DOHS v Mr D & Ms B 2008, VChC 2
The case involved parents who lived together with four children: MD aged 6.5 years, AD aged 4 years, ND aged 2.25 years and SD aged 4 months. All four children had been removed from the parents’ care due to concerns about environmental neglect and poor hygiene, and had been placed into kinship care with grandparents and an uncle. Inadequate supervision of a child was also alleged as MD had been found on several occasions wandering a kilometre from home after crossing streets. Child protection orders were in place for the parents to see their children under supervision three times per week, to be reviewed bi-monthly. The hearing focused on whether the Child Protection Department should have a reunification plan or plan for long term guardianship orders.
The department noted it had received 5 notifications in the previous 3 years with two notifications being substantiated. First, the mother had been unresponsive to sustained crying by a child, leading to the department linking the mother with support services for a period of a year, at the end of which the mother still struggled to care for her children (parenting style disengaged). Second, evidence was presented by visitors over a three year period that the house was often cluttered, clothing was strewn over floors in every room, floors were not vacuumed, dishes were often not washed, and the home was generally dirty. New evidence was presented that raised doubt about whether the parents regularly prepared meals for the children, as one visitor saw a 4 year old prepare noodles for himself while the parents remained in bed at 10.00am. The level of supervision was criticised as one child left the house through a bedroom window on occasions, and the father’s initial response was to ask the housing authority to repair the window. A visitor found an infant in a dirty nappy and with nappy rash.
The trial judge heard evidence from 20 witnesses.
A home safety assessor reported that the house was furnished sparsely but adequately, and that there were plenty of toys. Artwork by the children was displayed, and children had also scribbled on the walls. The house had a musty smell that was consistent with both wet carpets and cigarette smoke. The parents had secured the windows to prevent the children from leaving the house.
One assessor described both parents as having a laissez-faire attitude to life as they lived in the present and avoided forward planning, as evidenced by the parents not enrolling their children in child care or schools (parenting style permissive).
Neuro-psychological tests were administered to both parents (psychometric test). The mother was found to have low average scores in both verbal and non-verbal domains, with difficulties in the attentional skills of slowed psychomotor processing, slow information processing, and requiring effort for tasks that required divided attention. The father had below average immediate attention span and working memory capacity, inefficient planning and organisation skills, and low capacity for abstract reasoning, with the assessor concluding the father would have difficulty in multi-tasking (parental disability).
An expert witness recommended that parents with concrete thinking require specific forms of parental assistance to achieve the standard of good-enough parenting (competent parent), by receiving structured guidelines for tasks over a prolonged period that are provided by one skilled clinician rather than by a disorganised team. The expert recommended this structured approach rather than a focus on whether parents accept blame or appear to deny problems. The expert recommended a trial of a structured parenting programme before placing children into staffed residential care.
An assessor noted a tendency for both parents to become preoccupied with one child (MD) and his demands, concluding that MD was able to manipulate both his parents (child domination). MD made demands for food and then refused to eat and both parents became ‘trapped’ into taking time to try and persuade him to eat. Meanwhile the girls were left to their own devices. This pattern of interaction became more pronounced when one parent was on their own with the children. MD would make demands on their attention – he was clearly used to getting his own way with his parents (he kicked and cried, and rolled on the floor, for a considerable time). The father or mother were then caught in a vicious cycle of trying to pacify a child MD and he became worse (not better). The worrying issues about these interactions were that MD was clearly used to manipulating his parents. On the other hand, grandparents managed this behaviour by asking him to sit still and by giving him a drink when he was sitting still (parenting style authoritative). The assessor noted that both parents lacked the ability to set firm boundaries for MD. This assessor supported the girls being reunited with the parents, perhaps earlier than MD.
One assessor noted that the childrens’ temperaments differed, and recommended that parenting allow for these temperamental differences. The expert recommended that staged reunification (graduated approach) occur to cater for the competing needs of the four children. Three possible reunification approaches were identified. The first approach was to commence by reunifying MD as he was most distressed by the current separation, and his needs were strong and required more management from the parents to help him to learn self-regulation skills. The second approach was to commence with the baby SD to begin a strong attachment relationship within the first 6 months. The third approach was to commence with the two girls AD and ND who had good attachment with both their parents and grandparents, and who posed no special difficulties. A fourth possibility was to continue with the existing kinship care.
A report from a supervised access visit of two hours found that both parents were attentive to the children under supervision. The functioning of the parents appeared to differ between supervised and unsupervised conditions.
The judge found that the father showed abiding concern and solicitude for all of his children. The judge also found that the father claimed excessive virtue and minimised any blame that might be directed at himself for almost anything, while being over-willing to complain about others and especially about people in authority (attributions externalising).
The judge noted that one child protection worker supported continued or ongoing supervision because the worker held concerns about the parent’s capacity to care for their children, despite the positive findings when access was supervised. The judge noted that the worker allowed suspicions rather than evidence to predominate and this had the effect of transferring the burden of proof onto the parents.
The judge supported a step-wise reunification of children to the care of the parents over an all-or-nothing approach.
The judge granted orders for all four children. A supervision order was granted for infant SD to return to the care of the parents with 16 conditions. An order to proceed with a reunification plan for AD and ND was granted, with 15 conditions. A custody order was granted for MD with varied conditions.
The judge issued an order that a child return to the care of its parents for a period of one year provided that conditions including the following were met (conditional access):
- the parents accept visits by the Department and cooperate with the Department
- parents allow children to receive services recommended by the Department and for reports to be provided (therapy for child, specific order for report)
- the father to attend counselling (therapy for parent)
- the mother to attend therapy for depression
- the parents ensure that the house remains clean and uncluttered (environmental neglect)
- the grandparents have access to the children.