At Researching Reform, we would say significant damage to a child’s healthy development at best, and at worst, the loss of that child’s life.

Important case studies presented at a 2003 conference held by the Australian Institute of Criminology highlight the very real problems inside family courts which use similar models to our own.

In the first case study, a mother tells the story of how she abducted her young daughter to protect her from a then absent father who had been convicted of child sexual abuse. He returned out of spite to obtain custody of their daughter, and the daughter has since complained of being routinely abused by her father. But no one is listening.

The second case study, which is added below, is written by the daughter and tells the story of her family history, from her perspective.

These cases highlight how justice systems fail families and children. From failures to see beyond facades, and a complete lack of understanding when it comes to children, as well as awful set backs to achieving just and fair hearings due to costs and imposed penalties thanks to an adversarial system, such stories are poignant examples of the pain poor child welfare practices and procedure inflict on vulnerable parties.

You can read the daughter’s statement here:

“I am 19 years of age born July 12th 1995.

At the age of four I was removed from the care of my mother by a Family Court Order. Her relationship with my father was brief. She broke a court order to protect me when she learned that my father had HIV/AIDS. He had not disclosed this to her and obviously didn’t use safe sex given that I was born. Furthermore, he had two convictions for child sexual abuse and others for violence. My mother was also aware that he had been accused of sexually abusing another close relative who was too afraid of him to make a statement to police. The charges involved his adopted daughter who had a restraining order on him. Because my mother left him, he applied for custody of me simply to punish her. This made my mother determined to protect me by moving interstate.

We were traced and I was physically removed from my mother by police to emergency foster care in WA and I can still remember the fear of being taken by strangers to live with strangers. Thereafter, Family Court Justice Murray knowingly ordered me to live with a single man who had no history of single parenting and had a history of sex offending, a man who would not be allowed to work or volunteer with other people’s children as he would be on the paedophile register. She discounted his criminal convictions saying that they occurred a while ago.

I was court ordered to attend the Child Adolescent and Family Health Service when I was about 5 years of age. I was unable to talk in confidence because my father was always present. The same thing happened when I was aged about ten and my parents were in the same room.  I am still having psychiatric treatment for depression and anxiety as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am currently on 150mg doses of anti-depressants each day as well as requiring regular counselling sessions.

For nine years, I was restricted to occasional supervised contact with my mother and the time allowed amounted to a mere nine days a year.  I had no opportunity to have any private conversation with her, not even when I was approaching puberty. I was also banned from travelling interstate until I was eighteen. For a very long time I blamed my mother for my predicament: I rationalised that if she hadn’t fled to Perth, I would not have been deprived of maternal care.

I lost my childhood as the sole carer of my father who was chronically ill as a result of HIV/AIDS from before the time that I was born.  He was diagnosed with emphysema, he was hospitalised with pneumonia every winter, he had no spleen and eventually could not walk. When he died in June 2010, he was suffering from bone marrow cancer. I had to do all the shopping, household chores and gardening because he did not have the breath to engage in any physical activity.  I had no assistance whatsoever from any of the services that should and could have helped.  In ten years, on only one occasion did a social services person come to assess risk. The department was supposed to visit me to assess whether I was “at risk” of abuse or neglect and that never happened. A social worker was supposed to visit me every three months to check on health and hygiene but that never happened. It was not until I ran away from home at the age of thirteen and went to live with my sister that I knew how

to have a shower properly. I had to take sheets to my mother to launder because my father refused to let me use the laundry. Until I was about ten or eleven, my sheets had never been laundered.  I used to get complaints from the school that I was dirty, malodorous and was infested with head lice and this related to the fact that I was never washed. Dad rarely bought clothes for me and my shoes were invariably too small. I walked around shoeless as a consequence.

I never had breakfast and rarely had money for lunch at school. There may have been bread in the house but nothing else.  I never saw anyone visit dad from health services but I did accompany him to the hospital for blood tests.  He hated needles and they took a very large number of vials. On one occasion, they could not withdraw any more blood.

I learned later that there had been many reports.. around 46, of child abuse and neglect made to Families SA by child care workers, Murray Bridge Police,  teachers, family friends and contact supervisors as well as by my mother and Professor Freda Briggs AO. All of the reports were dismissed as having been instigated by my mother and they were never investigated.

When I was seven, my father took me to the Child Protection Unit at Flinders Medical Centre. I was told to lie on the bed and remove my pants and I was then examined vaginally by a male doctor for sexual penetration.  I was not asked any questions about this.  I wasn’t even told why I was there..  At that time I was being sexually abused but not penetrated by my older half brother Aaron who was then sixteen years old.  I was asked no questions. The doctor then told me to leave the room and he then talked to my father alone.  My father defended my brother and denied that I was being abused although on one occasion he caught him “red-handed”.

The sexual abuse continued for roughly six years from the age of five until my half-brother was jailed for the attempted murder of his drug dealer with whom he lived. When paroled, he was ordered to live in the same house as me and that is when I ran away because I was terrified that the abuse would start again.

My half brother sexually abused me at home and at his mother’s house. He was also involved in having me used for sex by his friend who was about the same age. This took place at the friend’s mother’s house at Elizabeth, South Australia.

My father used to take photos of me when I was naked and he showed them to his friends. This only stopped when I was aged 9-10 years.  He then got his girlfriend to do it.  She began to realise that he was a paedophile and left the relationship.

When I was thirteen I ran away from my father’s house because I was terrified of my brother who had been paroled to our house.  I tried to phone Families SA at the regional office at Noarlunga but failed to get through to them. I went to stay with a friend of my mother but she couldn’t accommodate me and she phoned Professor Briggs for advice. She contacted the deputy CEO of Families SA who instructed her to tell Justice Burr that I had attempted suicide and had run away from home and was homeless because I was afraid of my half brother whose gun had not been found.  I went to live with my sister in the Adelaide Hills and she took me to police to show that I was not a missing person. As we were leaving, the police officer asked, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”. I then had the confidence to disclose the sexual abuse by my then adult half-brother Aaron.  I was believed by the Family Court social worker Dr. Merrylyn Asquith, police and the child protection officer

from Families SA.  Family Court Justice Burr ignored them and claimed that my mother had trained me to lie and he ordered me to see my father for Father’s Day.  I collapsed and was hospitalised at the Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital  several times suffering from anxiety disorder, depression and suicidal ideation. Justice Burr dismissed me as a “drama queen”. My father broke into my locked  diary and used it against me in court quoting me as saying that my self-harm was intentional and not emotionally driven by the trauma I had experienced. The judge accused my mother of training me to make false allegations when I had not had any contact with her for months.

Police did not prosecute my half brother because he and my father denied the offences and it was my word against theirs. None of the people who had seen evidence of abuse or suspected abuse were interviewed. I have always been puzzled why someone would believe a convicted paedophile rather than a victim.

I eventually returned to live with my mother when I was thirteen. My father refused to give me my clothes and property. When I went to collect them, he refused to give me access. I pushed past him and I was later arrested for trespass by police who were called by my half sister. I was only able to remove two teddy bears.

An Independent Children’s Lawyer was appointed (Mr. Hemsley) to act on my behalf when I was quite young. He only met me once in nine years and on that occasion he did not ask where or with whom I wanted to live. He asked no relevant questions but advised the judge and others that I should not be allowed to live with my sister because she was a successful business-woman..

I understand that the then CEO of Families SA, Sue Vardon AO said that child protection services are unable to intervene if a Family Court Order is in place. This seems to be a widespread perception among politicians as well as CEOs and I am advised that it is wrong.

I suggest the following:

that Families SA should have realised that I was at risk of harm when some 46 reports of child abuse and neglect had been made to the Child Abuse Report Line, including a report of physical abuse by Murray Bridge Police and a report of physical neglect by Professor Freda Briggs AO who met me when accompanied by forensic psychologist Dr. Marie O’Neill AM. None of these reports were investigated. The Commissioner of Police confirmed that he was powerless to intervene as Families SA has sole responsibility for family related abuse.

That Families SA should have recognised that I was at risk of harm when I was the sole carer of a father suffering from HIV/AIDS and numerous related illnesses.

That Families SA should have recognised that I was at serious risk of harm when I was the carer of a father who had two convictions for child rape and convictions for violence that, knowing the above, Families SA should have checked on my well-being over the years.. and didn’t.

Families SA knew that my school attendance was poor because I was caring for my sick father.. and did nothing.

That Families SA should have provided assistance to protect me from HIV/AIDS given that I was sole carer of my father. There was none.  I was  having to deal with my father’s sores and there are no surgical gloves available for little children.

I should not have had to go to Flinders Medical Centre CPU for assessment for child sex abuse accompanied by my father. I was never questioned.

Families SA lied to complainants and said that I had been accompanied by a social worker, not my father. He had caught my brother sexually abusing me but my father protected him on every occasion. When I asked him why he did this, he said, “I’ve already lost you (I’d run away) and I don’t want to lose my son”. Throughout the 5 years of abuse, the perpetrator used threats on my life if I “told” (except when he was in jail for shooting his drug dealer). He also bribed me to cooperate and remain silent

I should not have been examined genitally by a male doctor at the Child Protection Unit. I should have been given a choice of male v female.

There should have been contact between health and child protection services. There was none.

Child abuse should have been investigated regardless of Family Court Orders and regardless of the assumption that all those reports to the Child Abuse Report Line had been initiated by my mother (when they had not). The CEO of Families SA, Sue Vardon AO told Professor Briggs that they could not intervene “unless it’s a matter of life and death” if a Family Court Order was in place. I understand that this belief persists and is erroneous.

I was denied the opportunity to talk to anyone about my life and safety. I felt alienated  because decisions about my life and safety were being made by strangers. My father openly told everyone, except the judge, that he did not want to have to look after me ….he only wanted to get at my mother and the reason for that was that she put posters around his neighbourhood warning parents that he was a paedophile. The poster had a photograph of him and details of his convictions and HIV status. She did this because he had not told her that he was infected at the time of sexual intercourse and she was disgusted that he had put my life and hers at risk.

It is clear to me that, in ignoring my plight, Families SA  disregarded its own child protection protocols and guidelines and in so doing, exposed me to the significant risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS which has resulted in failure to complete my education to year 12 and mental illness.

The department’s documentation states that, “Children and young people have a right to be safe and protected at all times, including when accessing services in the community. The Children’s Protection Act 1993 requires all organisations providing health, education, welfare, sporting or recreational, religious or spiritual, child care, or residential services wholly or partly for children to develop policies and procedures to create and maintain a safe environment for children and young people. In this context, a child safe environment is an environment which is both child-safe and child-friendly, where children feel respected, valued and encouraged to reach their full potential”.

It does not say that children should not be protected if there is a Family Court Order in place.”

Many thanks to the National Child Protection Alliance for sharing these case studies with us.