Little boy lost: The 20-month-old let down by Australia’s child protection system

His eyes were deep hazel, they oozed sweetness. He was tall for his 20-months of age, he had a perfectly round face, chubby little cheeks. Signs of a healthy toddler.

He had mastered walking, was steady on his feet. An effervescent child, he had a handful of words in his vocabulary and he was eager to learn more.

He loved music. Loved to bop and stomp. Even when tired, he would muster the energy to wiggle on your lap.

In fact, he was bopping and stomping just an hour before he was viciously and intentionally killed.

His killer stomped her feet too, she then scoffed and baulked and cried when, in the NSW Supreme Court two weeks ago, Justice Richard Cavanagh found her guilty of his murder.

What makes this story uglier is the little boy was a vulnerable foster child. His murderer; the 45-year-old woman entrusted to keep him safe.

He is the victim of a monster and a shoddy child protection system. And a society that cares even less because this little boy was Indigenous.

His foster mother blamed the child for his own death, claiming he didn’t like baths and would “crocodile roll” and that was how his horrendous injuries occurred.

The grave where the foster child and his biological mum are buried. Credit: supplied
The grave where the foster child and his biological mum are buried.

But Justice Cavanagh was not convinced, after presiding over the three-week trial alone, he told the court: “I do not know precisely what was done to (the child), but I am satisfied that the only reasonably possible explanation ... was some form of deliberate and forceful assault on him.

“On the evidence before me, there is no other person who could have assaulted the deceased in his home that night.”

He died in vain before his life had even begun, but I can’t tell you his name. I can’t show you his face, either, the court prevents me. His killer’s identity is masked too. The sucker punch to long-awaited justice. She’s been convicted of the most heinous crime one can commit but there will be no public shame. There is no exception to the rule, even for murderers.

He was born in July 2013 in Dubbo in regional NSW, to a biological mother who adored him and hoped that his arrival would mark a change in the direction of her life.

She had struggled with addiction but wanted this time around to be different. That’s why, when things at home with the little boy’s father became dangerous, it was her decision to reach out for help. He wasn’t taken from her. Foster care was to be a temporary transition until she could battle her way to safety. And it was Uniting, the non-government foster care provider, to which he was entrusted.

But two months later, he was dead.

His biological mum is dead now, too. She never recovered from the loss of her little boy and fell further into the depths of addiction in the months and years after he died. She, too, failed by a system that by design, spits out our most vulnerable.

The first time we met was at McDonald’s in Dubbo in October 2017. It took me a year to find her. We cradled burnt coffee and spoke about heartache. She was frail and wearing a kind of brokenness that only the loss of a child can bring. She was 37 but you could have mistaken her for being a decade older. She wanted answers and I promised her we would get them. And justice.

That’s why Justice Cavanagh’s verdict means so much because in the hours of phone calls to this mum of five – who shares my age – I listened and cried with her. We cried when I detailed his injuries – perforated stomach, broken left femur, a “constellation of injuries” to his head, face and neck, injuries experts during the trial compared to those suffered in a high-speed car crash.

I had to tell this grieving mum because the police did not.

The foster mother of the 20 month old who was killed in 2015
The foster mother of the 20 month old who was killed in 2015

And I will never forget the howling, guttural pain that came from this woman who was served up a life she did not deserve when I told her that his little bottom had been interfered with. How does a mother ever reconcile that?

They rest together forever, now, this beautiful young boy and his shattered mum, in the lawn section of New Dubbo Cemetery. A slate-grey marble headstone etched in love, with flowers and toys that he never got to play with hugging the sides.

I first learned their story in late 2016, when an industry whistle-blower told me there had been a suspicious death of an Indigenous child in care, somewhere in rural New South Wales. But where? His death seemed forgotten, most likely laying at the bottom of a dusty stack of unsolved crimes in a detective’s office. By then, he had been dead almost two years.

The tip followed the discovery and exposure of the death of a 15-year-old foster girl that we called ‘Girl X’. She had overdosed in a residential care facility two weeks before her alleged rapist was to go on trial. Overdosing had become her modus operandi, a ‘cry for help’ when things were getting tough, following a short life that NSW Deputy Coroner Derek Lee summed up in 2016, saying: “If you could write a textbook on how to traumatise a child, it would be (Girl X).”

She, too, was supposed to be protected by Uniting. The God-fearing organisation that, by their own words claim to “acknowledge the corrosive effects of inequality and affirm that the poor and marginalised must be our focus”. I have found three unresolved foster child deaths on their books. Suppressions and redacted reports mean that I can’t tell you if there are more.

The foster child with his biological mum

The foster child with his biological mum

It was March 23, 2015, that our little foster boy died, found unresponsive by paramedics after a triple-0 call that recorded the foster mum telling her partner “they’re going to think I bashed him”.

Varying accounts of the night’s events were detailed to the two teams of paramedics who tried with everything they had to breathe life back into him, but, by Justice Cavanagh’s reckoning of the evidence “it seems likely that the deceased was already dead”.

Her behaviour, when interviewed by detectives just hours after he was pronounced dead, was “rather bizarre”, Justice Cavanagh observed, “in the sense that she smiled and even cracked the odd joke with the officers”.

There would be two more police interviews, each time she would give differing accounts.

But it was the evidence of her 13-year-old biological daughter, of what she saw and heard happen in the bathroom on the night he died, that brought her mother’s lies undone.

It was on her way to get a glass of water from the kitchen the daughter “... saw her aggressive at him, like, towards him, and when he was standing she just sort of, like, pushed him to be sitting, a bit rough ... around the waist”.

The teen scurried back to her bedroom, waiting for the yelling to stop before getting up to go to the toilet. Her mum had scuffled outside for a cigarette. Her foster brother was still in the bath, 30 centimetres of water covered his little body. He did not make a sound, he was motionless. Except for those hazel eyes, they blinked. But did not cry.

“I remember his face having, like, small cuts on it, and his forehead having a bump on it, and his eye, like — well, yeah, like, his eye area having a bump on it and bruises,” she told detectives.

Back in her bedroom, she heard the yelling begin again.

“I sat for a bit, and then I went to my little brother, and I asked him if he could go tell mum to stop yelling at (the deceased),” she would tell police in 2019, four years after his death.

It was four years after her first police interview that she told police what really happened that night, because on the way to speak to detectives in 2015, a week after the murder, her mum demanded she omits what she saw in the bathroom.

Now 20, the biological daughter was found to be a credible witness, doubling down during the trial, defiantly telling Justice Cavanagh what she saw that night.

“I can’t recall the whole conversation, but I remember being told to — that in the interview, I leave out the bath.”

The foster mother had been drinking the night of the murder, by her own admission, she consumed “five or six” beers at a get-together at their neighbours earlier in the night. Her daughter told the police “when she drinks, she can get aggressive”.

The court heard she was angry her foster child had been fed twice. The only reason was ever given for her temper that night.

Despite the little boy dying in 2015, it took detectives until 2018 to lay charges. A delay in the process criticised by Justice Cavanagh and at a previous Supreme Court bail application — both judges concluded the bulk of the evidence used to lay the murder charge had been collected shortly after his death.

“The accused was not charged until 8 January 2018, nearly three years after the deceased’s death,” Justice Cavanagh noted in his judgment.

“She then did not stand trial until January 2022. None of the delays was of the accused’s making.”

I spent my rostered days off and my own money researching and agitating and annoying and asking and questioning police, neighbours ... why had this child been forgotten?

I found him in August 2017. She was arrested and charged with his murder the following January.

The trial was initially set down for November 2020, but the case was further delayed after the prosecution failed to obtain the required expert medical witnesses for the case to go ahead. As such, the extended delays entitled his killer to be granted bail, where she was housed in a ‘halfway’ motel, where vulnerable children had been placed for their safety.

Each misstep prolongs the pain of a family so desperate for closure. Closure it took seven years to achieve.

“If he was an Anglo boy from a wealthy suburb, would justice have taken so long?” his older sister asks her voice breaking, tears running down her cheeks.

“I can’t believe she’s been convicted, this is what we have been fighting for, for so many years. I know they’ll both be watching down on us, they’re here with us. And I know that woman can’t hurt another child and my brother has justice.

“But why did it have to take so long? And what about all the other dead children that were placed in care, where is the accountability?”

She, a mother of three beautiful little children herself now, is desperate for answers.

But will those in power respond?

There are shutters on the courtroom reporting of cases involving foster care, and added shroud to an already suppression-laden child protection industry.

Freedom of Information requests return without answers, or, if you are lucky enough to get a response, it’s usually so heavily redacted, it’s useless.

The 2020 Child Deaths Annual Report shows eight children died under the care of the Minister for Family and Community Services in NSW, under circumstances undetermined, inflicted or suspicious. Twelve children suicide.

In 2019 – 10 died under the same circumstances. There were eight suicides.

Multiply this by the number of State and Territories in Australia and the shocking number of preventable child deaths is terrifying.

Unless whistle-blowers risk their livelihoods, and they’re the good ones in an incredibly broken industry, how will we really know how faulty the system is?

A Royal Commission into the child protection system is long overdue. There is blood on the hands of each and every State government in Australia.

How many more children must die?

This story and its contents have been taken from The West Australian Newspaper you can read the original and first published article by clicking here.

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  • Chelsea Seymour

    I also was mistreated and let down by dhhs as a child now due to their lies and fake results my childrens lives have been destroyed I have stories about them that would prove they are liars and don’t bother doing the right checks before taking children

  • Nance Bullock

    Reading this story made me feel physically I’ll, my head is spinning. As. Kinship carer I have read so many stories of carers who were driven to despair by the badgering, unrealistic demands, lack of support and downright stupidity of case workers who fail to recognise that every child has a different story, every child comes from different circumstances, and one rule for all is not reasonable, my grandson was bullied and threatened by a caseworker who was determined that he should be sent back to his abuser. On the other hand we hear way too often of children left with abusive, drug addicted and or mentally ill parents who are found battered or dead.
    My experience tells me that all too often case workers make decisions about children and carers that leaves a wide gap in the attention some cases, that child is safe with that carer, or this carer can manage as long as she bows to our every demand, on the other hand there are those, like this precious child in this story, case workers don’t look for the signs that all is not well, this baby didn’t deserve to be beaten and abused, this was not a one off incident, the carer obviously liked her drink, and by her own daughter’s confession would get aggressive when she was drinking, why was such a person given a child to care for? Why wasn’t she monitored? Was there any kind of background check before she became a foster carer? These are all questions that ate screaming round in my head when I read this story. Our child protection agencies are failing to protect our children, many of the caseworkers are obviously not suited for the job, and have no firsthand experience with children, and no knowledge of how to deal with either carers or children. Something drastic needs to be done about these agencies throughout this country, and it needs to be done now!

  • Jo kaye

    It’s been going on for years..I myself attempted suicide in state care in Tasmania…

  • Charles McGavin

    It’s good to see that The West is courageous enough to now be publishing these stories with relative frequency these days, but why always behind a paywall? I think the community at large deserve to hear these stories without having to pay for them. Having to pay devalues their importance. Thanks CPP for bringing these stories to our attention.

  • Wendy McCulloch

    An absolute disgrace. It beggars belief that it took so long, and I question the accountability of both the police and CPS. If they are not held to account it could occur time and time again. The foster carer was free to live her life out in the community having committed murder. Shame

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