A little girl lost - EBONY
- Category: Child abuse industry deaths in NSW
- Created: Saturday, 27 June 2009 15:55
- Written by Joanne Michaels - Newcastle Herald
NONI Carter sat in East Maitland Supreme Court for many days over the past month and cried for a little girl she never knew. "I was there for the child, and on many occasions I was the only one there," said Carter, of Thornton, about the seven-year-old, whose death by starvation at Hawks Nest in November 2007 shocked a nation and led to murder and manslaughter convictions against her parents this week.
Like many, Carter felt the child was a silent victim in this deep tragedy. Even the judge, Supreme Court Justice Robert Allan Hulme, felt moved to restore her dignity by going against NSW legal convention and allowing the child some manner of identification, ruling on Wednesday that the media could identify her in reports on the case by her middle name, Ebony.
He was also to consider on Friday, after H2 went to press, whether he would allow her photograph to be published instead of the anonymous pixelated image used throughout the trial.
Carter said the trial brought her to tears.
"I cried many times, embarrassingly, up the back of the court and outside, and when I was home I'd get calls from people asking how it was going, and I'd cry again," Carter said.
"It was extremely distressing, but I wanted to be in the court for her. I knew nothing about the family but like any mother you feel for children, even a child who's not your own."
Carter, a teacher, has four adult children. Two are police officers, one is preparing to start police training, and the fourth has autism, like Ebony, the seven-year-old who died.
The death of the child at Hawks Nest was a crime and her parents had to be held accountable and jailed, she said.
But she felt some compassion for the isolation and depression experienced by the little girl's mother while raising an autistic child.
She felt no compassion for the father.
"He let her do all the dirty work in trying to keep the family going. I looked at him and thought, 'you are an utter mongrel'," she said.
EBONY was one of 152 NSW children three children per week who died in 2007, despite being known to the Department of Community Services (DOCS) as at risk of harm. Her younger sister had already been removed from the family because she was at risk.
The figure is even more horrifying because it was significantly higher than the previous year when 114 children known to DOCS died.
By the time of the little girl's death, in a bed on her own at Hawks Nest, there had already been at least four years of extremely negative reports on DOCS by NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour, despite a five-year, $1.2 billion boost in DOCS funding in 2002.
But it was not only DOCS that had failed children, Barbour said.
"Many of the families we see in these reviews of children who have died have multiple points of entry and interaction with government agencies," he said in an interview three weeks after the Hawks Nest girl died and her parents were charged with her murder.
"They encounter involvement with housing, with police, with health.
"All of those agencies are doing, in most cases, what they see as being appropriate for the families.
"What I've been suggesting for some time is that we need to make sure they work more co-operatively."
Barbara Holborow was a children's court magistrate for more than 12 years, and a lawyer specialising in defending children for 12 years before that.
She is not nearly as polite as Barbour when it comes to the systemic failures that led to the death of the Hawks Nest girl and the 151 other children who died in 2007, despite at least one government agency knowing their lives were at risk because of their parents or carers and their associates.
"DOCS was just as neglectful as the parents here," Holborow said.
"The risk to that child was obvious when the first child was removed, her weight, and the chronic addictions of the parents; she should have been removed from that family immediately.
"DOCS should have been on red alert the minute the first child was removed."
The child's disability was a complicating factor, but in some respects made the failure to remove her from the family even more striking, she said.
"They knew the parents because of the other child, and they should have been asking the question, 'if they can't raise one child, were they capable of raising a child with a disability?' The fact that DOCS found them incapable of raising one child certainly puts the onus of responsibility back on DOCS in relation to the little girl who died."
Holborow was troubled by the relatively low-key media response to the jury's decision this week that the mother was guilty of murder, and the father of manslaughter.
"It either says it's not newsworthy, or people don't care, really," she said.
"Maybe people accept that children die, and are going to keep dying, and isn't that so pathetically sad? I think it's a sad indictment of our society."
She felt deep despair at times, she said.
"It's been like this for year after year and in some ways it's even worse than when I was a children's court magistrate, because of the drugs," she said.
The one positive from the death of Ebony was that it prompted a special commission of inquiry into child protection in NSW, under retired Supreme Court Justice James Wood, she said.
His extensive recommendations, that included DOCS concentrating on children at risk of significant harm, with a greater role for non-government agencies to deal with lesser child protection issues, were supported by Holborow.
But she called for another public inquiry into the death of Ebony, to consider many issues raised during the trial.
"It is a case that really should open up a can of worms," she said.
The role of doctors, the ready availability of prescription drugs for the parents, the role of agencies other than DOCS such as the Department of Housing, the Department of Education and the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care, and the extent of communication between those agencies needed to be explored in the open, she said.
"This should be the pilot case to see how we can have so many services, but children still die," Holborow said.
State shadow minister for community services Pru Goward agreed. She was at East Maitland court for two days of the trial, when the parents gave evidence and when the little girl's DOCS caseworker gave evidence.
In NSW Parliament on Wednesday, Goward pushed for a full and open accounting of involvement by government departments with the family, while acknowledging that ultimately Ebony's parents were responsible for her death.
"Clearly these parents were monsters, and let there be no doubt about that, but there were opportunities to intervene with this family to protect this child," Goward said.
"This is a very significant case because it's the first I can think of where there's been a murder conviction through neglect, rather than abuse of a child.
"The parents have been held responsible for that criminal neglect but the public has the right to know what other things failed that led to the death of this child.
"It's not good enough to say that DOCS was overwhelmed. I saw the caseworker, poor kid. How must this girl feel? I think it's more a case that the department didn't support her.
"Something happened when that caseworker started to raise her concerns about this family, and that shouldn't just be swept aside now that there's been guilty verdicts for the parents.
"I think we need to know how the system's failed that little girl."
Janice Sim is a Sydney University Faculty of Law postgraduate student and PhD candidate who travelled to East Maitland to attend the murder trial while working on a thesis about filicide custodial and non-custodial parents who kill their children.
Ebony's death is one of 40 cases she is investigating, between 2000 and 2007, where parents have killed their children.
"I chose it [as a subject] because I am interested in the criminological aspect of the family," Sim said.
"At the moment I am looking at the role of intervention in the context of filicide.
"Intervention can take many forms: familial intervention from the extended family; state intervention such as DOCS and the police; judicial intervention from the courts and from social and support agencies.
"From this perspective I am interested in looking at how these interactions impact on the issue of safety. Although I haven't analysed the legal aspects in depth, it would be along the line of looking at the intersections of the law, state institutions and families."
AUSTRALIAN Childhood Foundation chief executive officer Dr Joe Tucci said he hoped Ebony's death would prompt discussion about the community's responsibility for all children.
He criticised the failure of people to act when sounds of domestic strife were heard in homes.
"I think that's one of the major barriers, that the family unit is sacrosanct so you can't interrupt it, you can't report it, or open it up to the outside world for scrutiny because what happens in a family needs to stay in a family," he said.
"When are we going to realise as a community that doing nothing is collusive? That doing nothing leaves children at risk?"
Beth Scaysbrook was another mother who felt compelled to go to East Maitland court for the trial.
She was "astounded" when the judge told the six men and six women of the jury that they couldn't make their decision based on gut feeling.
"He told them it had to be because of this, this or this, because of facts, and I thought, 'oh, what a burden,' " she said.
"I felt for them. What a huge responsibility."
Like Noni Carter, Scaysbrook felt some sympathy for the mother and none at all for the father.
After listening to some evidence about the difficulties DOCS had gaining access to the little girl, she said: "If you don't get access, you make sure you can get access."
"What were they doing?" Scaysbrook said.
Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann was at the court several times.
"Obviously I'm trying to work out how this happened, but I also wanted to show my respect for the little girl who died in very tragic circumstances," he said. "I'm a father of three children. I just can't understand the mindset of the parents."
Barbara Holborow has heard too many stories about children who die, or are tortured and abused, or neglected or abandoned.
The last weeks in the life of Ebony, who died alone in a bedroom at Hawks Nest with a rope tied around the door to ensure her isolation, are "almost too distressing to even think about". But the community must think about that little girl's horrifying death, to try to prevent it happening to other children, Holborow said.
"She would have been lying there, when she was conscious, looking to her mother and crying for help that never came. Oh God, you just can't fathom it," she said.
"I cried many times, embarrassingly, up the back of the court and outside." Noni Carter, mum"All of those agencies are doing, in most cases, what they see as being appropriate." Bruce Barbour, Ombudsman
"This should be the pilot case to see how we can have so many services, but children still die." Barbara Holborow, former magistrate
"When are we going to realise as a community that doing nothing is collusive?" Joe Tucci, children's advocate
"I think we need to know how the system's failed that little girl." Pru Goward, MP
"If you don't get access, you make sure you can get access. What were [DOCS] doing?" Beth Scaysbrook, mum.
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