In a mustard-coloured courthouse just off the main road at Newcastle's Broadmeadow four lawyers, a magistrate and a court officer are trying to help a boy, aged 14. The teen hasn’t made it to court and, for weeks, has been dropped off at school by his mum or dad, signed in, then run away. However, truancy is the least of the family’s problems.
For six years, the boy has been, according to the words in a report from Family and Community Services, “displaying sexually abusive behaviour”. His elder sister has been shipped out to live with granny under a Care Order and his younger step brother has to be supervised at all times because of evidence of sexual assault. FACS has referred the boy for treatment at Rural New Street, a specialist centre for children displaying sexually deviant behaviour. So far, he has refused to take part.
It’s a sad case, yet the courtroom is full of hope. Among the most optimistic is Rebecca Harper, an Accredited Specialist in Children’s Law, who is representing the child.
“We don’t talk about winners and losers in this area of the law,” Harper says. “It’s about whether or not there has been a good outcome. This is unusual in legal circles but with care and protection cases it’s about trying to find the best outcome, and the child needs to be the focus at all times.” Harper, 40, says.
“I was 12 when I first wanted to be a lawyer and I have always wanted to work with children. I used to watch a lot of Law and Order on TV. I work in care and protection almost exclusively. It’s an area that really needs strong people to cope with it. Sometimes I work for the parents and sometimes the child, or for Community Services. I can be on any side of the matter. I like that variety, but my favourite is working for kids.