Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The House of Horror – An Alternate View


There has much been written and reported about the terrible conditions in which children were found living in an outer suburb of Adelaide. The parents involved have been sentenced up to six years for the abuse which occurred there. The government has undertaken an inquiry into how key child protection authorities were unaware of what was happening but the inquiry was placed on hold until the police had declared that the matter has been fully investigated. Apparently this has only happened recently even though the matter was first brought to public attention in 2008 and it has been sometime since the parties concerned have been sentenced.

“The House of Horrors” is an unfortunate term used by the media to define public concern at what happened in this home. The main protagonist according to the media is Tania Staker who, as the mother of twelve of the children in the house, but not the biological mother of those who were most at risk, is the major focus of the media coverage and is portrayed as an evil woman who needs to be hated and reviled for what she allowed to happen in this home.

It is about time that I talked about my experience of Tania and what working with her meant, as well as the conflicts this presented in terms of my own practice as a Social Worker. But to start with, I need to make a firm statement that at no point do I condone the behaviour of any of the adults in this home nor do I condone the abuse meted out to these children. What happened should not have happened and these children should have been protected. However, they weren’t.

Soon after the children were removed from their home I was contacted by a colleague who was doing some advocacy work with Tania. At this point it wasn’t clear what had happened except that the conditions of the home were appalling and that a number of children were removed. In the first instance Tania and her children were removed and placed in a home especially designed to house so many children. At this point Families SA (FSA) clearly were not concerned about Tania and her ability to care for her own children. Nor were there any allegations made against Tania in regard to her treatment of the other four children. My understanding, from conversations with Tania, was that there were no care issues in regard to Tania’s treatment of her own children until the allegations were made against her by children who were not her responsibility. If she was as wicked a woman as the media had us believe, then why weren’t her children removed from her at the moment the house was raided by police and child protection officers?

While the blame is levelled at Tania there are a number of issues which have not been addressed. For example, Tania and her ten children were living in Geelong for a number of years. During that time they were known to child protection services primarily because of the violence of the children’s father. The level of violence was of the most extreme nature. This in and of itself should have been enough for child protection services to have been involved and to have put in place some protection for the Staker children. It didn’t happen. The inability for states to share files and to follow up on families who move from one state to another is a failing of the system. At what point were FSA notified of this family? If it was prior to the raid why didn’t they take action earlier? If Tania Staker knew her children were likely to be removed because she was not providing adequate care I am convinced she would have done whatever was requested of her. Her children are extremely important to her.

To some extent the failure of the system is culpable and someone needs to take responsibility for this failure. Perhaps the Minister?

I know that this matter was initially seen as a political issue because it was an opportunity for the government to demonstrate that they were taking strong action against child abuse I also know that the planning and most of the decisions which were made regarding the removal of Tania’s children were coming from above the regional manager of FSA and that there was political influence which wasn’t necessarily in accord with the managers, supervisors and Social Workers who had to do the ground work and finally remove the children. I know that there was much discontent around the way all of this unfolded. At this point the level of abuse was unknown yet the political involvement indicates that the number of children involved made the case special and needed to be handled in a different way. It needed to be public and it needed to be seen as strong and impressive.

The final allegations made against the adults living in the house set the stage for Mr Rann to stand strong on his fight against crime and now he had child protection too for his “tough on crime” mantra. What makes this particularly sad is that the media jumped in to support him by helping to present a scapegoat – a woman who presents poorly in public and who has the public face of a woman who is to be hated.

Let me tell you what I know of the true Tania Staker. Tania is a loving and caring woman who has lived with violence and every type of abuse you can imagine her whole life. Tania sought love in her children because it was from them that she was loved unconditionally, particularly when they were very young. After her children were removed there wasn’t a time when Tania didn’t cry because she was grieving for her children. For what it is worth, I like Tania. The pictures depicting her in the papers were not the Tania I knew.

I can remember, quite early in my contact with Tania, that I returned home from visiting her and my wife asked me how my day was and I broke down in tears. I had heard some stories about what had happened in the house and what was allegedly Tania’s involvement. It didn’t match with the woman I knew. I couldn’t believe that this was happening, I was in total confusion and I was deeply distressed. How could I like a woman who was so vile and abusive? I have trained myself as a Social Worker to see through the behaviour and acknowledge that the behaviour is not “the person”, that people represent more than just their behaviour. I have been working with violent men for many years and found that this was very helpful in developing different ways of working with them and was a way by which I wouldn’t judge. It also gave me the ability to be confrontational, respectful and creative. But with Tania I was completely lost.

I came to realise that regardless of the stories and the way she was presented in the press I had to follow my assessment and what I saw and experienced of her. I had to firmly stick to my Social Work principles and I had to acknowledge that it was my view which was important to me and that is what determined my practice. There was one problem that I struggled to deal with until recently. Most people I met couldn’t see through the image that was presented by the stories and what happened in that home. Does Tania deserve to be understood? Is there a certain set of behaviours where you no longer express any understanding?

I once said to Tania – “It appears to me that your life has been full of violence.” She began to cry because this was a statement of fact and was probably the first time it had been acknowledged. I had heard about the pattern of drinking and violence she had experienced from the day she was born until the very present. I wondered how a person lives through that level of violence and how one sustains a sense of self, unless of course you try to invent that over and over again in each child you have. There is no doubt that Tania attempted to give her children as much love as she could, and there is no doubt that she loved them. It is interesting that there have never been any allegations levelled at Tania about her children being abused. I can tell you that the feelings she held towards the younger children of the other family were different to those she felt for her own children. But where were the parents of those other children, particularly the mother? I know where the father was, he was abusing Tania. The space Tania found herself in was one of confusion and fear. She spent time at the hotel gambling and attempting to forget not only what was happening in the home but also the traumas of the past. It was a place that few of us would understand. There were six adults living there and Tania was being abused by most of them, particularly her partner at the time, the father of the children who were taken to hospital. She told me one story in particular of a situation where she was being violently abused by her partner in front of the younger children and how they were encouraged to be involved in the abuse. For Tania, too, it was a ‘House of Horror’.

There is no doubt in my mind that Tania was the scapegoat and yet her story has never been told. I was never told anything about the allegations which brought her before the court because her lawyer believed this would be unhelpful. Tania desperately needed someone to talk to about these events but complied with her lawyers’ wishes.

At no point did anyone talk to me about the work I had done with Tania. No one was interested in an alternate view, not even her lawyer. At no point did FSA invite me to the many meetings Tania had with them. I was irrelevant to Tania’s story. I offered nothing which would enhance their distorted view of her. No one was prepared to stand by her and explain the circumstances which lead to the abuse.

Why is it that we have the recurring image of Tania giving the fingers up sign to the media? Why don’t we have a picture of the mother of the children who were abused or pictures of the four men who were present in the home at the time? We are obsessed with mother-blaming and are reluctant to look to the men who are often perpetrators of violence and who, in this case, were responsible for what eventually occurred.

One social worker was assigned to work with the Staker children and Tania. I doubt if that worker knew anything about Tania’s past and what happened to her in that home. I wonder how she survived the conflict she must have felt between the way Tania presented and what was reported. It is very confusing I know to be landed with two sets of conflicting information. I can only imagine that acting as a Social Worker in this situation would have been very stressful. At one level there was the political push to have this matter resolved quickly, at another you would know that it would be unwise to present the alternate view and to advocate for Tania and her children.

The best indication I had as to what was happening to this worker was when I was present at a Care and Protection Meeting and I Tania’s Case Worker was present and she refused to look at me. I was the enemy, when really I was doing my job. It was at this meeting that I was told that I couldn’t make any statement at all. This was a new rule brought in to silent me in this particular case I believe. I actually didn’t realise that I was so important.

I often wonder about the children. I know that some of them had abusive experiences while in state care. For the younger children I hope they have a better life and get to know their mother at some stage even though I have my doubts that the State will ever allow that to happen. Some of the children will be damaged for the rest of their lives unless the appropriate services are put in place. My guess is that the State figures it has done its job because the adults are jailed. What are they going to do when these adults and particular Tania wants to meet with her children? She is not a danger to her children and needs to have appropriate access to them. Perhaps that is why they have sent her to Pt Augusta to serve her sentence.

My greatest fear was that by presenting my view of her would have destroyed my credibility as a Social Worker. I no longer care about that. I do the best I can and if people don’t like the way I assess clients and the way I see my world and that of clients, then I frankly don’t care.

The writing of this should have been done a long time ago. I apologise to Tania and her children for not having done so.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Open letter to Minister Rankine

I have decided to include an email that I have sent to Minister Rankine who is the Minister responsible for Child Protection in this state. I know that I have taken all the proper steps at this stage to have this matter resolved but have failed dismally when it comes to having someone recognise the injustice. Hopefully the Minister will have the guts to do something about it. Stay posted for any updates.


Dear Minister Rankine,
I have been working with the parents of A for over two years. My role has been to work with the parents so that they could have their daughter returned to them. My goal is to give those who are most disempowered a voice when they are least likely to be heard.  During this period I have had a number of conversations with David Waterford and Roger McCarron regarding this family and the injustice surrounding the removal of A. Over the journey I have raised many of B and C’s concerns regarding the care arrangements of their daughter. To say that I am frustrated, annoyed and angry by the way this family has been treated is an understatement. I have been grateful for the time David and Roger have afforded me by listening to my continual stream of complaints but all of this has come to nothing.

The primary issue here is that your department failed to understand the mental wellbeing issues surrounding B at the time B called your department for help, particularly her Post Natal Depression. I won’t go through the long and drawn out history of this case but it is important to understand that at this point in these parents life, they have a good relationship, there are not mental health concerns and they have secured long term accommodation. There is no drug or alcohol abuse. There is no domestic violence. Their home is immaculately kept. B is undertaking a bridging course at Flinders University so that she can enter university next year to study Social Work. Given these circumstances alone the child should be returned to her parents. I have observed these parents with their child and I can assure you that they are more than competent loving parents who would never harm their daughter.

The child is now living with her maternal grandfather and his partner. We have raised a series of concerns regarding the grandfather which were never investigated at the time that the child was placed with him. None of these concerns have been treated seriously by your Department. Recently it was reported by the child that she had made reference to the grandfather’s penis . It was discovered that he still showers with the grandchild, who is four. We mentioned the inappropriateness of this to your department. They stated that they had discussed this with the grandfather and then provided an excuse for this sort of behaviour. It was also disclosed by the mother that the grandfather was known for flashing himself at the women who use to live next door to him when B was a child. We also know that this man was extremely violent to his ex-wife, B’s mother. We also know that this wasn’t investigated until last year after we raised the issue and the psychologist who provided a review of the situation had to ask him about this. It is evident from his response that he doesn’t take any responsibility for his behaviour and still blames his ex-wife for his behaviour. Your department failed to understand that the potential for violence from this man is extreme and that the child is potentially at risk from a number of fronts.

Last year we were seeking to have the child have an overnight stay at Christmas. At that time the parents were seeing their daughter weekly on a Friday. The department decided that they needed to have a review of the child situation to see if this was appropriate. The review was presented to the parents at the Marion office and was the worst moment I as a Social Worker have ever experienced. Even though the attachment was now viewed as satisfactory and the report in general was favourable the Psychologist in her limited experience and limited practice wisdom recommended that contact be cut from one full day per week to two hours a fortnight. This was so out of left field that none of us in our wildest dreams would have thought that the department would make such a suggestion. Remember that this was meant to be a review to see if over-night access was appropriate for Christmas. It is difficult to describe the level of betrayal I felt from David Waterford. Why were these parents punished for wanting to spend Christmas with their daughter and watch her open her presents in the morning when she woke up. They have not had that joy for many years. Why would you deprive them not just of that but take away their time with their daughter? Particularly when your own report doesn’t identify any risk factors. It appears to me that your department is so risk averse that you are afraid to make changes that are in fact in the best interest of the child. You have inexperienced staff who are making decisions which are counter to your mandate because they are fearful that they may be making a mistake but when they do, as they have in this case, they haven’t the courage to admit the error but instead retreat further from the parents and try to alienate them all in the guise of protecting the child.

The parents, in an effort to prove that they are good parents and that the issues where presented by the department at the outset were changed, asked an independent Forensic Psychologist to assess them. They had to borrow $1,300 for this assessment. You will find the report attached. In this report it confirmed all that I had been telling David. However your department saw fit to rip shreds of Dr White and his report.

I had posted here David Waterford’s response to the report but due to such a negative response I have chosen to remove it from this post.

It is clear that conversations with David and your department are fruitless and the risk aversion your staff display will always remain as a barrier to productive and professional social work. I am asking you to review this matter and to take definitive action which will ensure that this child is protected and returned to her parents. I have asked David to conduct an independent review of this families current situation but he has failed to do so. I urge you to accept the notion that occasionally your staff get it wrong. I urge you in good conscience to rectify this gross miscarriage of justice and to accept that peoples circumstances can change, and that when that happens those people need to be rewarded, and that ultimately children need to live with their biological parents if their parents can provide them with a safe and nurturing environment.

Unfortunately the legislation doesn’t allow parents who have changed circumstances to return to court so we are reliant on your good will and professionalism to ensure that parents like B and C have your support so that you can return to court and amend the current order.

This is my final effort to engage with your department to resolve this issue. If this child isn’t returned to her parents she will be damaged for life and those responsible will be you, David and those who have worked to keep her away from her parents. There will be a time when A will talk about her experiences in care and the confusion which will exist for her as to why she was kept with her aging grandparents and not living with her capable loving parents. We are not able to hold you accountable for any action you have taken which will damage this child but we can find ways to make this issue more public. Only you can decide what damage that may cause.

I would like a meeting with you so that we can all decide and a way forward.
I am looking forward to your response.


Tony Tonkin BSW MAASW
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker
Web www.respectfulworkplace.com.au
Blog http://socialworkchallenges.blogspot.com
Ph Mob 0414 883 153

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oranges and Sunshine

This week I took the opportunity to see the Australian movie, Oranges and Sunshine. Through the eyes of a social worker and the adults who were sent to Australia as children, this story highlights the work of one person, Margaret Humphries, a UK Social Worker, to seek some understandings as to why these children were sent to Australia and the damage done to them. The focus of the her work was to seek an explanation as to why they were deported, seek an apology for the way these children were treated, to acknowledge the damage done and for there to be some kind of healing.

This was an honest interpretation of what Social Workers are capable of doing. She discovered an issue which has never been fully explored before and chose to follow it through as far as possible. She was able to uncover a great injustice by enquiring and wondering. Her legacy will live on long after she has gone.


I often wonder how others in this profession reflect on their practice. How do we go about having those moments where we think about what we do? How do we evaluate them, assess them and then finally say yes that was good, it was bad, it was really bad, or it was the worst I have ever worked?

Recently I had a client tell me that they were not finding the process very helpful. I thought that was a straight forward, honest, blunt and probably accurate comment. I had just finished a busy day and was on call for an organisation to whom I contract. I have been on call non stop now for a long time. I was tired, very tired, but I felt obligated to take the call. I also know that, depending on the nature of the call some of them can present interesting challenges, but I know that I am often tuned in regardless of how tired I may be feeling. I need to say that waking up early in the morning when I am still waking up and attempt to sound interested when I am stark naked desperately trying to get dressed with one hand and sounding cool and in control so that I don’t further distress an already distressed client. I can remember feeling embarrassed as I hovered on one foot attempting to lower the weary leg into a large sleave which kind of resembled a singular trouser leg. I was so drowsy that I imagined the client witnessing this crazy act.

A part from the downright ludicrous such as the colleague who after returning from an overseas flight went straight to work and while with a client fell asleep. The client looking for self improvement at any level woke my colleague and told her that she just realised how boring she must be and that she needed to do something about that and as she was leaving thanked the worker for this valuable lesson. It just goes to show that if the client is focussed on success then it probably doesn’t matter what we do.

However a process of reflection is something worth building into our practice. There is something stimulating about considering the work you have done and rejoicing in the good work you have done. But there are times as was with the client mentioned above I wasn’t perhaps doing my best work.

We need to be open to the idea that perhaps we are not as focussed as we should be and that from time to time we need someone to remind us that the work we are doing is not up to scratch. This doesn’t have to be the client but can be another worker or observer. How often though do we feel uncomfortable with that feedback? How indignant do we become that someone could find fault with the work we are doing. How arrogant and unhelpful it is to assume the the work we do should not be critiqued or that it is perfect and therefore without fault. How are we to learn if we don’t offer ourselves up for criticism. It saddens me to see professionals so resistant to being critiqued. It is damaging to the profession, the worker and the client for us not to receive the reflection we need in order to improve our practice.