At 13, Christina Corrigan was 5-foot-3 and weighed 680 pounds. She lived on the floor in front of the television.
Sometimes she hauled herself up against the walls to get to the bathroom. Sometimes she didn’t.
Last November, Christina’s nude body was found on a filthy sheet, surrounded by empty food cartons and human waste. She had open bedsores.
A medical examiner ruled she died of heart failure due to obesity.
Now Christina’s mother, Marlene Corrigan, is charged with child abuse - not for the size of her child but for the condition in which she was found.
Corrigan has pleaded innocent to the abuse charge, punishable by up to six years in prison.
“We’re prosecuting the mother because she neglected the girl,” said Brian Baker, a Contra Costa County deputy district attorney. “If it happened to a kid that was skinny, we would still prosecute it.”
Advocates for fat people are skeptical, contending Corrigan would be treated differently had her daughter been anorexic. “It’s not a crime to be fat, and it’s not a crime to have a fat child,” said Marilyn Wann, editor of San Francisco-based FAT!SO? magazine.
Corrigan’s lawyer, Michael Cardoza, said the mother is being blamed for something she had little control over. Despite prosecutors’ claims that fat is not the issue, Cardoza said they are emphasizing weight aspects of the case, such as the empty food cartons.
Cardoza pointed out that Christina’s half-brother, Chad, is a normal size. He said some of the filthy conditions that appalled police could have happened after death.
“What it boils down to is felony bad housekeeping. That’s what they’ve charged her with,” he said.
How could a 13-year-old reach nearly 700 pounds without someone, somewhere, stepping in?
Police interviews with the family indicate they knew Christina had a problem but didn’t know what to do about it.
“Every day I tell myself I should have done this, I should have done that. But what can I do now?” the mother said at the time the charge was filed last month.
She told police Christina demanded food and she usually gave in. She said she hadn’t called a doctor in several years, hoping that Christina would decide on her own to stop eating so much.
Chad Corrigan, 21, who had moved out of the apartment six weeks before his sister’s death, told police he felt sorry for Christina and had recently talked to his mother about getting the girl to a doctor.
But Corrigan said he felt sorry for his mother, too, who in addition to holding down a full-time job and dealing with Christina single-handedly, had also been coping with her own ailing parents.
Another family member, Marlene Corrigan’s sister Sandy Bickers, said she had been so concerned about Christina’s weight that she had called child welfare officials some years back.
Bickers, reached by telephone at her home in Alaska, blamed the tragedy on a social services system that isn’t equipped to deal with morbid obesity and a mother who was determined to go it alone.
“When anybody tried to help, we were told point-blank to keep our nose out of it,” she said. “You add all these factors in and I can see how it led to this. It’s a vicious circle.”
Police reports confirm child welfare officials were called when Christina was 7 and about 200 pounds.
A caseworker visited and reported the home smelled of urine. But officials didn’t take action because Christina was seeing a doctor and they believed the problem was under control, Baker said.
In fact, a doctor had referred Christina to a nutritionist. But Corrigan told police she stopped taking Christina after a few visits because the treatment wasn’t working.
The end came on Nov. 19 when Corrigan returned home from the supermarket to find her daughter was not breathing.