News State QLD News ‘Invisible’ girl’s life of abuse

‘Invisible’ girl’s life of abuse

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Whether more could have been done to save a Queensland girl from being bashed to death by her mother is likely to play on the minds of many.

The eight-year-old was found dead at her Cairns home after being repeatedly hit with a vacuum cleaner pipe in November 2011.

Her mother, who can’t be named for legal reasons, is serving a seven-year sentence after last year pleading guilty to manslaughter.

The girl’s stepfather was sentenced to three years’ jail on the same charge for ignoring the abuse.

A coronial inquest in Cairns has heard the girl became “invisible” in the system and her absence from school for a year went undetected, despite her stepfather still receiving Centrelink payments.

“It was inconceivable that [the girl] was invisible to one part of society but her existence and whereabouts were known by another,” counsel assisting the Coroner, Stephanie Williams, told the court on Friday.

The girl’s step-grandparents said they were aware the girl was being abused but never alerted authorities. The pair conceded they could have done more.

The court heard the mother at times made the girl wear a wig, make-up and long-sleeve shirts to allegedly hide injuries she had inflicted.

Following an unsubstantiated abuse claim in 2009, a teacher aide at the girl’s school alerted authorities in November 2010 after noticing welts and bruises on the girl.

Police spoke to the mother and although the woman admitted she had slapped the girl, she wasn’t charged.

The Child Safety department put the girl in foster care but she was returned to her mother nine days later as it was believed she would be safe.

An external agency given the role of engaging with the mother closed the case in January 2011 after the woman said she was moving to New Zealand.

The agency didn’t speak to the girl and never told Child Safety it was no longer in touch with the woman.

After the abuse claim in November 2010 the mother removed the girl from her school, which also mistakenly believed the girl and her family were heading overseas.

The school, which told Child Safety about the family’s plans, had no way of tracking whether the girl had been enrolled overseas.

The school principal, who said he had lost a lot of sleep over the case, said if the school had had access to the stepfather’s Centrelink data, they would have known the girl remained in Cairns.

On November 28, 2011, the girl was found dead in her bedroom days after being repeatedly beaten by her mother.

During the inquest the court heard there were serious communication issues between government departments and the external agency.

In her final submissions on Friday, Ms Williams criticised Child Safety, saying it didn’t do enough to protect the girl from her abusive mother.

But she conceded departmental staff in Cairns were overworked and under-resourced.

The issues, first raised in 2009, were not addressed until after the girl’s death.

Ms Williams also said the external agency shared the blame.

The child safety officer involved said the case was distressing and had caused her anxiety, but said she believed she had made the best decisions under the circumstances.

The department’s barrister, Karen Carmody, told the inquest there wasn’t a direct link between the death and how the department dealt with the “deeply troubling case”.

But reviews and significant changes had since been implemented, she said.

“It’s easy to attack the department but in reality it was the mother and stepfather,” Ms Carmody told the court.

An independent reviewer looking at child safety systems following the death was so troubled by how under-resourced the Cairns office was she called urgent meetings with top officials.

Ms Williams recommended data-sharing between Centrelink, police and the child safety and education departments.

Northern coroner Jane Bentley will hand down her findings and recommendations on Friday.