According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost half of all children placed in home-based care by child protection authorities are placed with relatives, mainly grandparents. Nobody knows exactly how many grandparents are the primary carers for grandchildren. The latest ABS data from 2008 identified 14,000 such families, headed by around 23,000 grandparents.
Joan is one of these largely invisible grandparents. She is a pensioner who lives with her husband in a small town in Central Victoria. She has three children and she loves them all. But one daughter has been dealing with multiple drug addictions since she was 17. This daughter has four children and for three of these children Joan has been their primary carer for most of their lives. Her daughter’s fourth and youngest child lives with Joan’s sister-in-law.
When Joan’s troubled daughter neglected the care of her own children, Joan felt she had no option but to step in for the sake of her grandchildren’s safety and wellbeing. All she wanted was for her grandchildren to be able to live in a stable, settled and safe environment.
‘It is very import for a child to be stable in a home,’ says Joan. ‘When you don’t have stability in a home the children don’t know where they’re going to live… they don’t know if they are going to school, they don’t know if they are going to be bathed today or tomorrow.’
In 2014 Joan sought advice from a private solicitor. ‘We couldn’t really afford the private solicitor in the first place but we needed to know where we stood for the children. And I would have done anything for the children to stay with us.’
Joan could not afford to keep paying for a private solicitor and her matter was unlikely to receive a grant of legal aid. She was referred to Loddon Campaspe CLC. While she had the care of the children, neither she nor they had any legal certainty. Their mother could have turned up at any time and reclaimed her children, and this placed a great strain on all concerned.
‘Before we had any solicitors and any advice we would always just panic that the children’s mother would come and take the children, because I didn’t have any rights to the children. I was a grandparent, but that’s all I was. It was very frightening at first because we had no idea what to do.’
Joan and her husband had been looking after her grandchildren since her daughter left the children in their care in mid-2012. Prior to this, the Department of Human Services had been investigating a notification of child abuse and family violence. There had been 10 previous reports in relation to the children that highlighted concerns for them whilst in the care of their mother. In particular, there were concerns about the mother’s drug use, her transient lifestyle, inadequate housing, family violence and medical neglect.
When Joan visited our service her daughter was in prison, although Joan did not know what she had been convicted of and did not know when her daughter would be released. This was not her daughter’s first prison term.
Joan’s daughter had left her children with her several times in the past. When Joan approached us, she wanted our help to apply for parenting orders, although she wanted her grandchildren to maintain contact with their mother.
‘I’ve always wanted the mother, and the father, to stay in touch with the children. They are their children, not my children.’
We explained to Joan what the court would consider regarding orders and contact between the children and their mother, including each child’s right to have contact with their parent, to be safe from harm and to have their best interests considered.
We advised Joan to commence proceedings in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. Joan’s daughter and the children’s father, from whom Joan’s daughter was separated, were listed as respondents. We also helped Joan to submit a Notice of Risk to the Federal Circuit Court that outlined how the children had been abused or were at risk of abuse.
Although the eldest grandchild had lived with Joan and her husband for around 80% of her life, there had been periods when she and her younger siblings lived with their mother or both parents in Melbourne. For some time they lived in an inner-city industrial building that had made only superficial modifications in order to make it habitable. The property did not have fit and proper bathing facilities or a cooking stove, and the flooring was uncovered concrete. The eldest child often had to sleep on a couch with her mother, and the father often returned home drunk and fought with the children’s mother. On one occasion he punched Joan’s daughter while she was pregnant and trying to protect her eldest child.
‘Their mother and father fought every night. I heard that the father had a gun to the mother’s head, the child was in the room, the eldest one.’
Joan’s brother and his partner, who live in Melbourne, often looked after Joan’s grandchildren. They also witnessed episodes of abuse and neglect, including one instance in which one of the younger children was severely ill but unattended by her mother. On another occasion Joan’s brother had to collect the eldest child from a police station after the mother had been charged with theft. Joan’s brother also discovered that the young boy had never been immunised. Upon further investigation it was discovered that none of the children had been immunised. On another occasion their mother went missing and later claimed she had been kidnapped for three days. There were also reports that the children were not attending school.
At one time, when the children were in Joan and her husband’s care, Joan’s daughter threatened to kill them when they told her they would not hand over the children. Joan’s husband sought and was granted an Intervention Order to protect himself and the grandchildren from Joan’s daughter.
In mid-2013, Joan stayed in Melbourne to look after the youngest while her own mother was dying, and her husband looked after the older children. During this period Child Protection tried unsuccessfully to contact the mother. They advised Joan to keep the children until they could contact their mother. They also advised her to apply for custody.
After contacting our service, we found a barrister who was prepared to offer Joan a reduced rate. The barrister appeared for Joan in 2015. At the time, Joan did not know her daughter’s whereabouts and thought she might be on the run. The children’s father supported Joan’s application. He acknowledged that Joan had never denied him contact with his children when they came to Melbourne or denied him access via telephone. He noted that whenever he had called Joan, she had kept him up to date with what was happening with the children.
In September 2015 Joan successfully gained final orders from the court that stipulated that she be given sole parental responsibility for the children and that they live with her, and that the children spend time with and communicate with their mother and father as agreed by all parties.
When asked if she had any advice for other grandparents in her situation, Joan said ‘If I could say one thing to grandparents, seek help. I don’t think the legal system understands how hard it is for grandparents. ’
Now the children are living with Joan and her husband, they have stability again. ‘The children are wonderful. They’re happy. They’ve got life in their eyes. My sister-in-law used to say about the little boy “his eyes look so dead”. Now they’re clothed, they’re fed, they go camping. They do a lot of sports. There’s life in the children now.’