SANTA ANA ( — A 35-year-old Santa Ana woman accused of depriving her 18-pound 4-year-old daughter of food and medical care said she didn’t abuse her child and claims the girl was bitten by an animal.

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In an exclusive jailhouse interview with KCAL9’s Stacey Butler, Antonia Benitez blamed an infection for her daughter’s malnutrition.

“She got an infection in one of her feet,” she said through a translator. “She has a bite from an animal.”

Benitez believes the youngster’s current state is because “she (didn’t) give attention to her child in time.”

Police said Benitez brought her daughter to St. Joseph Hospital in Orange on June 4 for an infected leg wound and left.

Benitez’s ex-husband said she’s undocumented, but wouldn’t speculate if that’s why she didn’t stay with the girl, who weighed just 18 pounds. Doctors said she should be close to 40 pounds.

Initially, authorities tried to determine if the victim’s weight was due to an illness or disease, but an investigation revealed that the mother allegedly did not feed her properly.

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“When I saw the pictures, it was…she’s so emaciated…. the only thing I could equate it to are the pictures you see of the children in Africa that are starving. That’s the only relevant thing I could equate it to,” said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna of the Santa Ana Police Department.

Benitez is also accused of taking the child to the hospital for being underweight in July 2012, but the case was not reported to law enforcement.

Benitez, who was arrested Thursday, was charged July 9 with three felony counts of child abuse with a sentencing enhancement for great bodily injury to a child younger than 5, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office. Her bail was set at $250,000 and she’s expected to be arraigned Friday.

The woman’s nine children, who are between the ages of 4 and 16, are now in the custody of Social Services.

Police, however, found no evidence of abuse among the siblings.

Benitez, who said she’s on kidney dialysis, told Butler that she’s afraid she’ll never see her children again if she’s deported.

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If convicted, the suspect faces a maximum sentence of 14 years and six months in state prison.