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  • Minister apologises over child safety bungle
  • By Reporter: Dea Clarke
  • The World Today - ABC
  • 12/08/2005 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 47 articles in 2005 )
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ELEANOR HALL: Now to Queensland and the damaging bungle by the State's Child Safety Department, which wrongly separated a mother from her children for more than a year.

The Brisbane mother lost custody of her two boys because her case file was mixed up with a drug-abusing, mentally ill woman.

The Minister for Child Safety has apologised for the mistake, but as Dea Clark reports, child advocates say it's evidence there are major problems with child protection in Queensland.

DEA CLARK: In May last year, Federal Police removed the children from their classroom and took them to a police station where they were handed over to the woman's former partner.

According to a report in The Australian newspaper, the police were acting on information supplied to them by Queensland's Child Safety Department.

Legal Aid officers refused to grant the mother assistance to fight her case in the Federal Court because they said it was unwinnable after viewing her Department file.

But the Minister for Child Safety, Mike Reynolds, says the removal of the children had nothing to do with his Department.

MIKE REYNOLDS: It is therefore wrong to link the filing error with the custody decision and subsequent actions taken by the Family Court.

Neither the original Family Court decision, I'll say that again, neither the original Family Court decision, nor the police execution of the recovery order was based on any information from the Department of Child Safety.

DEA CLARK: What's not disputed is that information contained in the woman's case file related to another Brisbane mother with a different name.

The distraught 35-year-old, who can't be named for legal reasons, only discovered the error after filing a freedom of information application.

The Child Safety Department's Minister, Mike Reynolds, concedes it was a terrible mistake.

MIKE REYNOLDS: This family, can I say first of all, has been subjected to unnecessary distress, and these circumstances are totally unacceptable. As Minister for Child Safety I apologise to those who have been affected and for any anguish this may have caused.

DEA CLARK: The woman's file contained information identifying her as having a psychiatric illness and a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

The error was discovered two weeks ago when the woman read her file, just three weeks before her custody case was to go to court.

MIKE REYNOLDS: Given the pending Family Court trial date, it was decided that immediate action was required to inform all relevant parties of the error pertaining to the linked file. Letters were prepared post haste and sent to the relevant parties, including the client's solicitor and the registrar of the family court. The record was set straight as quickly as possible to ensure that the court was dealing with the absolute facts of the matter.

DEA CLARK: But according to child advocate, Hetty Johnson, the damage has already been done.

HETTY JOHSON: They were dragged out of school apparently, I mean that's just embarrassing, it's humiliating.

DEA CLARK: The Department says the mistake was human error and occurred because the women have similar surnames and birth dates.

Hetty Johnson says despite a damning Crime and Misconduct Commission report into child protection and an overhaul of the Department overseeing child safety, there are still major problems.

HETTY JOHSON: I don't think the Government's woes with the Department of Child Safety are over, despite all the rhetoric. I think we're going to have a few more problems poke their head up in the not-too-distant future unless this Government puts the focus just as equally back to child protection, and as it is on health, and let's get this right.

DEA CLARK: Mike Reynolds says the information was incorrectly put into the file fours years ago, well before the Department's overhaul, but even so he's ordered an urgent investigation.

ELEANOR HALL: Dea Clark reporting from Brisbane.

Outrageous actions
PERHAPS the Queensland Child Safety Department uses the novels of Franz Kafka as training manuals. Because the latest revelations of the department's capricious cruelties, revealed in The Australian yesterday, are as bad as any official incompetence Kafka imagined. In the middle of last year, a mother had two of her children taken from her on the orders of the department. The decision was based on the mother's history as a mentally ill, drug-dependent child-abuser. Except she wasn't. Somehow information about another woman, a person with a different name, was placed on the mother's file. And on the basis of this clerical error a family was separated for 15 months.

It gets worse. When the mother tried to get her kids back, no one would help her. Queensland Legal Aid officers read the Child Safety file and said her case in the Family Court was unwinnable. Unable to afford a lawyer, the mother was forced to represent herself in the courts. She appealed to the Chief Justice of the Family Court and the Prime Minister, but there was nothing doing. Understandably so the evidence made it plain what a bad mother she was. She tried to find out what was going on by filing a freedom-of-information application. It took eight months for the bureaucrats to produce her file, which included extensive material on the other woman. Now the case is out in the open, Child Safety has written to the innocent mother to assure her they regret any inconvenience.

This is not good enough by the longest of shots. Child Safety Minister Mike Reynolds says the problem occurred before the restructure of the state's child welfare services that followed last year's scathing Crime and Misconduct Commission report. But the problems continue, with The Weekend Australian reporting on two boys whose cases were considered to require assessment by Child Safety within 24 hours. This did not happen, and both boys committed suicide.

There are lessons here that extend beyond Queensland. These cases demonstrate what can occur when public servants are not held accountable for their actions. Australian resident Cornelia Rau was locked up in an immigration detention centre and citizen Vivian Alvarez was expelled from the country after Immigration Department bungling. Yet Immigration boss Bill Farmer was given a medal and made ambassador to Indonesia. In Queensland, public servants called before the Dr Death inquiry have tried to close it down, as if they were the victims. And now there is this appalling story of an innocent woman who had her children taken.

Perhaps some of the Child Safety Department's problems are caused by inadequate funding, but this does not excuse every action of individual public servants. Democracies function on trust, and Australians should have no reason to fear arbitrary persecution by unaccountable agents of the state. But they do in Queensland.

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