Trevorrow v State of South Australia: a summary

On 1 August 2007, Justice Gray in the Supreme Court of South Australia delivered judgment in Trevorrow v State of South Australia.

The plaintiff, Bruce Trevorrow, is Aboriginal. He was born on 20th November 1956 at Queen Victoria Hospital, Adelaide.  His parents were Joe Trevorrow and Thora Lampard.  He spent the first 13 months of his life at One Mile Camp near Meningie, on the Coorong in South Australia.

On the 25 December 1957 the plaintiff (then aged 13 months) was ill and required medical attention.  At the request of his father, Joseph Trevorrow, the plaintiff was driven to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital for medical treatment.  He was diagnosed as suffering from of gastro-enteritis and was treated.  He recovered within a week.

On the 6 January 1958 he was discharged into foster care. His foster parents were Mr and Mrs. Davies. They were a non Aboriginal family living in Adelaide. This placement was done by the Aboriginal Protection Board (APB).  No steps had been taken to ensure that the Davies were an appropriate family to take the Plaintiff as foster child.  When Bruce’s mother wrote in asking how Bruce was, and when he was coming home, he was told “Bruce is making good progress but as yet the doctor does not consider him fit to go home”.  The Judge found that there was no evidence of any such  medical advice, and that Bruce had already been discharged into the care of the foster family.

The plaintiff remained with the Davies family as a foster child until he was 10 years old (1966). He did not see his birth parents during that time.  The APB actively prevented the Plaintiff’s family from locating him during the following 8 years.  During that time, the plaintiff’s father died.  That happened in 1966. 

In late 1966, at the request of the plaintiff’s mother the defendant arranged for the plaintiff to meet his mother.  The plaintiff was returned to his mother on about the 12th May 1967.  no arrangements were made to assist the Plaintiff’s transition from his foster family, who lived in suburban Adelaide, to his natural family who lived at that time in Victor Harbour. 

The State removed Bruce from his family.  He was removed by officers of the Aborigines’ Department, not by the Aborigines Protection Board.  The removal was done under colour of legal right but was not authorized by law.

The Judge found that removing Bruce from his family at 13 months caused him serious harm, and that the likelihood of that harm was foreseeable.  He found that the State placed Bruce in the care of a foster family without taking any steps to ensure that the foster family was able to cope with the difficulties they were likely to face. 

The State did not monitor Bruce’s well-being during the first 6 years of his fostering.  The foster mother was unable to cope with Bruce when he began exhibiting the symptoms typically associated with separation during infancy.

The State subsequently returned Bruce to his natural mother without any adequate preparation of Bruce, Thora or the siblings, and without giving him a chance to say goodbye to his foster family.  The manner of his return to his natural family caused him additional psychological damage, which was foreseeable and foreseen.

The psychiatric damage Bruce suffered has continued to have repercussions down through his remaining years.  In particular, his depression and alcohol abuse are consequences of the wrongs done to him.  The early harm done has in turn affected everything else he has done in his life.

The Judge found that the removal was unlawful, and that the State knew so at the time.  He found that the State was guilty of false imprisonment by placing Bruce with a foster family and preventing him or his natural family know what had been done.  He found that the State breached its duty of care in the removal and in the manner of the eventual return of Bruce to his natural mother.  He held that officers of the State were guilty of misfeasance in public office.

He awarde damages in the sum of $450,000 plus exemplary damages of $75,000.  He announced that he also intended to make declarations consistent with his reasons, on the footing that “The making of specific declarations is likely to assist in relieving the ongoing suffering of the plaintiff and provide a measure of remedy and relief”.

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