A death in the family

When Rosa Richards was found guilty of the manslaughter of her 20-month-old son Dillion, the verdict was as much an indictment of a system that failed a mother who couldn’t cope, writes Karen Kissane.

THE WOMAN struggling to get on the tram looked like what America’s Roseanne would call white trash. She was skinny, singleted, tattooed. Her hair hung in strings and, although she was pushing one kid in a pram and hauling another along behind her, she wore no wedding ring.

It was a hot day and the tram was crowded. Her toddler was crying and complaining in a voice that rose in pitch and volume until everyone in the carriage must have been on edge. The mother shouted back, helpless to see to his needs while struggling just to stand upright and settle the whining occupant of the pram. “Shut up or I’ll leave you behind,” she threatened. “Shut up or I’ll hit you.”

A bad mother, we all decided behind our sunglasses, avoiding each other’s eyes for fear we would have to acknowledge what was happening in front of us. I mean, what can you do? These people seem hopeless. Rosa Richards, who killed her toddler, Dillion Palfrey, falls into the extreme end of this category.

Legally, we’ve dealt with Rosa Richards. We’ll lock her away for seven years, and while people who are understandably enraged about what she did to her little boy might argue that isn’t long enough, it does allow a sense that justice has been done. The culprit has been punished.

But Richards is as much a victim and a scapegoat as she is a culprit, and although her jailing might produce a sigh of collective relief that such an evil-doer is now contained, it does not fix anything.

It does nothing to help a beleaguered child-protection system in which the number of case workers is inadequate to cope with the skyrocketing number of child-abuse notifications. And it seems that there are problems not just in the ability of workers to handle the volume of cases, but in their level of expertise.

How often are 22-year-old social-work graduates asked to assess and deal with the dark forces unleashed in severely dysfunctional families like Richards’? According to an internal inquiry, more than half the Government staff who dealt with her had less than 12 months’ experience.

In Richards’s case, as in the earlier tragedy of Daniel Valerio, many kinds of professional helpers knew that there were serious problems but, somehow, the family still fell through the social safety net. This is despite the fact that Richards had said she could not cope and asked for help (although apparently it was her decision to stop visiting a family resource centre to which she had been referred).

But then, maybe her experience of life as a child had taught her that the system is of little use to families like hers. It had succeeded in jailing her abusive father, it is true; but it did not protect her from the next violent man to move into her home. He beat all the children and raped her when she was 13, fathering the first of her seven children. Rosa wanted to adopt the baby out because he looked like her rapist, but her mother forbade it. Rosa was then kicked out of home at 16. There should be anguish about our failure to rescue Dillion, but what of the failure to rescue Rosa as a child?

Now for the really tough questions. Have we become too soft on people like Rosa’s father and stepfather, and indeed people like Rosa herself? An older social worker once told me that protective workers were facing problems of an intensity rare in earlier times. They were having to support desperately struggling families in which one or both parents were drug-addicted, psychiatrically ill or intellectually impaired. There had always been some parents with such problems, she said, but in the old days their babies were often taken from them and fostered or adopted out. There were clear, maybe harsh, and definitely middle-class standards about what constituted a fit parent.

This had its own problems, not least in the grief and sense of lost identity many adopted children feel and the anguish of parents forced to relinquish a child. And protection workers are all too aware that children in foster care are more likely than the average child to be physically and sexually abused. There are many risks in removing children from the biological family.

But, in hindsight, it is clear that Rosa Richards’s children should have been taken from her. Any parent who has cared intimately for small children over time has felt flashes of rage; anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. But Richards had told one doctor that she had tried to suffocate her youngest with a pillow when he was four months old, and this alone indicated that she had crossed the boundary between struggle and dangerous behavior.

If this incident had not happened or been reported, though, what would society’s verdict on her fitness as a mother have been? Should a woman the judge described as having an IQ of 68 (leaving her intellectually impaired), who has virtually no capacity to deal with stress, and a tendency towards frustration and anger, have been left to care for children? (Come to that, there might be questions about whether it’s right that intellectually impaired people face court for their crimes, anyway. What did Richards, with her “dull intellect” and “extreme confusion”, make of the proceedings?)

At the very least, such parents need intense help. This was not immediately forthcoming for Richards, and for many other families in crisis who turn to under-funded counselling agencies only to find they must go on months-long waiting lists to receive attention. If children of such parents are removed from their families, that costs money, too. We know enough about family psychology now to know that if we do not rescue the Rosas, they go on to savage the Dillions. These so-called monsters are not born but created by society’s failure to break the cycle.

It’s easy, though, to blame them entirely, rather than look at the way the rest of us fail to help them. Back on the tram on that summer day, I raged silently for several stops about the wailing child. Then I realised, in a hot blush of shame, that I was sitting down while this mother stood, swaying. I turned to the 50-ish woman next to me and said: “If I get up and you move into my seat, that mother can sit down.” Her moustaches bristled: “I’m not getting up for anybody.”

I dived out of my seat, anyway. The bristling woman had the grace to move. And the mother sat down with relief, took that screaming toddler on her knee and spoke to him with gentleness. Maybe it was the first break she’d had that day. Mothers like her don’t get many.

First published in The Age.