Earlier this year our Advocacy Health Alliance Lawyer received a referral for Teresa* via her Family Support Worker. Teresa is in her late 20s and has six children, five of whom had recently been returned to her full-time care after involvement with the Department of Human Services.
Teresa was facing numerous driving offences that, as a result of her significant history of similar traffic offences, put her at risk of imprisonment. If she was gaoled, her kids would have been placed into foster care and would most likely have been separated. To make matters worse, the police were also applying for forfeiture of her car, which she owned outright and which had been especially fitted out to seat all of her kids.
Teresa’s personal circumstances were exceptionally difficult. In addition to caring for her children as a single mother, Teresa was also grappling with her own mental health issues, including a major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder. These problems largely arose from her own history of trauma and neglect as a child and young person who cycled in and out of state care. She had also been the victim of significant family violence and had recently spent time in a refuge with her children.
After meeting with Teresa in the company of her family support worker, we arranged to obtain a short report from our client’s psychologist and letters from her GP and other professional support people. These letters clearly indicated the significant issues facing Teresa and made a case for their relevance in sentencing. Teresa’s charges were transferred to the Magistrates’ Court’s Special Needs List and a report was prepared by the Court Mental Health Liaison Officer in support of her situation.
We asked the Magistrate to consider a sentencing order that allowed our client to continue to parent her children and to work with the services and professional supports she had in the community. We also argued that forfeiture of her car would cause exceptional hardship to the family.
Ultimately, Teresa was convicted but not further punished for her offences. The forfeiture application that would have seen her lose her car was struck out and the Magistrate, who was sympathetic to her situation, took no action against her driver’s licence.
*Not her real name or image Image: Steve Rhode CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr