THE Bligh Government has refused to condemn a foster home where a group of children were housed in canvas tents without lights and electricity.
By Michael McKenna
June 6, 2009 / The Australian
Two investigations have been launched into the care of at least six children staying at the foster home, on a property located near Mareeba in far north Queensland.
The children have told officials they had been largely supervised by the teenage daughters of their foster carers.
Lawyers for the children repeatedly appealed to the local Department of Child Safety authorities, who acted only when the office of Child Safety Minister Phil Reeves ordered an investigation after being informed of their plight by The Australian on Thursday.
The local Atherton council has confirmed it is also investigating health and safety issues surrounding the use of semi-permanent tents to house the children. The family of five children, placed together in care, told The Australian that the elder siblings, aged between 12 and 14, had been forced to stay in the tents and were "freezing and scared" at night, too afraid to cross a paddock to the toilet.
The oldest of the five brothers and sisters, a 14-year-old girl, escaped unnoticed from the foster home on Tuesday afternoon, walking 30km to her family home. Two other children fled on Thursday.
While Mr Reeves is still waiting on a report into the case, his departmental director-general, Linda Apelt, issued a statement yesterday saying the use of the tents to accommodate the foster children was appropriate.
Ms Apelt said the foster carers had claimed the children were given the choice of staying in the tents as part of a "one-off adventure".
The claim has been strenuously denied by the children. "In cases such as this one, we sometimes find that children may, as part of a one-off adventure, be allowed to stay a night in tents or some other type of camping environment," Ms Apelt said in a statement.
"It's my understanding these tents are semi-permanent structures and the children were given the option of staying there or in the house.
"However, preliminary findings clearly show the accommodation to be totally appropriate and in accord with the statement of standards that have to be met for children who are in care."
While Child Safety officials said they were yet to reach a decision on whether to close the foster home, they have allowed three of the children, who had fled in recent days, to stay with family friends. One of those children told The Weekend Australian that the foster carers had forced them to stay in the tents. "They told us we had to stay in the tents -- they didn't give us a choice," the 14-year-old girl said.
"We have been interviewed by government people, but no one asked us if it was our choice to stay in them -- we didn't want to."
Emeritus professor of child development at the University of South Australian Freda Briggs said she was stunned the children would be housed in the tents. "This is sub-standard care, it is unacceptable," Professor Briggs said. "These kids have just been removed from their family, they are traumatised and in need of specialised care, not an adventure, as the department is claiming." The Australian revealed last year that some foster care children were being left in hotel rooms and caravan parks for months at a time. The Bligh Government said it was only in "emergency situations" that children were placed in such facilities.