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A father's life sentence: 'I killed my own flesh and blood'

Dane Blake fatally shook his son Leith Hutchison in 2015. He accepted a manslaughter plea bargain and was jailed for five years and six months in March.

A guilt-ridden dad who fatally shook his toddler says the jail time he's serving will never be long enough for killing "my own flesh and blood".

Dane Blake, 32, admits he was ill-equipped to be a father and had a "serious brain explosion" when 15-month-old Leith Allen Hutchison would not stop crying one night at his Greymouth home.

"No length of sentence will be enough, because I took the life of a child – my own flesh and blood," he says.

Blake, a self-confessed methamphetamine dealer, has penned several letters to Stuff from his cell at Otago Corrections Facility after he accepted a manslaughter plea bargain and was jailed for five years and six months in March.

READ MORE: 
Police probe 15-month-old boy's death
West Coast man Dane Blake denies harming his son, Leith Hutchison
Man accused of murdering Greymouth toddler Leith Hutchison
Young father pleads guilty to manslaughter for shaking toddler
Move on from anger over plea bargains in child homicide cases

Suppression protecting his identity was lifted at a court hearing on Wednesday after he was sentenced to an additional six months in jail for unrelated drug offending.

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Leith Hutchison died two days after suffering serious head injuries.

The letters, sent from June to August, detail the last moments of Leith's life and how, after the toddler cried for 40 minutes, Blake "just lost control" and shook the boy, in his own words, "backwards and forwards".

"I only realised I'd hurt him once he lost consciousness. I didn't know that action of shaking could do so much damage to a child."

Blake says he "freaked out" and drove Leith from his home in Cobden to Grey Base Hospital as "fast as I could" shortly after midnight on April 21, 2015.

Kate Hutchison says she is "broken" after her son Leith was killed.

The blond-haired, brown-eyed toddler had suffered a head injury, which disrupted bloodflow to the brain and caused retinal haemorrhages.

He died two days later.

Blake initially denied any wrongdoing and told Stuff several months after Leith's death he "did not harm my son and I never would".

However, evidence, including inconsistencies in his statements to police, mounted against him and he was charged with murder in January 2016.

In the letters, Blake apologises for lying about what happened to Leith.

"I was s.... scared of what I had done. I was ashamed and felt very guilty," he says.

Blake learned he was a father shortly before Leith's first birthday after another man who was in a relationship with the boy's mother, Kate Hutchison, took a DNA test. Hutchison broke the news to Blake in a Facebook message. The pair had a one-night stand in 2013.

"I thought 'What have I done?' but then I was stoked and happy at the same time. I got over the shock and thought this might be what I need in life – something to look forward to.

"My family were happy but . . . said you better sort your s.... out because you have no job or anything."

Within weeks, Blake was caring for Leith several nights a week at the Barkley Pl property he shared with his uncle.

He says he struggled with the responsibility that came with being a first-time parent – learning to change nappies and bottle-feed his son – but "I gave it a go".

According to the police summary of facts, Hutchison contacted Blake on April 20 wanting money he owed her. She could not afford to buy essentials for Leith.

Blake, who had earlier smoked cannabis with friends, offered to look after their son for the night. He picked him up about 5.30pm.

Leith went to bed in a portacot in Blake's bedroom about 7.15pm.

Blake, in his letters, says Leith woke up crying about 11.30pm and needed a nappy change. He made his son a bottle and then put him back to bed but "something just wasn't right – he was crying non-stop".

Blake says he tried to settle Leith – cuddling him, walking around the room talking to him and going "ssshhh" – but "it's pretty hard to judge what's wrong [with a baby] when they can't answer you".

"After 40 minutes of trying that . . . I just lost control because of the noise of constant crying. I think that's what made me snap."

Blake says he will never get over taking "the chance off a beautiful boy to live a full life".

"There's no excuse for what I did . . . but I'm not a child killing monster."

BLAKE 'THE DUMPING GROUND'

Dane Blake's biological parents, who suffered from addiction issues, had little to do with his upbringing. Blake, a keen rugby league player, was raised by his grandmother, Jean, who he called "mum".

"I was a spoilt child and got whatever I wanted," he says. "In my eyes Jean is my mum because she raised me and I'm truly grateful to her for that."

Blake's aunt, Denise, said Jean's death about a decade ago "intensely" affected her nephew. Before that he'd had brushes with the law, such as not paying fines, but nothing major. 

"He . . . went off the rails when mum died – hanging around with low-life people who were into drugs . . . and wasn't entirely truthful." 

Denise said when Blake learned he was a father he took the responsibility seriously and often came to her for advice.

"It [fatherhood] was thrust upon him. I told her [Kate Hutchison] the first time she came around 'Don't you push that boy onto Dane because he needs to get to know him'. I told her three or four times . . . but she never listened. Dane was the dumping ground."

Hutchison said she "didn't dump my son on Dane".

"He would turn up to my house and take Leith."

'AN ACT OF INCREDIBLE STUPIDITY'

At the March sentencing, Justice Joseph Williams accepted Blake's actions were a "one-off act of incredible, unbearable, irretrievable stupidity".

"I am certain if you could rewind and delete those fateful moments when you lost control and shook Leith violently, you would. He was, after all, your son and, like his mother, his maternal grandparents and wider family, you too are damaged by the enormity of what you've done."

Hutchison's mother, Joanne, said in her victim impact statement she was angry several people had the "opportunity to raise the alarm", but never intervened.

A month before the shaking incident Leith suffered a fractured leg, which Blake said happened while the pair played.

Others saw the toddler with bruises.

Ministry for Vulnerable Children Upper South Island regional manager Kaye Macdonald said the agency had a "limited history with this family".

"We were called in when Leith was hurt playing with his father. Medical advice assessed the explanation for Leith's injuries as plausible and, as a result, neither [the ministry] nor police took further action."

As part of the homicide investigation into Leith's death, police scrutinised the leg break incident again to see if it was part of a pattern of abuse.

"That must at least have been a warning to you of his fragility," Justice Williams told Blake at his sentencing.

Leith's older brother is in Joanne's care after social services intervened. Hutchison last month gave birth to a boy, which remains in her care after an agency assessment.

On Wednesday, Hutchison said she wished Leith never met his father.

The two-and-a-half years since her son's death had been "painful and heartbreaking".

"Every day it's a struggle. 

"I miss ... his big smile and those big eyes. He was definitely the light of my world."

Hutchison was disappointed with the sentence Blake received for killing Leith. 

"No words he can say can make anything better because he took the main thing that I wanted in my life. I wish he was serving life in jail."

A spokeswoman for the Solicitor-General said the decision to reduce Blake's charge from murder to manslaughter took into account the "anticipated difficulty in proving murderous intent".

In his letters, Blake says he smoked methamphetamine before realising there was up to $5000 a week to be made dealing the drug.

Hutchison said she had stopped using drugs, including cannabis and meth.

Faces of Innocents, a Stuff investigation into child homicide, has identified more than 200 children, aged 0 to 14, who died as a result of abuse, neglect or maltreatment since 1992.

'EVERYONE KNOWS TO HANDLE CHILDREN WITH CARE'

Pediatrician Dr Clare Doocey does not buy the argument some parents are unaware shaking a baby can have serious consequences.

Everyone knows children need to be handled with care, she says.

"The problem is when we get into situations of stress and we lose control . . . You need to be able to walk away.

"It's not a reflection that you're a bad parent. All of us get stressed by a child's cry."

According to Doocey and other experts, many factors make people more "vulnerable in their parenting". 

They included drug and alcohol abuse, social isolation, financial stress and a troubled upbringing.

Doocey, who has worked at Christchurch Hospital for 11 years, said there had been an increase in the number of children presenting with abusive head injuries since the earthquakes. She did not know why, which "troubled" her.

Research by the NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service, based out of the Dunedin School of Medicine, shows a child, aged 0-14, is admitted to a New Zealand hospital every second day with injuries arising from abuse, neglect and maltreatment.

The research shows the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB), which has the third largest child population in the country, had 120 hospital admissions from 2007-2011 and 160 from 2009-2013 – more than any other DHB.

Detective Senior Sergeant Neville Jenkins, who had some oversight of the homicide investigation into Leith's death, said child abuse was not confined to "socio-economic standing, ethnicity, or religion – it can involve anyone".

"My belief is that there are, in most cases, indicators – things that family, close friends or caregivers have seen – that should be reported early. Be brave about speaking up and maybe, just maybe, we can stop another Leith."

If you believe a child is in immediate danger call police on 111. If you think a child you know could be at risk of harm from abuse or neglect contact 0508 326 459 or email contact@mvcot.govt.nz

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