Tasmania's Child Safety Service under inquest spotlight over children's deaths


Key points:

  • The inquest is examining the deaths of seven children in north and north-western Tasmania from 2014 to 2018
  • In one case, an expert says CSS's lack of intervention was a "key failing"
  • In another case, the expert says CSS could not have foreseen the drowning of an infant in a bath

The drowning of a seven-month-old baby left alone in the bath by her young mother is one of seven deaths being investigated in an inquest exploring to what extent, if any, the actions or inactions of Tasmania's Child Safety Service played a contributing role.

The three-day inquest before coroner Olivia McTaggart is examining the deaths of seven children in north and north-western Tasmania from 2014 to 2018.

The children ranged in age from two months to 16 years, and all bar two — a teenage mother and her infant son— died in separate incidents.

But all the children or their families were known to, or involved with, Child Safety Service (CSS) prior to their deaths.

The inquest is attempting to identify whether systemic failures in CSS contributed to their deaths and what reforms and recommendations could be made to prevent similar deaths.

Three deaths from co-sleeping

Of the seven deaths, three children died suddenly overnight from co-sleeping, another died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) while sleeping on his mother's couch, one baby drowned in a bathtub, while a teenage mother and son were killed in a car being driven in an "erratic" manner by the child's father.

The first day of the inquest focused on evidence from social work professor Robert Lonne, who identified a number of deficiencies in CSS's dealings with the children, although they were rarely connected to the children's death.

He criticised the service's lack of contact with one family who had open and closed cases over a number of years in regards to their older children.

At the time of their three-month-old's death, the service had not been in contact with the family for "quite a period" and was not aware of the child's existence, with the department's own internal review describing its work with the family as "disordered in approach".

Child's hand clasping adult male finger, close up.
A suppression order prevents the naming of the children and families.(Pixabay)

Professor Lonne did, however, note the family had been suspicious and reluctant to engage with services, which he said was not unusual for Indigenous families due "not least to the Stolen Generations and removal of children".

In the case of the deaths of the teenage mother and her infant son, who died after the child's father crashed their car into a truck, he said the department "could've been assessed as having contributed to their deaths".

Both the 16-year-old and the child's father had a long history with CSS.

Professor Lonne said it was clear the father had a propensity for violence and "presented a real and ongoing risk to the children [being the mother and her son]".

He said the department ought to have assessed the risk and merits of relocating them somewhere safe and said the lack of intervention was a "key failing".

Expert says CSS could not have foreseen drowning

In other cases, he noted there was a workforce issue or pointed out more detailed assessments should have taken place, but he said these assessments would not have always alleviated risk.

In particular, he said the service could not have foreseen the seven-month-old drowning in the bath.

He said while he believed CSS should have thoroughly investigated allegations the mother was abusing drugs and the child was being left in the care of inappropriate people, intervention was unlikely to prevent her drowning.

"Everybody should know you don't leave a child unattended in a bath — three months, seven months, 18 months. You just don't do it. You don't do it because things can happen in a heartbeat."

In summary, he said there was "some steady improvement" in CSS's dealings over the years, and while it was not a huge turnaround, it was encouraging.

He cited significant improvements in the way the department responded to cases, with improved communication internally and with other departments, and a greater focus on safety plans for families identified as high risk.

In all bar the case of the teenage mother and her infant son, Professor Lonne said he could not attribute part of the children's deaths to department deficiencies.

(Source)

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