to the doctor ... the last four weeks have been the most painful."
"I told my sister," Slawinski said. "I offered to help my sister."
According to the prosecution's pre-sentencing memo to the judge, at least eight family members noticed Willie's deteriorating health over a period of more than two years and most spoke to the couple about it. One relative described the boy's swollen neck glands as the size of a softball.
"Twenty-nine months he suffered," Slawinski said. "Twenty-nine months they had to do something and they chose not to."
Asked outside court why her sister hadn't taken care of Willie and hadn't enrolled him or three siblings in school, Slawinski said it was easier for Hussing to stay in bed during the day and do drugs. Both parents have abused drugs, their attorneys earlier told the judge.
Hussing's oldest daughter, Lillian, 18, defended her mother in court and said Willie was able to do the same things other 8-year-olds do. "He was able to play, go outside," she said.
The judge looked surprised and asked the teen if she would be willing to repeat her statements under oath and possible penalty of perjury. She did.
The judge compared the autopsy photo of Willie's emaciated body to concentration camp victims. "If anybody, anybody, didn't know this kid was sick, they are seriously, seriously disturbed," Astrab said.
Two doctors told the judge before the sentencing that no sick child would be turned away from a hospital.
Willie Robinson collapsed at his home on March 22, 2008. Prosecutors say he had begged his parents to take him to see a doctor but was rejected. Hodgkin lymphoma is a highly treatable cancer.
Lillian Hussing said earlier the family didn't have money for medical care when they lived in Warren, tried repeatedly to get help from social services and visited a free clinic but left when told they would have to pay $180.
The family soon moved to Cleveland and the boy died within weeks.
Prosecutors say that while the boy was suffering, the parents claimed financial hardship but paid $87 to have a pit bull treated for fleas. Hussing's defense attorney, John Luskin, said the dog belonged to Hussing's parents and her parents paid for the treatment.
Trumbull County Children Services says it had worked with the family to provide Willie health care, getting involved after receiving a phone call in July 2007. Agency officials said a case worker visited the family at least monthly and pushed the parents to have a medical follow-up on his swollen neck but they didn't.
However, Robinson's attorney Thomas Rein said previously that a social worker who visited the family in January 2008 "indicated the kids were healthy and happy." He said no one knew the boy had cancer until he died and an autopsy was performed.
And Lillian Hussing said a case worker had told the family the boy's lump looked like a swollen gland and to hold off until they could secure financial assistance before getting it checked.
About two weeks after they moved to Cleveland, she said, her brother came down with something. Her mother treated him with cold medicine and he died within three days.
She said the boy never complained about his neck.
"He played, he went outside, he wrestled, he played video games," the boy's sister said. "He was the happiest kid you could imagine. It never seemed like he was suffering."
The emotional aftermath from their son's death led the couple to split, according to Luskin.
The couple's four other children under 18 were placed in the custody of a family member. Luskin said Lillian Hussing, upon turning 18, decided to return to live with her mother.
Rein said Robinson agreed to plead guilty so his children could be spared any further grief and wouldn't have to suffer by testifying. Lillian Hussing said her mother took a plea bargain because of the uncertainty of a trial and fear she could be sent to prison for a long time.
As part of the deal, the prosecution agreed to drop four counts each against each parent, including child endangering. Prosecutors didn't agree to a sentence recommendation. Both Luskin and Rein had said they hoped the judge would consider probation.
"There's not a day my client ... starts without shedding a tear for his son," Rein said.
The coroner ruled that the boy was a victim of medical neglect and died from pneumonia due to Hodgkin lymphoma.
Hodgkin lymphoma is a highly treatable cancer, with as many as 95 percent of patients in early stages of the disease surviving for five years or more with treatment. It's one of the most common forms of cancers among children.