Parents sentenced to prison for starving 6-year-old to death
When 6-year-old Liam Roberts died, he was wearing a shirt made for a 24-month-old because he weighed about a third of what a child his age usually weighs.
Police say he starved to death because his father and step-mother withheld food as a form of punishment. A judge decided Wednesday that the parents, Michael and Georgena Roberts, will spend two decades in prison.
Michael Roberts was sentenced to 25 years. Georgena Roberts will serve 20 years, which was the lowest possible sentence after they pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in November.
Liam’s last full meal was about a year before he died in November 2017, according to Jerseyville Police Deputy Chief Scott Woelfel, who testified during the couple’s sentencing Wednesday at the Jersey County Courthouse.
He said Liam ate mostly bologna, and that Michael Roberts told police he would sneak snacks to his son, which caused fights between the couple. They lived together with Liam and his three siblings and two step-siblings in Jerseyville.
Don Schaaf Jr., the public defender representing Georgena Roberts, said both parents reported sneaking food to Liam.
Woelfel said Liam weighed 17 pounds when police were called to a hospital Nov. 3, 2017, because the boy was dead and the staff believed it was a case of child abuse.
Before the sentence was handed down, Michael Roberts said he had been working 70 hours a week to provide for the family, “but failed to provide the most basic needs to Liam.”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t regret my failures,” he said, reading from a statement. “Liam was my special little buddy. ... I know Liam is dead because I was not brave enough to protect him.”
Georgena Roberts spoke briefly through tears. “My heart is shattered,” she said. “... Your honor, I’m sorry for my actions and inactions.”
Schaaf said Georgena Roberts was in a stressful situation after her marriage to Michael, when she was told she would have to home-school the children.
The attorney said she had a history of male dominance over her. “That’s the case here,” he said.
Georgena Roberts told police she could have run from the house, but “she truly believes a female is submissive,” Schaaf said at the sentencing.
Liam’s mother, Kim Roberts, read a statement in which she accused Michael and Georgena Roberts of going to “extreme measures” to hide the children from family members to cover up the abuse. Woelfel had said neighbors didn’t know Liam existed.
During his testimony, Woelfel said the reason Liam was punished was for defecating and urinating on the floor. He said that the night before Liam died, he ate bologna while his siblings had chicken and his parents ate steak.
Police found locks on the basement door in the family’s home that Woelfel said prevented the children from coming upstairs. They had to knock on the door to be let out of the basement, according to Woelfel.
Jersey County Circuit Court Judge Eric Pistorius said he took the parent’s guilty pleas into account when he sentenced them. He said it meant they took responsibility for their actions, and the rest of their children wouldn’t have to testify in a trial.
“I can’t imagine how much more trauma that would have caused them,” Pistorius said.
The traumatic events from Georgena’s childhood, which resulted in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorder, also influenced her sentence, according to Pistorius. She was found fit to stand trial, but Pistorius said a doctor noted she could be found guilty but mentally ill.
The pair faced up to 60 years in prison. Two child endangerment charges against each parent for their treatment of Liam and their 7-year-old son were dismissed when they entered their pleas.
In a joint statement, Jersey County State’s Attorney Ben Goetten and Jerseyville Police Chief Brad Blackorby said they hoped the family and community could “begin to heal” after the sentencing.
“We have to remember that by the actions of these two individuals, Liam’s siblings lost not only a brother, but two parents that won’t be there to see them grow,” they stated. “We wish those kids the very best as they try and move forward with their lives.”
Michael Roberts’ attorney Jessica Koester had asked Pistoruis to “strongly consider” the surviving children, who she said love and miss their dad, when determining the length of his sentence.
“This is a man who lost himself, and his children paid the price,” she said.