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Richardson: The terrible truth behind Chloe's death

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Chloe Valentine was only four years old when her mother, a heavy-drinking drug abuser and sometime prostitute named Ashlee Polkinghorne – together with her temperamental, controlling then-boyfriend Benjamin McPartland – put her on a 50CC motorbike in the backyard of their Ingle Farm home.

They laughed as they filmed her screaming as she sat atop the machine while it lurched and crashed around the yard, hitting a shed, pot plants, a sparse lemon tree. They laughed as they filmed her falling off, repeatedly.

Several times over three days, they fished the 17kg girl out from beneath the 50kg bike and, ignoring her protestations, placed her back on its seat. Finally, as Chloe lay unconscious, dying, her mother and her boyfriend smoked dope, trawled social media, logged onto their online bank accounts and, at length, pondered on Google what to do with a young child who’d been unconscious for eight hours.

By the time they called an ambulance, it was far too late.

Chloe’s story has simultaneously captivated and repelled the state, no less of late as her story has been forensically examined, yet again; this time in a coronial inquest.

READ MORE: Families SA ‘condoned’ drug use: inquest

One winces to throw out that cliché – “as a parent, I…” – but in truth who cannot think of their own child as a toddler and wonder who could inflict such callous torture?

Because of the legal sensitivities of court reporting, reader feedback has not been sought in most online media coverage of the case, but opinion website MamaMia invited readers’ comments when it ran a version of the story back in March, as Polkinghorne and McPartland were awaiting what turned out to be four-year prison sentences.

Needless to say, there were a few variants on the “Some people should not be allowed to have children” theme, underscored by varying amounts of bile.

“Can we not use the word “mother” here? This piece of trash was no mother,” wrote one contributor.

“BOTH of those mungrilles should be carstrated (sic)… with no anaesthetic!!!!!!!! and with a rusty knife,” wrote another.

There is no doubt Polkinghorne and McPartland were cruel and stupid.

Their actions were dumb and selfish.

Were they evil?

Polkinghorne was 15 years old when she gave birth to Chloe, whom she immediately branded a “bitch” before allegedly expressing relief that she could now drink alcohol again.

She is not a character that invites much empathy, let alone sympathy. The general view is, I suspect, something along the lines of the MamaMia readers’ comments quoted above, whether those harbouring it feel the need to share it in online forums or not: People like this shouldn’t be allowed to breed. And at its dark heart, it is driven by a tacit sense of socio-economic snobbery.

The late British Tory Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s moral touchstone, raised hell in a 1974 speech at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham, wherein he sounded a call to arms to “remoralise our national life”.

The part that caused widespread revulsion (and ultimately cruelled his chance to be Conservative Party leader, opening the door for Thatcher herself) was when he mused on the cycle of economic deprivation, suggesting that the poor should ease up on procreation.

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened,” he warned.

“A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness which are more important than riches.”

Now, Joseph’s conclusion is not a sentiment with which I agree but it’s amazing how much of his zeal, so controversial 40 years ago, has found its echo in the tutting murmurs of public dismay, or in the columns of comments footnoting news reports of cases such as Chloe Valentine’s.

I’m going to do something radical here. I’m not going to take the obvious opportunity to kick the state’s child protection system.

Here’s another edited comment from MamaMia’s site wrap: “Whilst child abuse does occur in all societies and demographics it is overwhelmingly more prevalent at the lower income end. The proposition that the government will pay you to have and raise a child is irresistable (sic) to those too stupid or too lazy to otherwise contribute to society. Resultant children are neither wanted nor valued…Contraception needs to be free. More than that, it needs to be actively encouraged.”

That viewpoint garnered 46 “likes”, the highest approval ranking of any of the comments.

The anonymous reader went on: “Child protection services need to be funded according to need. At risk children must be removed. Not children after they have been abused. Before. When they are identified as being at risk.”

This, again, echoes a sentiment that held sway throughout the more than 100 comments on the site.

Things like: “Gggggrrr makes me so angry this poor baby suffered because our child protection system isn’t good enough!!!”

Or: “I just can’t believe the system keep failing these kids over and over again!”

State coroner Mark Johns seems to agree. He is rightly raking over the coals to assess the culpability of Families SA and others in the chain of events.
Counsel assisting the coroner Naomi Kereru set the tone at the outset with the observation that the community expected Families SA to protect children who were at risk of, or were suffering, neglect.

It’s a sensitive area at the best of times, but Families SA is a soft target right now; the Department of Education and Child Development is seen as broken, unresponsive, a failure.

Families SA authorities were aware of Polkinghorne’s frequent drug use; they were aware, at least at times, of the squalid condition of her house, with a case worker even helping her clean it on one occasion. They were aware of numerous child welfare reports by close family members, including Polkinghorne’s father.

According to evidence to the inquest, once McPartland arrived on the scene, things got worse for Chloe, who was often confined to her room and monitored via CCTV. If she tried to leave the room, she was showered with abuse. McPartland allegedly boasted of making the little girl stand in the corner for hours while he got wasted; when she fell asleep he woke her up and forced her to stand until morning. The house was a site for drug-fuelled parties. Polkinghorne regarded herself as a more attentive mother when she was high.

For a time, though, she would leave her daughter in the care of a friend, whom she’d asked to be Chloe’s godmother. Once she didn’t return for over a month.

Chloe’s godmother told the inquest after four years of fruitlessly reporting problems to Families SA, she had “given up”.

Megan Cheverton, the Families SA supervisor who dealt with Polkinghorne until her case was referred to an intensive support unit, was asked why Chloe had not been removed from her mother’s so-called ‘care’.

“In order to remove a child, you have to have evidence that the child is at serious risk or in imminent danger,” she told the inquest.

“It’s very difficult to draw a line between less-than-ideal parenting and abusive parenting.”

I’m going to do something radical here. I’m not going to take the obvious opportunity to kick the state’s child protection system.

Yes, there has been a failure. A child has died. But it’s interesting that the first reaction of so many is to blame the authorities, rather than the child’s own mother, by whose hand she was killed.

Addressing the systemic flaws in this case is a matter for the coroner. But Families SA functions in a hideous, imperfect realm; there is no ideal outcome.

As a country, we have spent much of the past two decades rightly berating misguided historic policies to rip “at risk” Aboriginal children from their families and into the guardianship of the state.

And yet with each child protection failure that hits our headlines, we shake our heads with dismay that the state couldn’t summon the fortitude to remove the child before they came to harm. And again, there is the ripple of a silent undercurrent not of racial prejudice but of class condescension, bubbling deep below the genuine fears for children’s safety. Some people shouldn’t be allowed to breed.

Questions of staffing and resourcing are another matter, but the fact is, Families SA has operated under the general assumption that children should, where possible, remain with their families.

If they operated differently, there would be a different kind of uproar.

In the case of poor Chloe Valentine, though, this assumption had fatal consequences.

Salvation Army supervisor Katie Lawson told the coronial inquest she reported numerous concerns about the squalid conditions in which Polkinghorne lived in Salvos housing shortly after Chloe was born. But when she was evicted, Lawson gave the young mother a positive reference, even congratulating her on her efforts with her infant daughter.

“I think Ashlee had a lot of potential … as her support worker, I did not feel it was appropriate to condemn her any further than she was probably already being,” The Advertiser quotes her as saying, which drew a sharp retort from the coroner: “Don’t you think people like Ashlee need a good dose of truth? She deserved condemnation, rather than praise!”

The exchange reminded me of another excerpt from Joseph’s infamous speech: “Parents are being divested of their duty to provide for their family economically, of their responsibility for education, health, upbringing, morality, advice and guidance, of saving for old age, for housing. When you take responsibility away from people you make them irresponsible.”

It would be a taciturn tribute to Chloe’s memory if her death at least hastened systemic change that might, perhaps, save someone else’s child. But in our haste to demonise her criminally irresponsible mother and her boyfriend, and to blame the underfunded and underwhelming child protection system, we lose sight of the tragedy at the heart of this case, the tragedy that explains why Chloe was left to die in her mother’s lax care despite repeated warnings.

Because right up until the moment she died, there was nothing exceptional about her predicament.

It was something child protection workers see every day.

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

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