Child carer?s ordeal leaves her shattered
By LEE McDOUGALL
RHONDA Gray knows people believe that where there's smoke, there's fire, so she understands why previous 'friends' now cross the road to avoid talking to her ? but it still hurts.
The former Coffs Harbour and District Family Day Care 'mum' was vindicated by the Administrative Decisions Tribunal last week after an almost two-year battle to clear her name over allegations that she had hit a child in her care with a wooden spoon.
Ms Gray's tale is one that every child-care giver, and indeed parent, lives in fear of ? that the Department of Community Services (DoCS) will act overzealously to protect a child, to the enormous detriment of an innocent adult.
In December, 2004, a seven-year-old child, who had previously been in Ms Gray's care for a period of about four years ? two years under the umbrella of the Coffs Harbour and District Family Day Care Scheme ? was overheard by a subsequent child-care 'mum' as saying Ms Gray use to smack her on the bottom with a wooden spoon.
What happened next was, quite simply, unbelievable.
Without interviewing the parents of the child or a second Family Day Care mum who cared for the child each week as well, a report was sent by the Family Day Care Scheme to DoCS.
Members of the Joint Investigation Response Team (JIRT) then interviewed the child and another seven-year-old child who claimed to have also been smacked.
JIRT also interviewed Ms Gray and, while it was established she did not own a wooden spoon and that another woman had cared for the children in between Ms Gray and the carer who reported overhearing the allegation, DoCS recommended that Ms Gray have her registration as a family day-care carer terminated.
"I was devastated. I couldn't believe it," Ms Gray said.
"I had never had a complaint. Even the children's parents said to me they didn't believe it had happened."
Ms Gray sought help from Legal Aid and found her saviour in solicitor Fiona McMullin. "Fiona and Legal Aid were absolutely brilliant," Ms Gray said.
When Ms McMullin first heard Ms Gray's story, it did not take her long to realise an injustice had occurred.
"It's really important that people like Rhonda, who work in community child care, who do a job that involves trust ? that they have some rights against people who make allegations against them for various reasons," Ms McMullin said.
"There were so many parents who had written off their own bat, letters of support for Rhonda ? they were absolutely adulatory. In nine years at Legal Aid, I have never seen anything like it."
New legislation introduced in 2004 gave Ms Gray the ability to appeal the decision to terminate her registration.
"It's great that there is this appeal right to the tribunal. They have restored her as a child carer and she can be reinstated, however, it is unlikely that she will ever return to child care given the emotional damage that has been caused," Ms McMullin said.
This is echoed by Ms Gray, who says she will never return to the child care industry and who has been forced to sell her home to cover legal costs.
"My goal now is to protect other carers who are still in the profession," Ms Gray said.
"There are procedures in place to ensure this kind of thing does not happen. DoCS just didn't follow their own rules."