Court Rules Sect Children Stay In Care
Sydney Morning Herald/1992-05-19
By COL ALLISON
Sixty-five sect children seized in raids on their Sydney homes on Friday remain in the custody of the Department of Community Services at a secret location today after Cobham Children's Court heard allegations of sexual contact between adolescents and adults.
The magistrate, Mr Ian Forsyth, who sat late into the night on what he termed a unique case, "a brand new experience for any court in this State", formally allowed the return to their families of six of the 72 children taken from their homes in the Hills district by police and departmental officers.
A 22-month-old baby from Cherrybrook was also allowed to go home.
The department was pursuing an application for temporary care of the children, aged 2 to 16, whose parents admitted outside the court yesterday that some of them once belonged to the Children of God sect.
A leader of the group, which has communal houses in Cherrybrook, Castle Hill and Baulkham Hills and styles itself "The Family", a loosely knit association of Christian fundamentalists, denied claims that any children had been abused emotionally, physically or sexually.
The father of five seized children, he described the sect's situation as"nothing more than religious persecution".
"We live differently as missionaries. We're against materialism and violence on TV and in literature ... for this we're undergoing psychological torture."
He said that none of the children went to school and they lived in homes -one worth almost $2 million on two hectares of land - in dormitory-style accommodation.
The group survived on donations from people it had helped, and no parent was on the dole.
The spokesman said no charges had been laid and all the parents were angry, bitter and frustrated that their children had been "legally kidnapped" on no more evidence than hearsay from the past.
At the beginning of an extraordinary day of media interviews with lawyers and parents and released children outside the court, groups of the Christian parents who arrived in van after van prayed in the court grounds.
Mr Forsyth and a battery of lawyers representing both sides spoke informally for five hours - in the magistrate's words to "get the ground rules right".
The media contingent was then invited into court, previously closed, individual names were taken and a briefing on their rights given. He said he had no jurisdiction over interviews given outside the court by teenagers freed from their weekend of detention.
At one stage in the lengthy proceedings, a barrister for one family group apologised to the magistrate for an outburst, one of several last night as tempers frayed after a long day.
Dr Greg Woods, QC, representing a family of 11 from Cherrybrook, exasperated by delays, shouted at Mr Forsyth: "This is Gestapo tactics. These children were taken from their beds at 6 o'clock in the morning. You can't delay this for weeks on end."
A few minutes later, another barrister, Mr Robert Cavanagh, representing a Castle Hill family, said there was no suggestion that babies were involved in sexual allegations and demanded they be returned to parents.
"It is a simple proposition, they are babies," he yelled. "They are all children under five and should be given back to their families.
"There's no reason for babies being kept by the State. ... They (the departmental officers) are right out of the ball park in their behaviour, which is outrageous where there are no specific allegations."
Ms Robyn Tupman, QC, representing the Department of Community Services, said that in due course four or five witnesses from NSW and other parts of Australia would be called "who would give evidence in detail on some of the specific allegations, some of the practices in the sect households".
The evidence concerned events that took place 18 months to five years ago, Ms Tupman said.
There had been literature in a household during that period and there was"some evidence in that literature of sexual contact between adolescents and other adolescents in that household and some sexual contact between adults and adolescents," she alleged. "The department fears the practices are likely to continue if the children were returned home," she said.
But four of the children - three teenage boys and a girl - released from custody yesterday denied they were abused in any way by their parents. "Scrap that. There's no such thing like that going on," one of the boys said outside the court yesterday morning. "I can't see why these people are trying to take us away from our parents."
He said he was dragged out of bed a six o'clock on Friday morning.
Mr Forsyth said his biggest concern was for the welfare of the children whose parents had a habit of moving home frequently. He lamented the absence of a formal brief from the department - "I do not have the full story ... I need to see evidence where there might be a case to answer". Nevertheless, he ordered the children remain in care pending the filing of all the affidavits.