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The power of facing unpleasant facts

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On 22 June 2008 SA police arrived at a home in the northern Adelaide suburb of Parafield Gardens. They found six adults and 21 children living in filth.

Police described the house as “abhorrent” and the smell as “putrid”. Rooms were full of unwashed clothes, rubbish, cockroaches; the kitchen was full of the usual (or so we’ve come to expect) filth: flies, maggoty food, as well as faeces smeared on the walls and floor. It hardly needs describing. It’s the unfortunate face of the welfare state, the result of adults who aren’t really adults, left (and financially rewarded) to have children they have no ability to raise.

Authorities removed six of the children and placed them in care. Over the previous four months they had lived in the worst sort of suburban hell; each was suffering from malnutrition, scabies and muscle wastage. They had ulcers on their feet and open sores on their legs. Police had become aware of their plight only when one was taken to hospital with a head injury, suffering severe hypothermia.

These were the children of Luke Armistead. He lived in the house at Casuarina Drive with his girlfriend, Tania Staker, his former stepfather, Robert Armistead, his former partner (mother of five of the six children), as well as her boyfriend, Michael Quinlivian, who in turn was the brother of Staker, herself mother of twelve of the children.

Staker resented her boyfriend’s children from his previous relationship. She made them stand all day facing a wall. At night, their hands and feet were often bound with sticky tape to stop them searching for food. If they were given any it was in the form of noodles, chips or dog food. Later, one of them said, ‘When we woke up, we would have to stand near the wall through the whole day. We never said anything because they would have beaten us up.’

The adults living at Casuarina Drive were arrested and charged with aggravated acts to danger life and aggravated acts creating a risk of serious harm. The children’s biological mother and Staker pleaded guilty and were jailed. The men, who couldn’t see how any of this was their fault, chose to go to trial. It didn’t take a jury long to decide their fates too. They were all locked up.

At her trial Tania Staker told the court she “grew to hate” the children. Her lawyer, Bill Braithwaite, said she resented them “for being there, not just them but (their mother) and the others as well”. Armsitead’s children were a liability, to be (at best) ignored, but (according to Braithwaite), “she thought if she treated them so badly they would leave”.

 

Why, in a society that has every advantage, do we keep reading this story? Why are there, according to the ABS, 605,000 children living in disadvantage? Possibly because of the 1.3 million jobless families (where no one aged 15 or over is employed). But, each of these has access to free (although variable, depending on where you live) education, as well as supports for the disabled, single mothers, unemployed (anyone, really, who’s vulnerable). Has welfare itself become a stake that keeps the sapling weak? Have we created a subculture of dependence?

Fifty-one per cent of these families had children, lived in a rental home and relied on Newstart Allowance (many after having been taken off parenting payments). Despite what anyone might think about these statistics, the problem was (and is) the effect on children. Out-of-school activities, dental check ups, school clothes, even separate beds, had been sacrificed to buy groceries and pay utility bills. The report concluded: “The level of multiple deprivations … was extremely high.”

This is not one problem, but dozens, each overseen by different government agencies, charities, schools, framed against different social settings. Regional towns and Aboriginal communities are even worse off.

 

In describing why he chose to become a writer, George Orwell said: “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.”

Like Orwell, the late Christopher Hitchens realised that writers were, in a way, the opposite of power-seekers, corporate and political. He expanded Orwell’s thought. What if you were a Russian commissar? What if you realised your five-year plan would in fact take eight? Would you say: We got it wrong? Let’s try again. Or would you (faced with a firing squad) try and shift the blame? You could say: The peasants didn’t work hard enough. You could shoot a few for good measure. You could use propaganda to convince them they must work harder. Hitchens suggested this happens everywhere.

 

On 31 May 2013 the results of an inquiry into the causes of ‘the house of horrors’ was handed down by the chairwoman of the ominously-named Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee, Deej Eszenyi, and the SA Child Development Minister Jennifer Rankine. It had taken five years to apportion blame, political and otherwise. And the result? According to Eszenyi, they could not find any wrongdoing by any agency.  “We have not observed that anything went wrong,” she said.

This sounded part Yes, Minister, part Orwell, part silliness. The Government had looked at itself and decided it was free of blame. Reporters at the press conference shook their heads and muttered. The committee’s conclusion was this: “Our review has demonstrated to us that these children were virtually unknown to the system.” Key words: “virtually”, “the system”. That seemed to leave things open. Virtually: well, sort of, a bit. The system: no, not us, some other guys, in some other department. It wasn’t hard to guess the sorts of excuses the committee must have heard.

The reasoning was that the government couldn’t be watching everyone: “Our job is not to look for ‘did anyone do anything wrong’. Something went very wrong for these children. The question is how do state authorities know that that is happening?”

Minister Rankine knew she was in for a rough ride. Why had it taken five years to reach a conclusion? Why had the government sat on the report since October 2012? How could the suffering of these six children be dismissed with the explanation that no government agency or employee “had the full picture” or “knew that the six children were in the house”. All this despite the fact that the family had been in receipt of welfare payments.

The most the Government would concede was that poor information sharing between relevant agencies was mainly to blame. The committee believes that if departments had shared information “there was a possibility that the house might have been entered before the crimes against these children occurred”.

The result of the inquiry was 32 recommendations. Rankine said the government had accepted all of the recommendations “in full or in principle” (and it remains to be seen what “principle” means).

But is this really what Orwell called ‘the power of facing unpleasant facts’? The Government had known about conditions in Casuarina Court. The committee acknowledged Housing SA had received reports about conditions in the house. These reports pre-dated the arrival of the six children, so, apparently, they were irrelevant. According to News Ltd journalist Margaret Scheikowski, the committee “did not prepare a report on the circumstances of the case, such as whether government agencies had visited the household and if so, when and why”.

It was almost as though the terms of reference had left us without answers to some of the most important questions.

A few hours after the reports findings (or lack thereof) were handed down, child protection expert Freda Briggs said: “We are being deprived of information about what went wrong despite different agencies being responsible for the children’s situation. The bottom line seems to be the claim that no one did anything wrong … rather than providing an identification of what went wrong.”

On the same day The Advertiser claimed “a welfare worker saw the conditions inside the house but did not raise the alarm”. Rankine argued this worker did not go into the house or sight the children. Since this person did not “visit the house in the course of her work”, no disciplinary action was taken. As The Advertiser rightly points out, this is despite Rankine stating everyone had a moral obligation to report child abuse.

The power of facing unpleasant facts?

Opposition child development spokesman David Pisoni stated he believed “the government has concentrated on covering up rather than fixing up”.

This is how it looks. Long delays, an apparent lack of accountability at any level, much paper shuffling, many committee meetings, no one reprimanded, or sacked, the explanation that “legal considerations prevent [the government] from revealing who was responsible or exactly how the system failed the children”.

Perhaps there’s no point blaming government agencies. Maybe every society has its fair share of dysfunction? If that’s the case, maybe it’s attitude: politicians, employers, the better-off. If we want to accept there are badlands, with imaginary borders, and that we can be safe by staying within our own sovereign suburbs, then things will never improve for kids living in their own houses of horrors.

 

Of course, Orwell wrote more than one book. In The Road to Wigan Pier he investigated the miserable living conditions of people in the industrial north of England. Today, some of this seems familiar. After describing a family that lived in “an endless muddle of slovened jobs”, he says: “But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialization has done for us.”

No one is saying that things are as bad as they were, but the revelations of the ‘house of horrors’ suggests they’re not as good as they might be. If public servants, paid to do the job, can find no fault on the part of other public servants, also paid to do their job, then who’s for the kids? A few journalists, avoiding the latest footy scores? What about our leaders? When do they wander the no-go zones in our outer suburbs?

To me, as with so many others, it all comes back to Orwell. He reckoned people should know what’s going on in their own back yard (kind of ironic, given the mess at Casuarina Drive). He thought we should do something about it. But he knew we’d been distracted. In Wigan Pier he says: “It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist …”

Stephen Orr is an Adelaide writer. His novel, Time’s Long Ruin, which retold the story of the 1966 disappearance of the Beaumont Children, was  shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His most recent novel, Dissonance (Wakefield Press, July 2012), is a re-imagining of the domestic lives of Rose and Percy Grainger.

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