Should People with Criminal Convictions be Allowed to Care for Children?

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Foster care

The sentencing of a man who murdered Tiahleigh Palmer, the 12-year-old girl in his care, has triggered calls for reform in the Queensland foster and child care system, with a view to excluding anyone with a criminal history from being approved as a carer.

After pleading guilty to murdering Tiahleigh Palmer, interfering with her corpse, attempting to pervert the course of justice and perjury, Rick Thorburn will spend the next 20 years behind bars.

Foster family sentenced to imprisonment

Thornburn is the last of Tiahleigh’s foster family to face sentencing over her death, after each played a role in covering up the murder and lying to police.

Tiahleigh’s foster brothers have also been sentenced to imprisonment. Trent Thorburn, who admitted to sexually abusing Tiahleigh, was given a maximum of four years behind bars last year after pleading guilty to four criminal charges, including incest.

His older brother, Joshua Thorburn, was sentenced to three months in gaol in July 2017 after pleading guilty to perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

And Rick Thorburn’s wife, Julene, served six months after pleading guilty on November 2017 to perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Family was approved to work with children

The case shocked many with social media sent into overdrive by revelations fact the Palmer family was licensed to run a day care centre, a business they were indeed conducting at the time of Tiahleigh’s death.

Each of the four family members also held blue cards – the Queensland equivalent of a working with children approval – which is a special clearance to engage in areas of business and employment which relate to minors. They were also approved as foster carers.

With the murder trial now over, details continue to emerge of Rick Thornburn’s long rap sheet – a series of offences including breaking and entering, theft, and traffic offences including drink driving over a 20-year period from 1977 to 1997.

His son Josh told police at one point in their investigations that although his father had never physically attacked him, he had threatened to kill Julene.

“He had a past experience of these sorts of things… Before I was born… While he was in care he had killed a guard or someone of the sorts that was at the facility he was in care at,” reported Josh.

“I think he wanted to try and assure us that no one was going to find out, that he had done it before and he got away with it.”

How can someone with a criminal history become a foster carer?

So how is it that despite his criminal history, Rick Thornburn was approved to become a foster carer?

The reason is that he hadn’t been found guilty of committing anything classed as a “serious” crime, such as an assault or sexual offence.

System review

While the fate of Tiahleigh is tragic, many hope it will lead to reform.

A review undertaken immediately after Tiahleigh’s death in September 2015 recommended a host of changes, including more robust checking of blue card applicants and giving the police commissioner power to share information about applicants in child safety cases.

It also led to approval for a $6 million on upgrade of IT systems, for faster information sharing between various government departments and foster care agencies.

Immediately after Rick Palmer’s arrest, police also arrested a Far North Queensland foster carer for child sexual offences and possession of child exploitation material.

The events prompted calls for the government to exclude anyone with a criminal history – even if the offences have nothing to do with children – from being approved as foster carers.

But those working in the system argue this would make finding adequate care for kids harder than it already is.

In New South Wales, more than 3500 children enter out-of-home-care each year, and there has been an extraordinary 373 per cent increase in the number of kids in care over the past 20 years.

There are currently about 20,000 children in care across the state, and it’s estimated that an extra 660 carers are needed just to meet demand.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.
Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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