Threat to Kill Son Finally Stirs Authorities to Act

Last June Lyn Bicknell went to her local police station and told officers that if they did not help her she would kill her intellectually disabled son.

As desperate as she was – having just been pinned to a chair by the knife-wielding 15-year-old – she admits she would never have gone through with it. She also knew that making the threat was the only way she could ensure her son would be cared for.

The law requires that fault be found with parents to enable child protection authorities to take a child into state care. Within hours, Kurt was taken to an emergency residential care unit. He now calls home the supported accommodation he shares with three other teenage boys.

Just weeks later, in a nearby Melbourne suburb, Janis* dropped her 17-year-old son off at his special school, as usual. Only this time she did not return. Instead, the Department of Human Services took Jack* to respite care. He now lives in supported accommodation.

Lyn and Janis are among about 50 Victorian families who relinquish their disabled children into state care each year, according to a report to be released by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission today.

The report is the first to look at the relinquishment of disabled children, whereby families surrender the day-to-day care of their children to the state.

Of the 4064 children living in out-of-home care in Victoria in June last year, 579 had a disability, according to the report.

Acting Commissioner Karen Toohey said the report was commissioned after anecdotal reports of an increase in families relinquishing children or threatening to do so.

”There has never been any measurement of this and there was concern that … a lot more families could end up in this terrible situation,” she said.

The commission found that an ”unmet need for support” and a fragmented and unnavigable service system were the key risk factors that led families to relinquish children.

The key to avoiding relinquishment was a ”rapid and early response” for at-risk families, including more respite care.

”It seems that families were only getting this support once they relinquished their child or were at crisis point. By then it was too late,” Ms Toohey said.

The report also recommended: improved interaction between family services, as recommended by the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry; that the children’s commissioner oversee children in out-of-home care; that relinquishment be a mandatory reporting item for the Department of Human Services, and that the DHS test and develop a range of behaviour supports to prevent relinquishment.

The recommendations reflect the solutions both Lyn and Janis have wanted for years.

”That’s all we ever wanted,” said Lyn, who fostered, then adopted Kurt when he was three.

She said her son was ”pretty happy” in his new home. She saw him once a week.

”I love that boy but without that support I just couldn’t care for him any more,” she said. ”It broke my heart.”

Janis agreed that no family should go through the grief and horror of giving up a child when adequate help wasn’t provided.

”It was just horrendous. It was my husband on the floor crying … It was me closing down my business for six months … You just feel like such a failure.”

* Names have been changed.

For help or information visit beyondblue, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.

Rachel Wells
The Age
Monday 21st May, 2012

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