Thursday, August 25, 2011

Abhorrent crimes cloaked in official euphemisms

By negligent bureaucrats

CHILD abuse creates the darkest of shadows. The shadows enveloping the brief life of Felicia (The Weekend Australian, August 20) are perhaps the blackest imaginable.

According to Michael McKenna and Rory Callinan's reports Felicia, aged just 15, had been repeatedly sexually assaulted but not protected. In an extraordinary, almost unbelievable sequence of events, she was briefly removed from home but then returned to be assaulted again. Even after being admitted to hospital with marks around her neck, she was not protected from the crimes.

It is reported that in desperation, as she was about to be assaulted again, she secretly used her mobile phone to record the crime. Imagine being so desperate to be believed that you record yourself being assaulted and are prepared to allow others to hear the resultant degradation.

Even then, after what must have been the most humiliating of experiences, she was not made safe. The shadows must have appeared even blacker. She hanged herself on the veranda a day after her 16th birthday and just weeks after her friend Zoe had killed herself. She left a long suicide letter.

There is a great deal we must learn from Felicia's tragedy, if we have the courage to peer into the darkness. Her brief tortured life reminds us that, for some, being forced to live with abuse is worse than death.

This reflects a large theme from our research with children and young people who had been abused. They spoke of their helplessness, their inability to escape. Some described becoming hostages to the perpetrator, controlled by a terrorist, of having to submit in order to survive.

In spite of what we know of adult survivors of Stockholm syndrome, for example, how difficult it is for them even when free to confront the perpetrators, we fail to acknowledge the pain child victims of abuse suffer. Felicia did what many adults cannot do. She reported the crimes repeatedly. Even then she was not heard.

Crimes against children derail development, black out all hope. Yet many of our responses serve to minimise the seriousness, disguise the offences, and thus undermine the victim. Offenders committing crimes in circumstances similar to Felicia's might be charged with "maintaining a sexual relationship with a child". Yet if the perpetrator repeatedly raped his wife, it would be called rape.

Language that rewrites the crime, hiding the horror, may be a major contributor to the short sentences serious sex offenders receive. Only last month, the Queensland Attorney-General expressed his concern about such minimalist sentencing to the Sentencing Advisory Council.

The law is but one of the serial offenders. Psychiatry and psychology are littered with archeological remains of Greek words. Someone who rapes children may be called a pedophile, originally meaning "a lover of children". Countless hours are wasted, millions of dollars distributed to expert witnesses, while courts debate whether the child rapist is, was, or may temporarily be a pedophile. This from a discipline that, until recently, accused children of lying, fantasising, even being seductive.

The latest word of Greek origin to dominate child protection and minimise the damage done, is trauma, as in "children traumatised by abuse". Trauma means wound, injury. Toddlers may suffer injury when they fall over. As Felicia's short life shows, in many cases child abuse destroys childhoods, blows worlds apart. Of course, the meanings of words change. Unfortunately for children all the changes are aimed at reducing the seriousness of the problem. There are words of Greek origin that more accurately describe the destruction caused by child abuse. Catastrophe is one.

Weasel words also overwhelm child protection, where parents' rights to another chance to be a parent repeatedly take precedence over a child's only chance of childhood. The talk is about vulnerable families not vulnerable children. Children are not assaulted but "at risk". Such words corrupt. Try to find the words assault, violence and crime in child protection documents. Perhaps this is why, in Victoria, it was reported by the Ombudsman that children were recorded as having been seen when workers had merely telephoned the parents and why, in the Northern Territory, the Ombudsman reported "dummy" assessments on children.

There is much more to learn from Felicia's terrible death. Her sad story should remind us that not all the child abuse fatalities involve brutal murders of babies and toddlers, as with Dean Shillingsworth in NSW, the recent case of Hayley in Victoria, or Baby Peter in Britain.

Many child abuse deaths occur later in life. Many young people and adults who commit suicide were the victims of abuse as children. These suicides are not limited to women. There are calls for an inquiry into the Catholic Church in Victoria after Robert Best was sentenced to 14 years and nine months' jail for the abuse of 11 boys. At least 25 victims in the Ballarat area are reported to have killed themselves.

Another poignant theme is apparent in the opening paragraph of Felicia's suicide letter: "Dear everyone, I'm sorry it had to be like this. If there is any chance I can be [forgiven] I will much appreciate it." As our research has shown, children take responsibility for everything that happens, blaming themselves for the rapes and violence, for the problems that result. Felicia actually apologised to everyone for the trouble she had caused.

We need to apologise to her. We failed to protect Felicia when she was alive. We must not fail to respect her in death. Felicia's letter shines some light into the appalling darkness. What she wrote, what she suffered, the mistakes that were made, should not be buried with her.


150 jobs slashed, $80m saved in health restructure

I didn't think it would ever happen. But it's only a start

A SHAKE-UP of NSW Health will slash 150 management jobs and save $80 million, which will be transferred to frontline hospital services.

The new director general of health, Mary Foley, commissioned the overhaul, which will abolish a layer of middle management made up of 200 staff who oversee local health districts.

Another 100 positions will be shed from NSW Health's head office in North Sydney

The Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, said 150 positions would be made redundant. The remaining 150 would be transferred to other areas, including district services.

The restructure is part of the government's promised devolution of management from head office to local area health services.

"We are removing a middle layer of management which will allow resources to be deployed to support frontline health care," she said. "The new structure will provide greater transparency and accountability, duplication of tasks will be stopped and there will be greater clarity of roles and responsibilities."

The former Labor government introduced the middle-layer management positions last year, calling them clusters across three areas - northern, western, and southern.

The restructure would strengthen the government's so-called pillars: the Agency for Clinical Innovation, the Clinical Excellence Commission, the Health Education and Training Institute and the Bureau of Health Information. New eHealth, pathology and infrastructure services would be consolidated.

Mrs Skinner said the Department of Health would become the Ministry of Health and be reduced in size, with "a flatter structure" giving local health districts greater control.

The Public Service Association said the job cuts would jeopardise the development of health policy in NSW and undermine the quality of health service control.

A PSA industrial officer, Ayshe Lewis, said no voluntary redundancies would be offered. She said the announcement would cut the number of head office employees by a third. "While some of the positions are vacant, most of them are filled by temporary staff who are carrying out the work," she said.

"It's a furphy that cutting these positions will not impact on the delivery of frontline health services. The delivery of effective services is dependent on smart policy and program design. Health professionals on the front line can't do their jobs if they don't have expert guidance and support."

The opposition spokesman on health, Andrew McDonald, said the job cuts would have "a major impact on patient care".

"Job cuts to administration workers means other frontline staff will be left to fill the void," he said. "These job cuts are hitting the very workers responsible for driving change and innovation in health."

Greens NSW MP John Kaye said the minister had "deleted" jobs and destroyed 150 careers.

"She has also removed both the central and cluster support needed to make the public health system run effectively and efficiently," he said. "[Her] rhetoric about deploying resources to the front line is a thinly veiled excuse to slash the health budget."


Aussie scientists defeat dengue fever danger by mosquito release

AUSSIE scientists have had a big victory in the global war on dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus infecting up to 100 million people a year.

The mozzies, infected with the bacteria from fruit flies, were let loose at Gordonvale and Yorkeys Knob in Cairns in January, with scientists recording more than 90 per cent of the stinging creatures wiped out.

The trial of the $18 million program is aimed at wiping out as many of the disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes as possible.

Dengue infects more than 50 million people a year who live in the tropics and is rated by the World Health Organisation as the world's most important mosquito-borne viral disease, with 2.5 billion people living in dengue transmission areas.

There is no effective treatment for the disease, which is painful, debilitating and sometimes fatal.

Led by Scott O'Neill from Monash University, Melbourne, Ary Hoffmann from the University of Melbourne and Scott Ritchie from James Cook University, Cairns, worked with international scientists in Vietnam, Thailand, the US and Brazil.

Professor O'Neill said using insecticide to stop the mosquito had been expensive and a failure. Instead, the team used wolbachia bacteria which was already present in up to 70 percent of all insect species, harmless to humans and known to reduce mosquito susceptibility to dengue and other viruses.

"Laboratory experiments had shown we could introduce wolbachia into the mosquito in the lab, where it then passed from one generation to the next in the mosquito egg," Professor O'Neill said.

Trials started after a CSIRO risk analysis and approval from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority but struck a hitch in January when the category 5 Cyclone Yasi struck, blowing away part of the work. Nevertheless, within three months wolbachia had invaded local mosquito populations.

"Five weeks after the final release ... 100 per cent of the mosquitoes at Yorkeys Knob carried wolbachia and 90 per cent in Gordonvale. That was a great day," Professor O'Neill said.

Professor Hoffmann said reduced transmission of dengue was expected in the trial areas. Further tests will take place in Cairns this wet season while approval is sought for trials in Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia.

About 40,000 people die yearly from dengue and it is particularly crippling in poor countries where it can cost up to a third of a family's annual income to treat a person in hospital.

Dengue mainly strikes in Australia in the Cairns-Townsville region, where the particular species of mosquito lives happily in suburbia just like cockroaches, mice and rats.


Crimes of a fool set to finish off Gillard

Crimes have been committed that can bring down the Gillard government, and they are dumb crimes. As a former NSW chief of detectives told me: "We are ultimately dealing with the crimes of a fool, whomever that fool may be, who has left a documented trail like a bleeding elephant in a snowfield."

This trail of evidence of fraud, lying and cover-up now roils around the federal Labor MP Craig Thomson. It has also engulfed the NSW Police Force, which implausibly refused to act until a victim had filed a complaint.

"Utter garbage," said the former detective. "Police do not need to have a complaint from a victim in order to investigate a crime."

Even more damning, the victim in this case, the Health Services Union, clearly had no interest in bringing a complaint because the moment this became a criminal matter it would become a time bomb ticking beneath the Gillard government.

It began to tick on Tuesday afternoon when police issued a statement saying that material submitted by the federal shadow attorney-general, Senator George Brandis, would be assessed to see whether a crime had been committed. If the police cannot find a crime here, then it is the police who will need to be assessed.

As for the reluctant Health Services Union, it would have had its own case to answer, had it not announced yesterday it would be co-operating with police. Section 316 (1) of the NSW Crimes Act makes it an offence to conceal knowledge of a serious indictable offence: "If a person has committed a serious indictable offence and another person who knows or believes that the offence has been committed … fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the [police] … that other person is liable to imprisonment for two years."

"It is difficult to understand why it took [the police] so long to act," said the former detective. "I believe a union member went into a central coast police station attempting to make a complaint but was turned away … We are not talking about a complicated case. Given resources, this brief would represent two to three weeks' work before somebody could be charged."

Tick, tick, tick.

What kept a lid on this for the past two years was a defamation claim Thomson lodged against this newspaper. When the time finally came to attend court, he withdrew the action. Labor then paid his unhealthy legal bill. It was all done privately, but the public time bomb is now ticking for multiple reasons.

In 2003, 2005 and 2006, Thomson's corporate credit card was used to pay escort services in Melbourne and Sydney while he was national secretary of the HSU. He says his signature on receipts to escort agencies were forged.

A handwriting expert, Paul Westwood, formerly of the Australian Federal Police, compared the signature on Thomson's driver's licence with the signature on a credit card voucher and concluded they were probably made by the same person.

Thomson tried to reverse three payments made to an escort agency on his corporate credit card by using his personal credit cards.

Mobile phone records show that Thomson's phone was used to call escort agencies.

In 2008, the national secretary of the HSU, Kathy Jackson, now the union's executive president, wrote to the law firm Slater & Gordon claiming Thomson's credit card had been used for a number of transactions that were for private use or for his election campaign. The amounts totalled more than $70,000.

In Parliament yesterday, Thomson was asked to account for $39,454 in electoral expenses, incurred via his corporate credit card, that had not been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.

In an interview on 2UE, Thomson, reiterating that the signature on receipts to escort agencies were not his own, said: "The union reached a settlement with another gentleman who paid back $15,000 in relation to use of credit cards at an escort agency."

But it has emerged that the $15,000 payment he referred to had nothing to do with escort services.

Twice yesterday, the government was able to defeat opposition motions to compel Thomson to explain his conduct, then for the Prime Minister to explain her confidence in Thomson, with the automatic support of the Greens MP, Adam Bandt, plus the rural independents Tony Windsor and Robert Oakeshott, who, like Thomson, are accelerating the end of their parliamentary careers.


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