"Child tells of sexual abuse so child protection send her back to be abused more "Official failure leads to lives lost""

FELICIA Goodson's abuser was back in her bedroom, but this time she was prepared. For at least six months, the 15-year-old had been telling anyone who would listen that she was being sexually abused by a man she had known almost all her life.

The teenager had begged Queensland child safety officers to leave her in foster care, where she had been for a month, but she had been sent back.

Nobody -- not police, not child safety officers, not even her own mother -- believed Felicia's allegations. They suspected they were the manipulative lies of a teenager angling to escape the drudgery of her small-town life.

It didn't take long for their official finding of "not in need of protection" to be proved wrong.

One night, soon after Felicia's return, the man entered her bedroom, drunk. As he rummaged through her underwear drawer, Felicia switched on the recording function of her mobile phone.

The sounds of the predator were captured; a door being closed, curtains drawn, his slurred, obscene demands as she lay frozen, pretending to be asleep. Now she would be believed.

 The man's arrest days later would stop the abuse, but Felicia's pain didn't end. In the months that followed, her life spiralled out of control.

Pleas by her mother, Cindy McNulty, and a local youth counsellor for her to be put into some sort of care were dismissed by child safety officers, even after she was hospitalised with ligature marks around her neck. "Just let her run feral for a bit," the authorities said, "she will come back."

Eventually, she did. A day after turning 16, Felicia was found dead, hanging from a beam on the veranda of the family home.

Hers was the second such death in the town in a short space of time. Four weeks earlier, Felicia's friend Zoe Gough, also 16 and already a mother of two, with a history of abuse, depression and self-harm, had hanged herself in a child safety house where the pair had been spending time together.

Inquirer has investigated how Felicia and Zoe died on the watch of child safety authorities. Their deaths are testament to the vulnerability of children growing up amid the addiction, criminality and welfare dependency that are tearing at Australia's social fabric, but also to a series of failures.

The mothers of Felicia and Zoe know how profoundly they failed their daughters. But the child protection system is society's acknowledgment that bad parents exist, and is designed to compensate for their failings. The story of these two girls tells how that apparatus can break down: the failure to provide a safety net for children in trouble; the failure of police and child protection authorities to co-operate; and, finally, the failure of government to hold its agencies publicly accountable for their mistakes.

There have been at least three separate inquiries into Felicia and Zoe's deaths: by Queensland's Child Safety Services (within the Department of Communities); Queensland Police, and the Child Death Review Committee, which is charged with examining the deaths of any children known to the child protection system in the final three years of their lives. Queensland's Crime and Misconduct Commission is reviewing the inquiries' findings, none of which have been made public.

However, the Child Death Review Committee preliminary report is understood to be damning of both police and child safety, finding that their "lack of service delivery" could be "linked to her (Felicia's) death" and that regional child safety authorities failed to respond to Felicia's "disclosures of sexual abuse and requests for support over a number of years".

All Inquirer's queries about the investigations have been rejected. And child sex cases against two men, arrested and charged with abusing Felicia, were dropped last year, and in May this year, because of legal complications.

Queensland's Child Safety Minister, Phil Reeves, has refused to discuss the cases. But despite official silence, the girls' stories can be pieced together through informed sources, court files and interviews with family and friends.

Maryborough is a sleepy sugar and forestry centre in central Queensland, about 250km north of Brisbane, famous for its manicured gardens and grand colonial homes. As the old industries have given way to new enterprises like tourism and mining, the town has moved at a slower pace; offering few employment opportunities, but a relaxed lifestyle and cheap housing for those unable to afford to buy on the coast. Among its 27,000 people, the town has its fair share of battlers; unemployment is at 6 to 7 per cent.

Zoe Gough arrived in 2000, aged eight. The family had moved from the NSW south coast and lived for brief periods in Gympie and Kingaroy. Within two years she was the subject of a departmental child protection order -- made by a court to help care for a child whose parents are unable, or unwilling, to look after them. She spent time with different foster carers but in 2005, aged 13, she moved back in with her mother, Tracey-Lee McSweeney.

Zoe's mother was battling her own problems, trying to recover from what she says were years of a violent home situation. She was trying to launch a new business and believed she would be unable to care for Zoe.

"I decided she could stay with me, but I rang the department (Child Safety Services) and said 'I need help, I don't know how to handle her'," she says. "They said to me, 'We don't agree with her being with you' but that it was her decision. They couldn't make her go back to care and because of that they wouldn't help with the problems she was having."

The erratic 13-year-old told her mother little about what was going on in her life. But even Tracey-Lee was surprised to open the front door one day to find Zoe's 15-year-old boyfriend on the doorstep. It was hard for Tracey-Lee to turn him away, but she immediately insisted her daughter go on the pill.

Around the same time, Felicia and her family moved to the town, in a bid by Cindy to extricate herself from the drugs scene that was destroying the family's life at Goodna in Brisbane's western suburbs. Initially Felicia -- "Flea" to her mates -- was happy with the move, but soon she rebelled, regularly running away from home.

"I called the police to bring her back home, but because of her age, they couldn't force her to come home," Cindy says.

Friends say Felicia was angry about her mother's continuing drug use. The region's Child Safety Services officers became involved, but Cindy says they told her that under state laws Felicia could make her own choices, and there was little they could do.

Meanwhile, back in the Gough household, Tracey-Lee's efforts to prevent her daughter from getting pregnant had failed almost immediately, placing further strain on the girl's already fragile emotional state.

"She used to self-harm, cut herself with glass and knives," says Tracey-Lee. "Zoe had previously been referred to mental health whilst living with me, after overdosing on Panadol."

The teenager became known around the town for her dark, goth clothes and heavy makeup.

In March 2007, responding to Zoe's pregnancy, the Child Safety Services Department drew up a plan that would allow Zoe to keep the baby -- a plan which Tracey-Lee says she was not consulted about. The plan, obtained by Inquirer, details Zoe's problems and recommends she attend a variety of clinics and services, including mental health, to deal with her drugs and self-harm issues and to teach her parenting skills.

One element of the plan was to place Zoe into her own home. But it noted a request for a house made to the state Housing Commission Department was denied because of Zoe's youth. The back-up option, however, was to refer Zoe to a supported accommodation program so that she could "reside independently with her baby".

The baby was born in August 2007. In a matter of months the 14-year-old was pregnant again. In July 2008, her second child was born. Later that year Zoe, by then 15, moved with her two children into another house in a Supported Independent Living program, arranged by Child Safety and provided by a charity. The program is supposed to involve regular visits by youth workers.

Tracey-Lee was stunned, saying authorities encouraged Zoe to move out because they opposed her (Tracey-Lee's) attempts to block visits by the father of Zoe's children. She questioned the wisdom of housing a vulnerable teenaged mother of two with her boyfriend.

But as Zoe's life deteriorated, Felicia's appeared to improve. Jacqui Clayton, a counsellor working for a local charity-run youth service, was providing her support, and in April 2008 Cindy had agreed Felicia could go into voluntary care with a foster family.

Once there, Felicia revealed she had been abused by someone connected with her family. The allegations led to a police investigation, but no evidence was found.

Cindy says Felicia's enthusiasm to go into foster care in Brisbane, where some of her friends were based, may have created doubts in the minds of the social workers about her daughter's claims.

But Cindy admits that she herself did not believe Felicia: "It is a decision I will regret for the rest of my life," she says.

The foster care ended the next month. On June 8, a Child Safety officer informed Felicia and her mother no further action would be taken, declaring there was "insufficient evidence to indicate that Felicia has been harmed" or was "at unacceptable risk of suffering harm and further departmental involvement is not warranted".

In August, Felicia told her mother and police she had been touched inappropriately, including being bitten on the back by an adult during a party she attended with family some months before. She gave police a statement and a man was later charged. But her erratic behaviour continued, and she confided in Clayton about the abuse that had taken place in her home. The counsellor told her to get proof. "Try and use your mobile phone," she said.

On the morning of December 16, Felicia's mother walked into the dining room of their run-down colonial and was immediately confronted by an agitated Felicia holding her phone and saying: "I got the proof, I got the proof."

The recording was scratchy and hard to hear, but to Cindy's ears it was the sound of the man Felicia had named, walking into her room, closing doors and curtains, asking about Felicia's underwear and then making sexual propositions. "It was his voice," says Cindy. "I knew it was him." Cindy confronted him, saying: "You sick c..t." She says he just walked away; he "didn't try to deny it or anything".

The man, who under Queensland law cannot be identified, denies the abuse; when Inquirer tried to speak to him this month he declined to comment.

Felicia and her mother made statements to police, and the man was charged with indecent treatment of a child under 16. He was granted bail and had no further contact with Felicia's family, but the girl's problems were not over. Doctors assessed her as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then, at perhaps the most inopportune time, Felicia's and Zoe's lives intersected. The two misfits met and started spending time together in Zoe's home. Fearful for her daughter's mental state, Cindy says she approached regional Child Safety and "begged them to do something to take her off the street".

"The DOCS worker told me 'Just let her run feral for a bit. She will come home'," Cindy says. Efforts to contact the worker have been unsuccessful.

Zoe, however, was suffering her own emotional distress. On January 17, 2009, an official child protection order on her expired. Tracey-Lee, although busy with other family issues, knew that "Zoe was very depressed" and while living in the house by herself was getting texts from her boyfriend which were "very upsetting".

On April 20, Zoe asked her mother to babysit her children. "It was a normal arrangement to help her enjoy her teenage years. I didn't think there was anything unusual," says Tracey-Lee.

When Zoe failed to show up to collect the children next morning, Tracey-Lee started to ring around Zoe's friends. Her stepfather went to her house; it was locked, so he kicked the door in.

Zoe's body was found inside the house. She had hanged herself.

Text messages suggest she attempted suicide twice before finally succeeding. Her phone was found next to her.

Tracey-Lee says, "She was texting a friend about what was the point of living."

Felicia took Zoe's death hard. Soon afterwards she was admitted to the local hospital with a ligature mark around her neck.

Cindy says she approached health and Child Safety authorities again: "I begged them to do something," she says, "but they said it was up to Felicia." She doesn't know if officials took any preventive action.

On May 26, 2009, Cindy returned to the colonial house the family had been living in.

"I was hanging sheets out on the back veranda and I saw a note on the table and her phone on top of the note. I read the note and started screaming out 'No, no', and calling for the others to find her. I just knew then," she says.

"My partner found her hanging on the veranda. She had been hidden by the sheets. I ran up and we lifted her up but we couldn't get the rope off; it was too tight. I got her down and started doing CPR, and I was screaming for help and her chest moved and I thought she was alive, but then I knew she wasn't."

Amid the apologies, Felicia wrote in her 13-page suicide letter that she was going to a place where "I don't have to worry if some guy is going to walk into my room at night and hurt me, where I don't have to worry if I'm ever gonna get dinner, where I don't have to worry if my mother loves me or not".

"I can't live with the fact my childhood was taken from me," she wrote. "I can't live with the fact -- [here she named her alleged abuser] and all those other males that touched me will live on in this world happy and free." She also wrote that she just "can't live without Zoe".

The two mothers accept that they shoulder some of the blame for their daughters' deaths, but both say they repeatedly asked Child Safety for help or raised concerns about the policies being applied. Says Tracey-Lee: "People might think that as Zoe's mum I should have done more, but the department had taken away my rights as her mother to make any decisions about Zoe's welfare."

A Child Safety spokesman says: "Children in care who are at risk of suicide have individual plans drawn up to avert the immediate risk of suicide and stabilise their emotional and mental health." But the two headstones on the hillside in Maryborough's cemetery mark the failure of those plans.

The girls are buried side by side. Their graves are regularly visited by friends and family; they are covered with soft toys, flowers and messages of love.

In death they receive a level of care and attention sadly absent from their short lives. (Source : http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/official-failure-leads-to-lives-lost/story-e6frg6zo-1226117922251)

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