September 29, 2010 Carol Nader
AFTER five years of struggling with the relentless demands of a little boy with severe autism, Anna finally snapped. She drove him to a hospital and asked child protection workers to meet her there and take him.
They came and collected her boy. She returned home to a strange quiet in the house. She thought it would be for the best, that he'd be somewhere safe.
But within three months of entering the care and protection of the state, the parents were told that their boy had been sexually assaulted by a teenager who had been temporarily placed in the same house.
It is a story that has been heard too many times - of how we fail our most vulnerable. But what makes Michael's story so unusual is that his parents voluntarily relinquished him.
For two years, his parents remained silent about what happened to their boy in state care. But their distress was reawakened when they read of a case in The Age in May, cited in a scathing report by the Victorian Ombudsman: a five-year-old boy with autism sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old boy.The story was so strikingly familiar they believed the victim mentioned in the report must have been their son. ''They [the state] had guardianship of him and they failed him,'' Anna says now.
She recalls the reasons why they gave him up. The nights in which he kept them awake, ''bouncing off the walls'', smearing the walls with his faeces, rocking backwards and forwards, moaning and wailing.
Most worrying was the fear that he would hurt his two siblings. There also were concerns that the focus on Michael's needs was affecting the development of the others.
By his fifth birthday, he had been on several types of medication, but it wasn't helping. At times, his mother says she would lock him in his room for up to an hour, just for a reprieve and to spend time with the other children.
When the Department of Human Services could not find a suitable disability placement, it temporarily placed him in what it calls a ''contingency'' unit with other children. Weeks later, the department placed the teenager in the same house, where the assault occurred.
In a letter recently sent to the parents, the department says the placement was made ''on the basis that there was no known information that indicated an increased level of risk''.
The department cannot confirm that the Ombudsman's report referred to their son. But it has confirmed that in Michael's case, the teenager was moved out of the house the same day the assault occurred.
A spokesman said: ''Children's safety is paramount and we take any allegation of abuse or mistreatment of a child very seriously. The department understands the distress this case has caused and at the time took immediate action to ensure the safety of the child.''
He said the Ombudsman had listed in his report initiatives and improvements the department had made, including greater supervision and training
of staff and a pilot of a new therapeutic residential care unit for children with disabilities.
Community Services Minister Lisa Neville said the Ombudsman recognised most children in care benefited from the experience. The government was devoting more resources than ever to the system.
Opposition community services spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge said a crisis in child protection meant that children were often inappropriately housed together. ''This is what the Ombudsman highlighted and it shows the disastrous consequences for a small boy.''
Parents seldom choose to relinquish care of their children. Michael's father, John, says it was a ''cold, hard decision'', the hardest thing they had ever done.
Anna says one of Michael's siblings was angry with them for removing his brother from home. She still remembers the day she let her son go. ''It was horrible,'' she says. ''But there comes a time when you have to switch off.''
The law requires that fault be found with parents to enable child protection authorities to intervene and take a child into care. Michael was taken into care on the grounds of emotional or psychological harm.
His court order includes a notation saying his parents dispute the assertion that the boy had suffered emotional harm in their care, but they consented to the ground of emotional harm to enable an order to be made.
In court documents, the department says his parents' decision to relinquish him and not make contact would affect his emotional well-being. Anna concedes that she does not see her son very often, as she finds it too distressing.
The family had been known to child protection, but their children had never been taken from their care. Previous reports about the family had been unsubstantiated, court documents suggest. In one instance, there were concerns that Michael had bruises on his body, but a doctor had said this was a side effect of medication.
It is believed that when Michael was moved to a placement especially catered to children with a disability, he improved significantly. He recently was moved to a permanent place in a family home and is believed to be doing well.
Elizabeth McGarry, chief executive of the Association for Children with a Disability, says the organisation has seen a rise in families calling for help because they feel they have no alternative but to relinquish their child. Part of this comes from inadequate support.
''It's like the end of the road and they see no alternative,'' she says. ''For a lot of them, children might have two hours of sleep a night and are very active the rest of the time and families become sleep deprived. Not being able to have a proper night's sleep for 15 years wears people down.''
The department, in court documents, says it had offered disability support that had been refused by the parents. Anna disputes the claim, and says that they would have had to wait many months for help. Ask her if things might have been different had she received support early, and she responds sadly: ''I don't know.''
The names of Michael, Anna and John have been changed.