Keeping it in the Family
If child protection workers thought they had such a strong case for protective orders against the religious group the Family why did the case settle out of court? Alex Messina reports.
By Alex Messina
The secretary of the Health and Community Services Department, Dr John Paterson, was unrepentant when police and child protection workers raided Victorian residences of the religious group, the Family, almost two years ago.
"I make no apologies," he said then. "And I am prepared to withstand scrutiny from any quarter."
Now, the department's child protection case has ended, not with a bang but a whimper. Last Friday, the parties announced in court they had reached a settlement. Since then, Dr Paterson has been unavailable for comment.
The raids, on 15 May 1992, were the biggest single operation the department had conducted, and were done in conjunction with raids in New South Wales. They followed a formal and confidential notification weeks earlier about concerns that the children might be harmed.
The Victorian settlement amounted to a near-copy of a settlement in NSW, reached in October 1992. The same deal was offered by Family members in Victoria at the same time, but it was rejected by the department.
Presumably, three hours a week of outside activity for the children, monthly visits from independent people, and a review of the Family's home schooling were initially judged inadequate for meeting the department's serious concerns about the children.
Now, the department is working hard to present the same deal as a vast improvement over the NSW deal. But privately, people close to the case say it is a total capitulation that will do little to answer concerns.
A Government source told `The Age' that Dr Paterson's silence was imposed by his boss, the Minister for Community Services, Mr Michael John, who made the only official comment last Friday.
Inside the department's head offices, it is believed that Dr Paterson and his team dedicated to the Family case are firm that the case should have proceeded. Their strong belief is that the evidence - had it been put to the Children's Court - would have justified their concerns about the 86 children in the group (formerly known as the Children of God).
A Cabinet directive to settle the case quickly ended the department's hope that the Children's Court would order the children to attend public schools. In the department's view, that was critical to breaking the back of what it sees as a destructive cult that holds its children by keeping them socially, culturally, educationally and religiously isolated.
The question remains as to why the Government would suddenly want a settlement after the case had proceeded so far. The Family says it is because they could never prove their claims.
The Government says it is because the cost would have burgeoned: the Children's Court case might have run a year, followed by County Court, Supreme Court and High Court appeals, all publicly funded. But the costs could have been foreseen long ago.
One other factor may have been that, even without the Cabinet decision, the department was heading for serious embarrassment and perhaps defeat.
The settlement pre-empted an "abuse of process" argument that was to be led in court.
The counsel for the children, Ms Lillian Lieder, QC, was about to argue that the department had so badly abused legal processes in gathering evidence and conducting its case that the whole thing should be thrown out of court.
This line of argument would have alleged that the department and the Victoria Police had improperly worked together to seize voluminous literature from the houses of the Family.
On 14 May 1992, the day before the raids and seizure of 56 children, the Victoria Police took out a search warrant under section 465 of the Crimes Act. It was based on suspicions of misrepresentation as a charity in order seek donations.
When police went to the houses with child protection workers the next day they took computers, tapes, educational material, religious literature and schoolbooks.
Lawyers for the Family argue the list went far beyond material relating to how to seek donations, and filled at least two chests.
The raids happened on a Friday. First thing Monday morning the department issued a subpoena for material on the police. Within days, the department had reams of literature that it was not empowered itself to seize legally.
The coordinator of the police raids, Superintendent Trevor Thompson, has said that any claim police acted improperly was "way off the mark". There were suspicions of theft by deception, but when documents were examined the legal advice was not to proceed against the Family.
Several entries in the diary of Dr Paterson appear to support the view that the department wanted documents.
On 6 May, more than a week before the raids, Dr Paterson notes: "Police warrant to search."
Then at 7.15am, just two hours after the raids, Dr Paterson notes the "raids went perfectly smoothly. Cooperation with police: got all documents".
At 2.30pm that day he notes the reaction in New South Wales, where simultaneous raids were conducted on Family homes: "Two chests of material. First time ever picked up that stuff before. NSW hit four houses a.m. and green with envy that we got two chests."
An abuse of process argument would have contended that the warrants were not executed to get material for criminal charges.
The reason, it was to be argued, was that the CSV hoped the material would substantiate its suspicions.
Until then, the department had appeared to base its suspicions on allegations made in a separate protection application that already existed when the raids occurred and involved one family within the religious group.
When allegations were eventually made in court about the psychological and emotional harm to the 86 children, they were very similar to those in the pre-existing case. The only allegation not carried over was sexual abuse.
Three months after the raids, the Children's Court magistrate completed the first protection case. He found no evidence of sexual abuse, although he felt that children had in the past been aware of sexual practices that many would consider unacceptable.
On issues of social isolation, inadequate education and indoctrination the magistrate said the children may have suffered some emotional and psychological damage. But he was not satisfied it was "significant", as required by laws protecting children.
Despite the finding, the department's team of managers, protective workers and lawyers still felt their case was compelling.
Although there was no one aspect that could make out their protective concerns they believed the accumulation of evidence would be overwhelming.
A "white book" summary of the case, numbering more than 200 pages, was put together by the department's legal team as a summary of its case establishing the department's concerns about emotional and psychological harm to the children. It set out to establish that the group meticulously followed the writings of its global leader Moses David.
Its concerns centred on isolation, "brain washing" and indoctrination of children, inculcation, fear of the outside world and the allegedly deceptive culture of the group.
Although no allegations of sexual abuse were made, the department was certainly alarmed by Moses David's lurid literature from the late 1970s to mid 1980s promoting child-adult sex and child-child sex.
Explicit literature, some found in the houses, warned children that they would be taken away if they revealed their sexual practices to outsiders.
There were also claims of harsh discipline, such as dissenters being "silenced" or banned from talking or being spoken to.
The claims against them have all been denied by the Family, which says child sex never flourished in Australia but occurred with only a handful of boys and adult women in the mid-1980s and is now banned.
They argue religious education is their right and the children say they are more open-minded than outsiders.
But the department's case was that the denials were part of a "sham of normalcy" presented to outsiders by a group that is "founded on lies and deception".
In essence, it implies through the white book summary that what the material says is what the group practises. A group member told `The Age': "If all that is true then you must see some fruit of it in the children."
Only one forensic psychologist in Victoria extensively examined some of the children. Mr Tim Watson-Munro's first contact was through the earlier protection case. The police had called him in to examine the children of that family, but he found delightful, well-adjusted, socially competent children who displayed no evidence of emotional damage.
In the department's child protection case, the Family's lawyers called in Mr Watson-Munro to extensively examine six children. They allowed no examinations by department psychologists.
Mr Watson-Munro told `The Age' that, again, the children displayed no classic signs of emotional disturbance, "brain washing" or sexual abuse.
Another child psychologist from La Trobe University, Professor Margot Prior, was to be called by the department to testify.
Her views, differed to Mr Watson-Munro's and were based entirely on literature from the group, observations of child protection workers and statements of former members.
Professor Prior's concern was that the children had no way of making independent decisions on how to live their life.
From the literature, concerns arose about the children's sense of security and place. These centred on whether children knew who their parents were. Caregivers appeared to change often and literature suggested children might move home frequently.
Reports from previous members indicated that, having left the group, they had difficulty forming relationships and felt vulnerability, insecurity and powerlessness. Such traits might not show in children until they tried to leave, Professor Prior said.
Although her concerns paint a picture of an introspective and restrictive culture that may hamper its children's ability to decide to leave, Professor Margot qualifies herself: "I realise the evidence on which I was trying to form a view was terribly inadequate."
The issue is, she says, whether members have the ability to freely decide to stay or go.
Cases around the world in Spain, Argentina, France, and other places have run a similar course to the Victorian one, with courts not reaching conclusions or cases being stopped.
The Victoria case was watched from far, and by the top leadership of the Family. Many opponents of the Family hoped that it would resolve finally whether there was substance to the allegations. Unfortunately, the questions will linger without resolution.