‘She was singing in a choir, not chroming and using ice’
HOMELESS among teen gang members on streets of the Gold Coast, a 12-year-old girl in a text from her mobile phone sends a photograph of the inside of her arm. Eleven cuts - some with the blood still fresh, several centimetres long. "Bye bye," she writes.
This was 18 days ago, sparking a frantic search by her foster family. Today she remains homeless, losing her place in a northern Coast residential care home after joining the gang known to police.
A friend of the girl, who fears she will again attempt suicide, says: "Two years ago she was singing in a children's choir. Not chroming and using ice.
"She has been involved with others in shop lifting and car theft. There have been incidences of violence where police were called - being thrown through a window, being raped, being choked.
"This little girl could every well lose her life through the incompetency and unethical practices of the Department of Child Safety."
An investigation that has uncovered email trails and obtained photographs and texts, reveals how complaints from foster carers, MPs, friends and lawyers to the highest levels of government - including Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Child Safety Minister Di Farmer - have been ignored for two years.
Friends allege the girl was with street kids linked to a "paedophile gang" being groomed for sex and drugs deals.
The girl, who turned 12 in May, had spent 10 loving years in a foster home west of the city.
Since March she has lived in a tent at a southern beach until moved on by council workers, sheltered in Surfers Paradise, camped outside the shops in Southport and slept in a public toilet at Eagleby north of the Coast.
In Queensland, a child under the age of 12 cannot be left alone for "an unreasonable amount of time". But her friends allege a deal struck between Child Safety and the contracted resi-carers considers the young girl is safe if she either sends a text or phones daily.
The girl has remained steadfast in wanting to be reunited with her foster family. A message sent to her foster mother, after she was removed in their care in May 2018, is heartbreaking.
In a car being taken away from her home, not sure where she was going as they headed east to the Coast, she wrote: "Love you mummy I might come back to you maby (sic). Love you. Mummy child safety don't lisan (sic) to me and help me come home aswall (sic). Child Safety lied to me please help me I don't want too (sic) go."
On a page of paper, a few months earlier, she had written: "Why can't I go home. I am not happy your (sic) makeing (sic) me sad. Let me go home NOW. I want to see mum NOW."
In one escape attempt north of the Coast, the girl walked about 40km. On another, on a recent Sunday morning after an argument with a carer, she travelled in her pyjamas in the winter cold from Toowoomba to Coomera.
"She telephoned me from a shop. She said she had tried to cut her throat and had been taken to a hospital," the friend says.
Since the age of two months, the indigenous child had been placed with the same family, experienced with two decades of care. After a dispute with the area's child support and safety agency, the child was removed without explanation.
Friends acknowledged her "escalating risk-taking, including running away and attempted suicides," led to five subsequent foster care placements and attempted suicides.
Emails reveal Child Safety workers agreed that her original foster carers could have one telephone call a week as they tried to maintain contact and support.
In a letter from Country to Coast Lawyers to Child Safety Minister Di Farmer in July 2018, a solicitor on behalf of the "approved foster parents" asked for an external review of the department service centre.
"We are instructed that the child is repeatedly turning up at the carers' house, often late at night having caught lifts with strangers," the principal solicitor wrote.
"The child is desperately trying to seek out the carers of whom she has been removed from.
"She has reported to the carer that she has in the last week attempted suicide and was removed from a train overpass by police and taken to the hospital and has been threatened by another child at the residential care service and had a knife held to her throat."
The solicitor said her clients had made a complaint against a child safety officer, and ongoing communication had been "inappropriate and retaliatory in the circumstances".
They strongly denied the alleged risk of "emotional harm" towards the child who was
now at risk of significantly greater "harm", the lawyer said.
Ms Farmer's senior policy advisor told the lawyer the confidentiality provisions contained in the Child Protection Act meant she had to be "limited in my response" but the centre would "continue to meet and discuss the safety and ongoing care of (name removed) with key stakeholders". The regional director was monitoring the case.
Emails show a complaint in January 2019 about the girl not having linen in resi-care.
Reports by this newspaper a month later, on a separate case, outlined how taxpayers were coughing up on average $400,000 to $650,000 a year for each child for these contracted agencies, which in some cases had staffers failing to provide enough food for kids in their care.
Other emails confirm Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk's office was contacted and her staff "assured" foster carers that Ms Farmer's office would "undertake action regarding your concerns in due course".
The Child Safety South East Region office undertook an internal review after complaints and was "satisfied that the region did appropriately respond to the concerns" raised about the girl's safety.
Ms Farmer said on Friday: "It is distressing and heartbreaking to hear tragic stories of young women in such terrible circumstances. The department works with children and carers to maintain stable and permanent placements for children who are unable to live at home safely.
"While the department and myself can't comment on specific cases, I know Child Safety works closely with police, non-government agencies and family to support and return missing children safely to their placements including residential care as quickly as possible, even if the child or young person is in phone contact with staff.
"I am advised by the department it is incorrect to state young people need only to call to be classified as present and safe."
Ms Farmer said the department, carers and residential care workers were unable to physically restrain a young person to prevent them leaving a home or residential care.
Children could be moved from foster care for several reasons including a change in their care and support needs or to ensure the child's immediate safety and wellbeing.
The decision was made after a thorough investigation and foster carers could seek a review of department decisions at QCAT, Ms Farmer said.
Several police sources, aware of the girl's case, are furious with Child Safety, saying police will be blamed if something happens to a teenager on the run.
"By their nature children in residential care or care of the state are high-risk individuals and should be reported as missing straightaway if they're not in care," a police source said.
"Kids fall through the cracks and it's up to the diligence of residential care but at the end of the day DOCS are responsible for these children."
Another police source was scathing of Child Safety's record with high-risk children.
"The problems with DOCS is you have kids straight out of uni who don't know what they are doing. They are put in a situation they don't understand and cannot deal with the needs of these kids," the source said.
The girl's foster parents were approached for this story but they cannot comment for legal reasons.
But Opposition frontbencher and Mudgeeraba MP Ros Bates said: "This is another heartbreaking story of a child who has fallen through the cracks of a broken child safety system. It's a miracle that she is still alive and she is in need of urgent intervention and support.
"What makes matters worse is that both the Premier's office and Child Safety Minister's Office were made aware of complaints and it seems nothing was done about them. This is more evidence that the Palaszczuk Labor Government is more concerned about protecting themselves than keeping a roof over the head of vulnerable kids.
"It's another example of why we need an urgent overhaul of Labor's broken system, with the LNP's new Child Protection Force. Our plan also includes more support for foster parents and more long-term care options for vulnerable kids."
The young girl's friends are seeking an independent review.
If you need someone to talk to, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
FROM CHOIR GIRL TO HOMELESS IN A GANG
August 2008: Aged two months, along with four-year-old sister placed with foster carers. They had 20 years experience, two children of their own and cared for four others to adulthood. Older girl was severely traumatised prior to care, due to drug and alcohol problems with birth family.
August 2017: Older sister makes allegations against foster family. Both girls sent to respite care. Police investigate, clear family, view claims as "totally vexatious".
October 2017: Young sister returns to foster family.
February 2018: Older sister makes further complaint.
April 2018: Police investigation again clears family. Foster family says Child Safety officers never interviewed, never told of allegations against them.
May 2018: Younger sister removed from foster family care. Removed from arts group due to foster family involvement. Fails to attend school. Start of five foster care placements and two residential unit placements. Young girl writes: "Let me go home NOW. I want to see mum NOW. I do not want to move schools. Let me call mum every night NOW."
June 2018: Younger sister takes increasing risks to return home. Walks 40km to her foster care home, begins self harming, attempts suicide but intercepted by police and taken to hospital. The Premier's office writes back to foster carers saying "while the Premier takes such matters seriously, she is unable to investigate the issues you have raised directly" and "be assured that Minister Farmer's office will undertake action regarding your concerns in due course".
July 2018: Lawyers for foster family write to Child Safety Minister Di Farmer, warn of concerns, that the 11-year-old girl is catching lifts with strangers to return to their home, only allowed one phone contact a week.
September 2018: Minister Di Farmer's office writes back to lawyers assuring them the department will continue to "meet and discuss the safety and ongoing care" of the child.
December 2018: Text from young girl to foster family: "Love you mummy I might come back to you maby (sic). Mummy child safety don't lisan (sic) I need someone to lisan (sic) to me and help me come home ..."
January 2019: Foster family alerts Child Safety about lack of linen in resi-care. Lodges complaint about the department failing to take action. Despite taking a month to get the bedding, the complaints unit in response says it is "satisfied that the region did appropriately respond to the concerns".
March 2020: Aged 11, the younger sister starts living on the streets with short stints at northern Coast resi-home. Friends who get texts and photographs see she is drinking, taking drugs and chroming. Police and Child Safety warned of incidents including allegations of rape, being choked, thrown out of window. A photograph is sent of the girl with white substance on her tongue.
April 2020: Another street photograph - of the girl drinking with another, sent to Child Safety.
June 2020: The young girl sends photograph of cuts to her arm.
July 2020: Homeless. After receiving a complaint, Police Minister Mark Ryan's office writes to foster carers advising the QPS "have located the child who is safe and well" and police had "progressed the matter" with Child Safety.
Yesterday: Has lost resi-care place because with a gang. Foster care placement unlikely to occur for at least two years. Contact with the department each day by phone. Calls by her support group for an independent inquiry into Child Safety.
Originally published as 'She was singing in a choir, not chroming and using ice'