I AM the mother of five children. Each one is precious to me. I love them, worry about them, teach and correct them – and feel an overwhelming sense of joy each time they are kind or thoughtful, or do well at school or sport.
I struggle to imagine the grief that would ensue if they were taken from me for no good reason.
And yet this is exactly what another Canberra mother has gone through. Her five children were removed by the ACT government in 2013 and placed under the care of the director-general of the Community Services Directorate until they turned 18.
The kids were separated not only from their sole parent but also from each other, sent off to live in different places. The government then chose to restrict family contact to four times per year, two hours per visit. These visits were supervised such that the mum could never tell her children what she was really thinking or feeling.
More than five years later – and only after an immense legal battle that reached the ACT’s highest court – the appeals process has revealed that the original decision to rip this family apart was dead wrong.
Since my election to the ACT Legislative Assembly, I have repeatedly called for greater scrutiny of child protection decisions, in part to help prevent tragedies like this one.
Exactly two years ago, I moved a motion calling on the ACT government to recognise the importance of ensuring that care and protection decisions be subject to external review, “both to ensure the quality of such decisions and to engender confidence in the system’.
I have never stopped pursuing this issue in hearings, in Question Time, and in other formats. In the last Assembly sitting, I again asked the Minister for Children, Youth and Families Rachel Stephen-Smith when we could expect a long-overdue discussion paper dealing with this important matter.
The case of five children wrongfully separated from their mother for more than five years demands we know what exactly went wrong.
Unfortunately, Canberra’s child-protection system does not seem to be designed to provide answers. The 2004 Vardon report and the 2016 Glanfield inquiry both raised concerns that the territory’s system lacks “transparency and accountability in decision making”. Many Canberrans have expressed shock to learn that the mother and children at the centre of this case are legally not able to tell their own story to anyone.
But until we can know what went wrong, other Canberra families risk falling victim to similarly wrongful decisions. For this reason, a number of legal practitioners, children’s advocates and others have unitedly called for an independent inquiry where the facts of the matter can be interrogated.
They have been joined by leaders from Canberra’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations, whose concerns are understandably amplified by the fact that the children involved are Indigenous. I will be lending my voice to this cause by moving a motion in the next sitting to refer this matter to the Standing Committee on Health, Ageing and Community services for an inquiry.
The goal of such an inquiry is not to apportion specific blame in an individual case. Rather, we need to identify the broader cultural or systemic issues in the care and protection system that allowed for such a wrongful decision not only to be made but to be vigorously defended over half a decade.
Importantly, the transparency and accountability that a serious committee inquiry will bring to this matter will help restore community confidence in a system that, when it fails in a significant way, can result in lifelong harm to both parents and children.
I am grateful to be approaching this issue with the full support of the Canberra Liberals. I expect all other members of the ACT Legislative Assembly to acknowledge the broad and informed community backing behind the inquiry that I will be proposing, and to honour both expert and community concerns by unitedly referring this important matter to committee for investigation.
Elizabeth Kikkert is the shadow minister for families, youth and community services.