Sect Warns Of $10M Damages Claim Over Raids
Sydney Morning Herald/1992-07-27
By COL ALLISON
Lawyers representing the religious sect "The Family" have warned that a $10 million damages action may result from the unprecedented legal tug-of-war with the Department of Community Services over the fate of 65 sect children.
"If the department loses its action, as we expect it will since there is no real evidence the children are in any danger, we will sue for $10 million damages for false imprisonment and psychological harm to the children," said a solicitor, Mr Sean McNally, of lawyer Mr Chris Murphy's office, which represents most of the parents.
The case, unique in Australian legal history, begins today and is expected to last four months and cost a minimum of $2.5 million in costs alone.
The clerk of Cobham Children's Court at Werrington, near Penrith, Mr Greg Fleming, said 38 subpoenas had been issued by the prosecution and 20 of the 160 witnesses expected to be called would travel from interstate, some from as far as Western Australia and north Queensland.
"We've got 1,500 separate items of evidence, including tapes, cassettes, books and pamphlets, and a mountain of paper from 150 affidavits," he said. "There's never been a hearing like this."
The controversial case began in May when 30 Community Services and Police Department officers staged a dawn raid on rented communal houses occupied by the Christian fundamentalist sect in The Hills district of Sydney's north-west.
They kicked in doors, waved warrants at astonished parents and dragged sleeping children aged as young as two from their beds in Cherrybrook, Baulkham Hills and Kenthurst.
They bundled 72 children, including a five-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, into waiting buses and drove off to three separate detention centres, refusing the parents access for several days while "interviewing" took place.
In Victoria, simultaneous early morning swoops resulted in the seizure of another 70 sect youths up to 16 years of age.
The raids created furious debate over the powers of a Government department to interfere in family life.
The Family, some of whose members readily admit to being breakaway members of the Children of God religious cult, claimed in court they were the victims of religious persecution.
Cobham Children's Court magistrate Mr Ian Forsyth subsequently released the children, conditional on twice-weekly checks by departmental officers and psychological testing, saying: "I believe it is in the best interests of all the children to be allowed to go home."
Although no charges were laid against the parents, the department is continuing to seek a legal determination on whether the children are in need of some form of care.
It claims the children are in danger of educational, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse, which the parents reject.
The NSW Department of Community Services has taken the unusual step of briefing - via a six-page information sheet - the vast media contingent expected to cover the case.
Significantly, it now says that if the court determines a child is in need of care, it does not necessarily result in the placement of children as wards of the State.
"In fact, this can only be pursued by the court as a last resort," a departmental spokeswoman, Ms Liz Rivers, said.
However, in May, the then departmental deputy directorgeneral, Mr David Merchant, now the acting director-general, said the department wanted the children kept under State care.
Ms Rivers said the court could find positively for the department but seek one of several options. These included undertakings by the parents and the children; giving custody to another person but allowing the children to stay with the parents; or supervision by the department while the children remained with their parents.
"We recognise the importance of children remaining with their families, wherever possible," she said.
"If circumstances necessitate that a child be removed, then our officers work to support and assist the family until the situation that necessitated the child's removal can be rectified."
She said the NSW child protection laws were not intended to determine if a person or people were guilty of abusive actions. They were concerned only with the best outcome for the child.