Smothered screams

Child protection failures in Australia were highlighted by two brutal deaths in 2001. But there has been liltle official recognition of the scale of the system’s deficiencies, says Chris Goddard.

The brutal murder of Victoria Climbie only briefly attracted the attention of the Australian media. Short accounts appeared in The Age in Victoria and the Sydney Morning Herald in New South Wales.

The UK, of course, has a litany of horrific child abuse deaths, but Australia is developing its own catalogue of brutality and child protection failures. Two more names were added to Queensland’s list recently: Tyler Newton and Beanca Newman.

Tyler Newton died in September 2001 after what Queensland Police described as “relentless bashings” causing “horrific injuries”. Tyler’s step-father, Vernon Mott, repeatedly kicked and punched him. The injuries were similar to those in “a high-speed car crash” with some 57 bruises to 27 parts of the body. The court was told that Tyler was punched with such force that he fell through a door and hit his head on concrete. As is often the case, Mott and Tyler’s mother, Rachel Newton, did not face charges of murder. Torture and assault charges resulted in an eight years prison sentence for Mott and three years for Newton.

These sentences came days after another Queensland couple admitted that they had “hog-tied” an 18-month-old girl to the bed every night for weeks before she was found dead in July 2001. Beanca Newman’s hands and legs were tied behind her back to stop her climbing out of her cot. It is suspected that she rolled onto her stomach and suffocated. The girl’s mother, Rebecca Haliday, and her partner, Ronald Green, were each sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to one charge of manslaughter and 10 charges of common assault.

Crystal Hayes’s name was recently added to South Australia’s list of fatal child abuse victims named in the media. Aged three months, she died in 1999 from severe swelling of the brain caused by shaking. Examination of her body revealed that she had suffered severe bleeding of the brain and spine, and 11 fractures to her arms and legs. Travis Hayes and Rebecca Macaskill, Crystal’s parents, were charged with murder. The charges against Hayes were dropped and he acted as a prosecution witness. Now Macaskill has been found not guilty of manslaughter. The judge gave the mother the benefit of the doubt, as the prosecution could not exclude the possibility that Hayes had inflicted the fatal injuries.

As I have written elsewhere, the UK’s system of child abuse inquiries is deeply flawed for several reasons, not least being that the connections between child abuse and other family (and broader) violence are rarely closely examined.1

But even those flawed inquiries are better than the system or lack of it operating in Australia. There is no uniform child protection legislation, nor is there a uniform system for inquiring into child deaths caused by familial assault. Most states manage to avoid any review at all. Only very occasionally, as in the case of Brooke Brennan, is there any form of official inquiry.

In Queensland and South Australia, children such as Tyler Newton, Beanca Newman and Crystal Hayes have made their brief appearances in our newspaper headlines. Their deaths will probably be quickly forgotten. Child protection – or the lack of it – will probably not be subject to any examination, public or private, rigorous or otherwise.

1 J Stanley and C Goddard, In the Firing Line: Violence and power in child protection work, John Wiley & Sons, 2002

Chris Goddard is director of the Child Abuse and Family Violence Research Unit at Monash University in Australia. He has worked in child protection services in the UK and Australia.

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