Moments In Time - May 1992: Children of sect members are seized in dawn raids
Press » The Age » 2008-04-23
By Kate Nancarrow
Legitimate religion or dangerous cult? The question was left unanswered after 56 children were taken from the Children of God - then returned.
Living a life far from the suburban Australian norm they might have been, but when 56 children from the Children of God sect were seized from their homes, their case quickly became a public relations nightmare for the state's child protection services as civil libertarians denounced the raids as an attack on religious freedom.
The Children of God, or the Family as they now prefer to be known - and not to be confused with Anne Hamilton-Byrne's cult, from which children were also removed in raids - was one of many quasi-religious sects that came out of California in the 1960s, but this group first came to public notice in Australia for advocating sex between children and adults. Living in houses isolated from the wider community, the group also achieved notoriety for its practice of "flirty fishing", which involved female members seducing men to provide money and gifts for the group.
Community Services Victoria (CSV) had long been concerned about children in the sect - in relation to discipline, isolation, disrupted family ties, poor education and exposure to adult sexual activity - but attempts to discuss these concerns had seen the group immediately flee its homes.
Then, just before 6am on May 15, 1992, CSV tried a different approach and removed the children, aged between two and 13, without warning from houses at outer-eastern Panton Hill and at Glenlyon, near Daylesford, while in New South Wales, 65 children were removed from the sect's Sydney homes. Almost 12 hours later, the Victorian children arrived at the Children's Court, CSV seeking their interim custody, their parents' lawyers - including Robert Richter, QC - seeking their release, and civil libertarians denouncing the "commando-style" operation. The children were held in CSV's care over the weekend; on the Monday, negotiations for their release stalled on whether the home-schooled children should go to ordinary schools. The sect's lawyers said there was no immediate risk of abuse and the issue was "philosophical".
Finally, the following Thursday, the children were returned to their families after their parents agreed to surrender passports, allow CSV officers access to their homes at reasonable times and to notify the Department of any change of address.
Costly legal disputes dragged on until April 1994, when the parties settled, at the behest of the state government, with almost none of CSV's significant concerns about the children's welfare ever aired in court or resolved. It was a non-result seen in similar cases against the sect around the world. In Melbourne, the sect agreed to allow the children to participate in three hours of weekly "outside" activities such as horse-riding and music lessons and to allow a panel of social workers to visit their homes once a month.
Some of the children, now adults who have since abandoned the sect, have put their stories online, alleging they were abused and beaten as children, and coached for their court appearances.