Child protection advocates question increased push for adoption in Mason Lee findings


A Queensland coroner's recommendation that adoption be "routinely and genuinely" considered for children in out-of-home care has been met with scepticism by some child protection advocates, who describe adoption as a "drastic" move.

Deputy state coroner Jane Bentley was tasked with examining the handling of 21-month-old Mason Jet Lee's case to find ways to prevent similar deaths in the future.

In her findings, Ms Bentley said despite successive governments providing "ever-increasing amounts of funding" and repeated attempts to improve the child safety system, it continued to be overwhelmed by children being introduced to it.

She recommended the department review its policies to ensure adoption be "routinely and genuinely" considered by child safety officers as one of the options open to them when deciding where to place a child in out-of-home care.

"It [adoption] recognises the child's rights to be protected above those of parents who are unwilling and/or unable to appropriately care for those children," the findings state.

"The emphasis for child safety in Queensland, demonstrated by this [Mason's] case and acknowledged by the ESU [Ethical Standards Unit], is maintaining family unification or reunification.

Toddler Mason Jet Lee looks up as he sits in a washing basket with another anonymous child.
Mason's stepfather William O'Sullivan and his mother Anne-Maree Lee, were jailed for manslaughter.(Facebook)

The commission of inquiry by Tim Carmody QC in 2013 recommended the department routinely consider and pursue adoption — particularly for children aged under three years — in cases where reunification was no longer a feasible goal.

The State Government of the day accepted the recommendation, but in her findings, Ms Bentley said it was "obvious that it in fact has not been implemented in any real sense".

The findings noted from 2013 to 2019 a "tiny handful" of children had been adopted from out-of-home care — with 32 permanent care orders made since October 2018.

"However, as at 17 March 2020, 6,795 children were subject to Long-Term Guardianship Orders, ie under the care of the department until they turn 18 years of age on the basis that they have no parent willing and able to care for them and they will not in the foreseeable future," Ms Bentley said.

'Quite alarming impact'

PeakCare executive director Lindsay Wegener said adoption was already an option that existed in Queensland, but was only suitable for a very small number of children.

"It is a drastic option to take in many ways," Mr Wegener said.

"Adoption isn't simply about separating a child from its parents, it's also about the separation that occurs from their family members, grandparents, aunties, uncles and very, very importantly their brothers and sisters.

"Not only their brothers that exist today, but brothers and sisters that may be born into the future.

"So are we really wanting to set up a system where children are separated from all their family members?

"If we really want to reduce the numbers, then we really need to look at what do we need to prevent their entry in the first place.

"It's about providing services that families can access without fear, that they feel comfortable about people coming into their families and supporting them when they are struggling."

Mr Wegener said the recommendation would have had a "quite alarming" impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Kinship care should be the priority

Dr Patricia Fronek, from Griffith University's School of Human Services and Social Work, said to assume adoption was not being considered based on adoption numbers was "alarmingly misplaced".

Dr Fronek said there were many reasons why children were in care.

"There should also be recognition of permanent, stable, long-term care that may be more appropriate for individual children where it is important for a child to maintain family relationships and identity, otherwise we do indeed jeopardise children's rights," she said.

Ms Bentley also recommended Queensland consider New South Wales guidelines, which expected children to be permanently placed through out-of-home adoptions within two years of entering the department's care.

She recommended the department report the numbers of children adopted and the details of those matters, every six months for the next five years.

Twenty-one department employees involved in Mason's case were found to have failed to carry out their duties appropriately, prompting Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to ask the Public Service Commissioner to investigate workers' handling of the case.

The State Government is considering all the deputy coroner's recommendations.

Annastacia Palaszczuk looks into the distance wearing a blue top
The Premier wants a further investigation into the Child Safety Department.(ABC News)
(Source)

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