Deadbeat parents who criminally neglect their children are poised to face tougher penalties from February, after a horrific Illawarra case captured the attention of lawmakers.
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.
The Mercury revealed in May the hair-raising case of an Illawarra mother whose three children were found living in extreme squalor.
A woman fronted court on child neglect charges, after her kids were found living in a home that was covered in human faeces, with a drawer full of rotting food, unwashed clothing piled high and an infestation of flies and cockroaches in multiple rooms.
Police officers who visited the house in October 2017 to check on the childrens’ welfare said they were so overwhelmed with the “disgusting” conditions they immediately contacted Family and Community Services to have the children removed.
Wollongong Local Court Magistrate Mark Douglass labelled the case one of the worst he’d ever seen and condemned the restrictive sentencing laws that only allowed him to fine the woman, noting if the victims had been her pets he could have sent her to jail.
The Mercury launched its ‘State of Neglect’ campaign a week later, revealing NSW had the weakest child neglect penalties in the country and calling on Family and Community Services minister Pru Goward to strengthen the inadequate sentences.
Mr Park has welcomed the incoming reform.
“I made it clear in my representations and discussions with the minster that we had an obligation to fix this and in doing so send a clear message that the neglect of a child will bring with it severe penalties,” Mr Park said.
The changes will see the introduction of up to two years’ jail on top of a maximum $22,000 fine. This will allow judicial officers to also consider alternative, community-based orders instead of prison, such as supervised court bonds that would require an offender to attend rehabilitation or counselling.
The legislation, which is in the form of an amendment to the current Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act, was passed by parliament on the last sitting day ahead of the March 2019 election.
“Children have a right to feel safe especially when they are in the care of their parents and I am glad that these changes are going to increase the penalties for those who repeatedly and deliberately place their children in danger,” Mr Park said.
“I want to thank the many community members who contacted me to express their concern and advocate for change to enhance the protection of young people.”
A history of the Mercury’s campaign to increase child neglect penalties
- Police arrest an Illawarra mother after her children are found living in extreme squalor. She is charged with child neglect and her case is sent to court.
- The woman pleads guilty to the charges but leaves Wollongong courthouse before her sentencing.
- Magistrate Mark Douglass speaks out about ‘inadequate’, fine-only penalties for child neglect offences in NSW. He imposes a $25,000 fine on the woman but acknowledges she will never pay it and says animal neglect carries harsher penalties than child neglect.
- Mercury launches its ’State of Neglect’ campaign, revealing NSW child neglect penalties are the weakest in the country and calling on FACS minister Pru Goward to act.
- Keira MP Ryan Park speaks out in parliament, Ms Goward agrees to review the legislation.
- Mr Park claims Ms Goward agreed to introduce jail sentences for child neglect during a private meeting with him. Ms Goward refuses to be drawn on the outcome of the meeting.
- The NSW Police Union backs the Mercury’s ‘State of Neglect’ campaign as it is revealed police are at the forefront of identifying cases of neglect in the community.
- ‘State of Neglect’ is recognised with a Kennedy Award for outstanding regional journalism.
- ’State of Neglect’ is nominated for a Walkley Award, Australia’s highest journalism honour.
- NSW Government introduces legislation to parliament to have jail time added to child neglect penalties. The legislation is passed by both houses of parliament.
- The legislation is due to come into effect on the 4th.