06/22/2017 13:01 EDT | Updated 06/24/2017 23:23 EDT

'Occasional abuse:' Woman who assaulted orphan nieces gets probation, no jail

CALGARY — A judge has spared a woman who assaulted two orphaned nieces in her care from going to jail because of her mental state at the time.

At a hearing Thursday, Justice Sandy Park gave the woman an 18-month suspended sentence and ordered that she report to a probation officer.

Earlier this month, Park said he accepted testimony from the woman's trial that she hit her nieces with a wooden spoon, cables and other objects, and that she pulled and pinched their mouths.

He rejected allegations of abuse that included piercing the girls' tongues with needles, making them drink their own vomit and burning them with barbecue lighters.

A psychological assessment found the aunt suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Park noted in his sentencing that she was going through a great deal of stress.

"Her mental state at the time is a mitigating factor in my mind," the judge said.

The woman's husband was acquitted on all assault and criminal negligence charges.

Neither the children nor their aunt and uncle can be named under a publication ban.

The Calgary couple became guardians of the girls and their younger brother after the children's parents died in a car crash.

"She had a duty to protect them. She breached that trust with the imposition of what Canadian society and the Criminal Code regard as excessive discipline," said Park.

"It was not a steady pattern of abuse. It was occasional abuse brought about by occasional misbehaviour of the two girls in the eyes of the accused."

Prosecutor Ken McCaffrey read a victim impact statement on behalf of the eldest sister, in which she said she is "slowly getting over my looking-over-my-shoulder feeling."

"I notice that I'm a more sarcastic person now and feel that this is directly related to life with my aunt and uncle. I'm also more cautious about people in general," the girl wrote.

Her younger sister, who read her statement in court, described being afraid to talk to police and worrying she'd get in trouble for telling others about her home life.

Court heard the aunt was grieving the loss of her sister and brother-in-law in the crash when all at once she became a guardian to five children — two of her own, plus the three orphans.

"It is my sense that the alleged offences ... were facilitated by a compromising mental illness that provided a seedbed for uncharacteristically aggressive behaviour."

Defence lawyer Kelsey Sitar told court that jail time would be inappropriate, as the woman had already suffered from being subjected to intense media scrutiny.

The woman's supporters took up two rows in the courtroom. Sitar presented Park with 19 letters attesting to her client's character.

"Those letters unequivocally state that those who know (her) best are shocked by this conduct, which they have indicated is wholly out of character as they know her to be," said Sitar. 

The woman made a brief tearful statement in which she asked for forgiveness and said her children are the reason she remembers to breathe.

"I am sorry for all the hardship I have caused to my family," she said.

The Crown had asked for 18 months to two years in jail.

"Not to receive any jail time is obviously a disappointment," said McCaffrey, who added the Crown will review the case and decide later whether to appeal.

"Our reading of the case law says that in cases of child abuse, deterrence and denunciation are primary and that usually means jail."