A Warrawong mum who left her two-year-old daughter home alone has walked away with just a fine, in a case that has drawn condemnation in the dying days of the state's soft child neglect laws.
The Mercury can reveal the laws are poised to change in the wake of an earlier Illawarra case and a campaign by this newspaper, which drew national attention to the issue.
From next month, perpetrators will face up to two years behind bars, on top of the existing $22,000 maximum fine. The amendments were passed in Parliament on November 22 but won’t take effect until February 4.
In Wollongong Local Court Friday, Magistrate Michael Stoddart referenced the need for reform, leveling unbridled criticism at a woman who left her toddler at home unsupervised on April 12, while she went to a friend's house.
The girl was desperate, hysterical and had been sick when police tried to reach her through a locked door, after concerned neighbours dialed 000.
“Anything dreadful could have happened - not that you could have cared less about it at the time,” said the magistrate. But he conceded he had no power beyond fining the woman, a 21-year-old single mum and aspiring police officer.
“The behaviour on this occasion, taking into account the victim and the trauma that little girl endured, probably deserves more than that,” he said. “There’s only so much I can do, and I’m restricted by the legislation.”
The woman cannot be named, due to unrelated legislation designed to protect her child’s privacy.
She was poised to defend the charge in court on Friday, but pleaded guilty at the eleventh hour.
The court heard sobering details of her child’s ordeal. Neighbours called police to the unit at 9.46pm, reporting the girl had been crying since 9.33pm.
Police heard a whimper coming from the top floor and – when they knocked – hysterical crying. The girl was screaming - “mummy, mummy” – over police as they tried to talk to her. When officers asked, “is Mummy in there?” she replied, “No, mummy ...”
The girl tried in vain to open the door for police. Her breathing was fast and she seemed to hyperventilate at times, growing silent for a minute or two then – after regaining breath and energy – resuming screaming.
Tenants arranged for a landlord to attend and police were able to unlock the door.
They found the girl covered in sweat, her face wet with tears and mucus. She had been left some cut up pieces of apple and a bottle. The house was hot and there were several lighters out within reach. She was breathing fast, wore only a dirty nappy and smelt of sick. Police found a puddle of vomit beside a child’s blanket and car seat that had been placed on the lounge, facing the switched-on television.
Whether the mother had strapped the girl into the seat was not established in court. The chair’s buckle was unclipped and the girl was free, using a pink stool to reach the door handle, when police arrived.
“We’ll never know,” Magistrate Stoddart said.
A man inquired after the girl at Wollongong Hospital at 1.10am the next day. Police went searching and found the woman outside the ED, waiting for the man.
“I’ve come to see if my baby is here,” she said. “I was going to the police if she wasn’t. I left her with a friend and was at my friend’s.”
She claimed to have left the child with a babysitter but couldn’t provide the carer’s name. “It’s gone from my mind,” she said.
The man later told police the woman had arrived at his house at 8.30pm.
Through her lawyer, Lemar Miakhel, the woman called on the magistrate not to convict her of child neglect, because this would interfere with her ambition of joining the NSW Police Force.
She said she had returned to the unit at 10pm after watching football at a friend’s house, but had then purposefully delayed going to the hospital.
“She had consumed about two alcoholic beverages that night and she didn’t want the impression to come across that she was an alcoholic mother who had abandoned her child,” Mr Miakhel said.
The magistrate replied: “she’s a neglectful mother who had abandoned her child.”
"I accept that,” Mr Miakhel said.
The lawyer said the woman had “made a terrible judgement call” but that the child had been returned to her care after several months with her father. He said Family and Community Services had since told her she posed no risk to the girl, and there would be no involvement from the department. The department did not provide any statement to the court, to confirm this.
The magistrate refused to waive the conviction and fined the woman $5000, deeming her actions “appalling”.
“Any decent person would be saddened by what they read. It’s a very traumatising situation,” he said.
“No doubt it seems to be that FACS are going to have to monitor this situation, and certainly in my view, they need to.
“Plenty of single parent in your position may have … no other support whatsoever. First and foremost you’re a mother.”
“And you’re somebody that wants to join the police force? Wow.”