Pubdate: Wed, 21 Jan 2009
Source: Australian, The (Australia)
Copyright: 2009sThe Australian
Author: Caroline Overington
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Two healthy children who had never been abused or neglected by their
parents were forced into foster care last September after it was found the
couple had smoked cannabis.

The two children -- a girl, aged two, and her baby brother -- were removed
from their home by police officers after two case workers from the NSW
Department of Community Services had reported their concerns over the
parents' drug use.

But three months later, NSW Supreme Court judge George Palmer ordered that
the children be returned to their parents, whom a psychologist had found
to be "loving, sensitive and ... well able to provide for the safety,
welfare and wellbeing of their infant children".

Justice Palmer described the actions of the DOCS workers as a "serious
abuse" of their position, and questioned whether it was the policy of the
department "that any parent who uses cannabis, no matter how infrequently,
is for that reason alone unfit to care for a child".

If so, "that view should be made public, so there may be public debate
about it", the judge said. "There was no evidence that their cannabis use
in itself posed any direct risk of harm to the children."

The case began in April 2007, when the mother checked into hospital,
believing she was in premature labour with her daughter. She checked
herself out, apparently with a cannula still in her arm.

As required by law, the hospital reported this incident to DOCS. Two
months later, the mother returned to hospital to give birth to a baby

Nine months later, DOCS filed a "care plan" for the little girl, saying
the parents would have to submit to urine testing if they wanted to keep
custody of their child.

Justice Palmer said the requirement for the parents to remain "drug-free"
or face losing their children, was "questionable". "I would describe the
parents' use of cannabis as recreational rather than addictive or
dependent," he said.

The parents agreed to provide urine samples to DOCS until June last year.

DOCS commenced legal proceedings in September.

The judge said there was "no evidence whatsoever that the department had
any concerns at this time as to the wellbeing or safety of the children".

In court, DOCS said it wanted the parents to provide random urine samples,
accept random home visits, take part in counselling, and put their baby
inchildcare at least two days aweek.

Justice Palmer said these "heavy-handed" demands were intended "to be a
goad and an insult" to parents who were "taking good care of their

The parents were angry, but agreed to the conditions. Last September,
after the woman had given birth to the baby boy, the couple missed a
meeting with DOCS officers, who promptly visited their home.

According to a DOCS report of the incident, the mother was "making a hot
drink" when officers arrived.

"Her hair was messy and knotted. She appeared to have lost a lot of
weight. Her clothes were hanging off her and her bones were protruding."

The DOCS officer said to the woman: "You look like you've lost a lot of

The mother replied: "You look like you've put on weight."

Justice Palmer said "the parents were entitled to be angry" because they
had been threatened with the loss of their children, for no apparent

Yet DOCS officers returned to the house with police just hours after the
mother had abused the DOCS worker, and took the children.

A report by Sydney psychologist Lizabeth Tong praises the parents.

It describes the mother as "a tall, attractive, willowy woman" who was
"neatly dressed, well groomed and articulate".

The father was "candid, forthright and engaging ... he appeared
appropriately protective of his partner", Dr Tong wrote.

Given the lack of evidence of any parental abuse, Justice Palmer said the
act of removing the children from the family home constituted "a serious
abuse by certain DOCS officers".

NSW Community Services Minister Linda Burney yesterday refused to directly
say whether cannabis use would render a parent unfit to care for a child.

Ms Burney released a statement, saying: "If caseworkers believe the safety
of a child is at risk because their parents' ability to care for them is
severely affected by drug use or alcohol, then they will take action."
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