01/11/2013 01:56 EST | Updated 03/13/2013 05:12 EDT

'Super mom' who starved one-year-old daughter sentenced to two years in jail

HALIFAX - A Halifax woman known as a "super mom" before she nearly starved her adopted baby girl to death trembled in Nova Scotia Supreme Court as she was sentenced Friday to two years in jail.

Susan Elizabeth MacDonnell pleaded guilty in 2011 to aggravated assault and failing to provide the necessities of life to her then one-year-old adopted daughter, Rachel.

Judge Kevin Coady also sentenced the 44-year-old woman to three years probation, accepting the recommendation of defence lawyer Jean Morris. The Crown was seeking five years in prison.

The court heard MacDonnell starved the girl for an extended period of time and then tampered with her feeding tube at a Halifax hospital, where the child was being treated for dehydration and malnutrition in early 2010.

The offences were committed in the winter and spring of 2010, when the girl was just shy of two years of age.

MacDonnell sat quietly gazing towards the floor during most of the proceedings and occasionally dabbed her nose with a tissue. Her husband, Andrew MacDonnell, sat behind her in the gallery and gently touched her shoulder before she was taken into custody.

A forensic psychiatrist had testified earlier in the week that MacDonnell deprived her daughter of food in an attempt to showcase her devotion as a mother.

Dr. Grainne Neilson told the court she diagnosed MacDonnell with a condition known as factitious disorder by proxy. Neilson said MacDonnell has a borderline personality disorder, several anti-social traits and is a pathological liar.

Coady said he placed emphasis on MacDonnell's mental illness in arriving at the sentence, saying she " is a very sick woman."

"Ms. MacDonnell's mental health does not relieve her of all responsibility for the harm suffered by Rachel," said Coady.

Coady said MacDonnell and her husband cared for about 30 children over a period of more than 10 years without incident and were viewed as a "super mom, super dad of the foster child world."

"It is reasonable to think about why this never occurred to all the other children," said Coady. "I conclude that by the time Rachel arrived, the load was just too heavy.

"I expect that over the years, Ms. MacDonnell had the same needs and same illnesses, but she was able to cope without the behaviour she exhibited towards Rachel."

Crown attorney Catherine Cogswell said Neilson's determination was that there was no major mental illness, and therefore a lengthier sentence should have been imposed.

"She used her facade of being a super mom to almost kill a child," said Cogswell outside the courtroom.

"Compassion is important for everybody, but in this particular case, I think the vast majority of public would prefer to feel the compassion for the child that almost died so that Ms. MacDonnell could get attention."

Cogswell couldn't say if the Crown would appeal the sentence.

Coady also said MacDonnell's husband was a mitigating factor in the case, as he has "stuck with her" throughout the two-and-a-half-year case. The judge said he also took into account that MacDonnell had pleaded guilty and did not have a criminal record.

Upon her release from jail, MacDonnell is to abide by a number of conditions including that she not have contact with any child under the age of 15, except with consent of a probation officer, said Coady.

MacDonnell had apologized for her actions earlier this week.