Eighteen years and six premiers later, calls for an inquiry into child sex abuse in Tasmania have been answered


Almost 20 years have passed and six premiers have held office in Tasmania since the Greens first called for a commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse in the state.

In November, Premier Peter Gutwein, under increasing pressure as allegations relating to three departments came to light, announced a commission of inquiry to investigate Tasmanian government agencies’ responses to allegations of child sexual abuse.

“Things have gotten to the point where the Government can no longer duck and weave,” said Angela Sdrinis, a lawyer who specialises in child sexual abuse.

“We’ve known for a long time, certainly through my work, that there have been some very serious systemic issues in terms of how the Tasmanian Government has dealt with issues of child sexual abuse.”

The national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did not look specifically at Tasmanian government institutions.

A 2004 Tasmanian ombudsman’s inquiry heard from people with stories of abuse dating back to the 1950s.

The allegations that have recently come to light have led to multiple state service employees being stood down, pending investigations.

The royal commission

Justice Peter McClellan and Justice Jennifer Coate on the first day of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission’s public hearing in 2013.(AAP: Jeremy Piper)

While the pressure in Tasmania came to a head last year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which delivered its final report in 2017, was a major turning point in Australia.

Social welfare historian, Australian Catholic University Emeritus Professor Shurlee Swain, said it did away with focusing on “bad apples”, a tactic that had been used to shut down previous investigations.

“It’s the only way to bring about change because if you think it’s just the individual bad apple, you’re never going to know who the bad apple is until the behaviour starts to manifest,” Professor Swain said.

“If you look at what is it in this situation, in the institutional situation that creates the environment in which the bad apple, if indeed it is a bad apple, can thrive, then you can identify features that enabled the behaviour to be hidden in the past.”

The royal commission also recommended a raft of legislative changes, which have been adopted by the Tasmanian Government, including removing the time limit for survivors to take civil legal action.

Survivors with civil claims have turned to interstate lawyers with expertise in child sexual abuse matters.

“Pressure from outside lawyers probably has made at least some difference in terms of saying we need to hold the government to account and there appears to be a culture sometimes in Tasmania of not holding the government to account,” Odin Lawyers director Sebastian Buscemi said.

Sebastian Buscemi looks at the camera.
Sebastian Buscemi says no-one really understands the extent of child sexual abuse in Tasmanian government institutions.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Secrecy more of a problem in Tasmania: lawyer

Ms Sdrinis, whose Melbourne firm opened an office in Hobart in 2018, said that while she had encountered secrecy and cover-ups in other jurisdictions, it seemed to be more of a problem in Tasmania.

“The evidence is that the Tasmanian Government denies right to information requests at a much greater level than other Australian jurisdictions,” she said.

“The fallback position always seems to be deny, deny, deny, and then if pressed provide some information.”

Responding to criticism late last year about the Government’s record on Right to Information requests, Mr Gutwein said the Government “will take whatever steps we need to ensure we can provide a full, frank, open and transparent government that is accountable to the Tasmanian people”.

People Protecting Children president Allison Ritchie said the commission of inquiry was a chance to overcome the secrecy that has existed around institutional abuse for too long.

“There’s a feeling in the community that governments and other authorities just don’t want to get to the bottom of these things,” she said.

“We need to see that that’s not the case, that it’s a no holds barred inquiry that it will go where it needs to to get to the bottom of what’s gone on in this state.”

Allison Ritchie looks at the camera.
Allison Ritchie says the commission of inquiry must take a “no holds barred” approach.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

‘No-one really understands why that was happening’

The commission of inquiry will be the first formal investigation of Tasmanian government institutions’ responses to child sexual abuse allegations.

Education Department documents associated with a civil court case show two teachers who were the subject of numerous complaints, and who were later convicted of child sexual abuse, were moved from school to school.

“No-one’s gotten to the bottom of it, no one really understands why that was happening, who was behind it and how high up it went,” Mr Buscemi said.

‘We have missed 20 years’

Peg Putt was Tasmanian Greens leader and Nick McKim, now a Senator, the justice spokesman when the Greens tried in 2003 and again in 2004 to establish a commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse.

Portrait of woman with out of focus trees in the background
Peg Putt says Tasmania has “missed 20 years” in which it could have tackled the problem of child sexual abuse.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

The then Bacon Labor government, which had established a more limited ombudsman’s inquiry into abuse in state care, opposed the inquiry.

One Liberal — Peter Gutwein — crossed the floor to vote with the Greens in 2003. The Liberals supported the Greens’ 2004 attempt.

“There’s been some sort of development in society where we now begin to recognise that if we don’t uncover this and track it right down to the last little bit, then we’re not going to deal with it, it’s not going to go away, and we have shirked our responsibility to people in society who need our help the most.”

When he announced the commission of inquiry, Mr Gutwein said the current Government was taking decisive action in response to allegations of child sexual abuse.

“I have great faith that our current processes and practices ensure higher safeguards and swifter action than was historically the case,” he said.

“Over a number of years significant systems have been implemented to protect our children and young people.”

Mr Gutwein has released the draft terms of reference for the inquiry and the commission is expected to begin its work early this year.

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and cabinet resign over child welfare payment scandal


The move was seen as largely symbolic; Rutte’s government will remain in office in a caretaker mode until a new coalition is formed after a March 17 election in the Netherlands.

The resignation brings to an end a decade in office for Rutte, although his party is expected to win the election, putting him first in line to begin talks to form the next government. If he succeeds in forming a new coalition, Rutte would most likely again become prime minister.

Geert Wilders, leader of the largest opposition party in the Dutch parliament said it was the right decision for the government to quit.

“Innocent people have been criminalised, their lives destroyed and parliament was informed about it inaccurately and incompletely,” he tweeted.

The Netherlands is the third European country thrown into political uncertainty this week in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. In Estonia, the government resigned over a corruption scandal, while Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s governing coalition is at risk of collapse after one party withdrew its support.

Rutte said earlier this week that his government would be able to keep taking tough policy decisions in the battle against the coronavirus even if it were in caretaker mode. The Netherlands is in a tough lockdown until at least February 9, and the government is considering imposing an overnight curfew amid fears about new, more contagious variants of the virus.

“To the Netherlands I say: Our struggle against the coronavirus will continue,” Rutte said.

Jesse Klaver, the leader of one opposition party, told national broadcaster NOS he would continue to support the government in its coronavirus campaign.

On Thursday, localtime, the leader of the opposition Labor Party stepped down because he was minister of social affairs in a coalition led by Rutte when the country’s tax office implemented a tough policy of tracking down fraudulent child welfare claims.

A sitting minister, Eric Wiebes, who also was linked to the scandal, said Friday he was resigning with immediate effect and would not be part of the caretaker administration.

At Friday’s Cabinet meeting, ministers decided their reaction to a scathing parliamentary report issued last month, titled Unprecedented Injustice, that said the tax office policies violated “fundamental principles of the rule of law.” The report also criticised the government for the way it provided information to parliament about the scandal.

Many wrongfully accused parents were plunged into debt when tax officials demanded repayment of payments. The government has in the past apologised for the tax office’s methods and in March earmarked 500 million euros ($784 million) to compensate more than 20,000 parents.

In a written reaction, the government pledged to reform the welfare system as a result of the scandal and to quickly pay affected parents 30,000 euros ($47,000) and expand existing compensation schemes.

“Everything is aimed at offering the parents and their children a new start in life,” the government said.

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One of the parents waited near parliament as the Cabinet met and said she wanted it to resign.

“It’s important for me because it is the government acknowledging, ‘We have made a mistake and we are taking responsibility,’ because it’s quite something what happened to us,” Janet Ramesar told The Associated Press.

Rutte plans to lead his conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy into the March election, and polls suggest it will win the most seats. That would put Rutte, who has been in office for a decade at the head of three different coalitions, first in line to attempt to form the next ruling coalition.

But he said that it was up to voters at the election to decide on his future, noting that he took ultimate responsibility for failings within his government.

“The buck stops here,” he said.

AP

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Canberra man charged with online child sex offences after drive of child abuse material seized in raid


A 56-year-old man has been arrested and charged by ACT Policing with a number of online child sex offences.

Police carried out a search at a residence in Kambah, in Canberra’s south, yesterday as part of an ACT Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team investigation.

During the search, “an expansion drive containing video and image files depicting child abuse material” was allegedly discovered.

Police also alleged one of the videos depicted the man himself, “engaging in a sex act while viewing ‘live’ child abuse material”.

Police seized the drive, and it will undergo further digital forensic analysis.

The man was arrested and charged with one count of using a carriage service to engage in sexual activity with a child under 16 years of age, and two counts of possession of child abuse material.

He will appear before the ACT Magistrates Court today.

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EXCLUSIVE: Leaked transcript shows NY church’s attempt to block Child Victims Act


When Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the longtime leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, introduced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program to the public in Oct. 2016, he expressed his hope that offering financial settlements to the victims of sexual abuse by clergy would both “promote healing” and “bring closure” after more than a decade of constant scandal.

When Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer Dolan appointed to administer the program in New York City and Long Island privately pitched it more than a year later to the representatives of three Upstate New York dioceses, however, he suggested that Dolan was motivated in part by something else: politics.

“I think the Cardinal feels that it is providing his lawyers in Albany with additional persuasive powers not to reopen the statute,” Feinberg said of the program. “We are already doing this, why bother? Don’t reopen the statute. We are taking care of our own problem. I think that is guiding Cardinal Dolan as well.”

ABC News has obtained the transcript of a confidential Dec. 2017 teleconference in which Feinberg, a prominent mediation expert, alongside his colleague Camille Biros, heralded the benefits of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program Dolan established to leaders and lawyers from the Dioceses of Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester.

Dolan himself is not listed among its participants and does not appear to have been on the call, but Feinberg repeatedly claimed to be familiar with Dolan’s thinking.

Looming over the discussion was the then-ongoing debate in Albany over the Child Victims Act, which proposed to reopen the statute of limitations on civil claims for damages for victims of childhood sexual abuse, potentially exposing the church to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional liability and threatening to bankrupt many of the state’s dioceses.

Dolan was then “worried,” Feinberg said, that lawmakers had already “come very close” to passing it. A growing number of negotiated settlements, however, could help counter arguments in favor of the Child Victims Act, bolstering the position of the church’s lobbyists in Albany that the legislation is unnecessary because the reckoning and restitution is already underway.

“The whole point is to get the release, so we offer $10,000. In Buffalo, maybe $5,000,” Feinberg said. “Get the release. We want to be able to show Albany that people are accepting this money and signing releases. You don’t need to change the statute.”

For abuse survivors and their advocates, Feinberg’s comments cast doubt on whether Dolan’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program was truly designed with either independence or reconciliation in mind.

“The statements, if true, place Cardinal Dolan in a compromising light,” prominent sexual abuse attorney Mitchell Garabedian told ABC News, “and are disrespectful to victims or survivors of clergy sexual abuse everywhere.”

Shortly before the Child Victims Act was expected to pass the legislature, the church withdrew its longstanding opposition to the measure after lawmakers amended the legislation to include victims of abuse by members of public institutions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act in February 2019, creating a one-year period for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims that would have otherwise been time-barred. He later signed legislation extending that so-called look-back window to August 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of people have since filed lawsuits under its provisions against the church and other institutions, leading several New York dioceses to seek bankruptcy protection.

In response to questions from ABC News, Joseph Zwilling, a spokesperson for Cardinal Dolan, told ABC News that the program was established to “address the desire of victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse to find healing and compensation.”

“It was a voluntary program, offering compensation without the need to engage in drawn-out and difficult litigation,” Zwilling said. “The program was very successful in achieving that goal for a large number of victim-survivors who came forward, who expressed their gratitude and relief at the respect and compassion with which they were treated by all involved. The program was offered to state lawmakers as a possible model for an alternative to litigation as passed in the Child Victims Act. We still believe that the program has great merit, and continue to offer it to victim-survivors who desire to participate in the program.”

But he declined to address Feinberg’s comments directly and did not respond to questions about whether those comments accurately reflected Cardinal Dolan’s motivations for introducing the settlement program.

“As far as Mr. Feinberg’s comments, you would have to ask him,” Zwilling said. “Cardinal Dolan was not a participant in that call, and cannot comment on what he may or may not have said.”

When reached by ABC News, Feinberg issued a brief statement touting the “success” of the program.

“Just in the state of New York, we have resolved 1,346 cases and have paid out $258 mil (all funds provided by the NY dioceses),” Feinberg said. “The program has been extremely well received and individual abuse claims continue to be received and processed notwithstanding the change in the NY statute.”

Dolan, one of the most powerful American cleric in the Catholic Church, has previously dismissed suggestions that the introduction of the settlement program was connected to New York lawmakers’ consideration of the Child Victims Act.

“Look, I can’t wait around wondering what Albany is going to do or not going to do. If I did, I’d never accomplish anything!” Dolan told Catholic New York in Oct. 2016. “But, regardless of what happens in the state Legislature, I believe that the IRCP is the right thing to do, and now is the right time to do it.”

But on the teleconference, Feinberg said the “movement afoot in Albany” was a key reason why Dolan “decided to bite the bullet and create a program.” The benefits of the program, as Feinberg described it, were twofold.

First, it would create a “compensation matrix,” or a range of possible payouts depending on the severity of the alleged abuse, agreed upon by the program’s administrators and the dioceses, Feinberg said, that “affords us wide leeway, wide range, so we could govern the amount of compensation” to victims.

“One very important principle that is guiding that various Dioceses in Manhattan and Long Island is the fear that if the statute is reopened, and there are people who did not participate earlier and sign a release in this program, some of the allegations may resolve on the courthouse steps with a $5,000,000 demand or a $2,000,000 demand,” Feinberg said. “Right now, we have not paid any claim, however horrific, at more than $500,000.”

“Clearly, the Dioceses [sic] wants as many releases at $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000,” Feinberg added, “rather than a $1,000,000 or $2,000,000.”

Feinberg, meanwhile, is highly regarded in the legal community, having been enlisted to oversee the distribution of monetary compensation to victims of a number of high-profile catastrophes — from the September 11th attacks to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

When Dolan introduced Feinberg as the administrator of the settlement program, he assured the public that the “renowned mediator” would have “complete autonomy in deciding compensation for victim-survivors.”

“The archdiocese,” Dolan pledged, “has agreed that it will abide by their decisions.”

But throughout the private teleconference, Feinberg displayed a coziness with church leaders, a skepticism toward those coming forward to file claims and, at times, even an apparent distain for some alleged victims.

In creating the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, Feinberg said that Dolan “emphasized” that his team would have “absolute, delegated, full authority” to determine eligibility and compensation but added that the Archdiocese worked with them to create both the rules of the program and the compensation matrix.

Feinberg’s colleague Biros suggested that the administrators have remained in close contact with church leaders even as they began processing claims.

“I just want everyone to be aware that once we take over and implement the program, it remains an open dialogue with the Diocese,” Biros said. “We are constantly on the phone with New York, Brooklyn and now Rockville Center. If we have any questions about the priests, the file, the claimant, they are an incredible resource to us.”

Feinberg claimed that some alleged victims were filing what he called “soapbox claims,” or frivolous claims that lacked a history of supporting documentation, which he called both “stressful” and “unfair.”

“Private claimants are increasingly gaming the system by filing … new claims against untarnished clergy or are filing new claims knowing that a previous member of the clergy has already been deemed responsible,” Feinberg said. “’Well, we found another congregate [sic] and we are filing on his behalf, no documentation, no proof, just a bald allegation.’”

He also dismissed the notion that settlements could or should include additional reimbursements for counseling for victims.

“If you asked somebody how to get them to sign a release – counseling or a check? He will take the check,” Feinberg said. “We can say, we get a release, we are done. Look, if someone wants more help, they can pay for it.”

Feinberg appears to have been well aware that alleged victims would feel pressure to accept offers because, prior to the enactment of the Child Victims Act, they had no other legal options.

“If you don’t take what we are offering, you don’t have to, but what is the alternative?” he added. “Maybe Albany will change the law, but they haven’t yet.”

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crafting the best tale for your child


You still need to read to your kids

Let’s be clear: Reading is still an indispensable tool in your parenting tool kit. Storytelling should be a complement to reading, not a replacement. I tend to tell stories after reading a bedtime book to lights off. But you can also use storytelling anytime — to make a long car trip shorter or just to pass the time. Whenever you do, you are engaging with your child in a unique way.

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“Listening to the story without the benefits of the illustrations requires the child to picture the characters and the events in their own mind,” said Rebecca Isbell, an early childhood education consultant and professor emeritus at East Tennessee State University in the US. “They are creating the story for themselves. They are listening to it, and as they do they’re turning on that movie in their head.”

These mental movies are powerful — in her research, Isbell has found children understood (and retained) more of a story they were told out loud than having the same story read to them. “I think that’s something that gets lost with reading,” she said. “You’re focused on the words and the phrases, not the deeper meaning of it.” When you tell a story, there’s no book to focus on, for you or your child, so you can use gestures and eye contact to add drama, suspense and intrigue.

Ultimately, Isbell concluded that storytelling and reading work best in tandem to help children develop language and story comprehension, just as you want your child eating a balanced meal.

Remember the basics of storytelling

If you’re making up a story, remember every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Every story should have a conflict and a resolution. Need help? Consider the folk tale.

On Circle Round, the children’s storytelling podcast from WBUR public radio in Boston, US, host Rebecca Sheir draws from folklore as source material for entertaining, audio-only stories for kids. I’ve drawn from my admittedly limited knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey (which was originally passed down orally) and the Bible (David and Goliath works pretty well). This saves you the mental effort of coming up with an original story every night.

Several experts recommended stories from Aesop’s Fables, which has been delighting children for millennia and includes “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Why? Because for kids, the protagonists “aren’t really animals, they’re people,” Isbell said. They visualise the characters and identify with them, and the nuanced morals — slow and steady wins the race, for example — are things any kid can understand.

If you’re really stumped, consider your own story. “We all have stories — a clever way you got out of a tricky situation, a surprise that made you laugh,” said Sheir. In particular, stories from your childhood have a special resonance because, as Sheir puts it, “kids have a hard time believing you ever were a child.”

Take the story in an unexpected direction

Diane Ferlatte has participated in storytelling festivals on five continents and in much of the United States, and her 2006 album of Brer Rabbit stories earned a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album for Children. She is, in short, a storyteller’s storyteller. Her advice? Use pitch, pacing and pausing to keep your child on the edge of their seat (or pillow).

“Pauses are very important,” she said. “It lets that curiosity and suspense in.” You can use strategic pauses to let your child ponder what happens next, and then take the story in an unexpected direction. Or just to make sure they’re paying attention.

Sheir seconds Ferlatte’s advice. “When you’re making up a story, the voice is so important,” she said. “You can vary your rhythm, pitch, intonation, your pacing. You can speeditup! You can slow … down … your … words. You can move your voice up! if someone is climbing a mountain, or move your voice down if they’re climbing down. You don’t have to be a musical person — we all have these musical instruments we’ve used for all of our lives.”

One word of warning: Sometimes, kids don’t want you to go full Jim Carrey. Or, as my daughter said the other night, “Please don’t use funny voices.” Her loss. My wicked witch voice is both terrifying and hilarious.

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Use your whole body

One advantage of telling, rather than reading, a story is that you don’t have to look at and hold a physical book, which frees your face and hands to gesture and make eye contact. It’s the difference between some guy reading a joke book and Chris Rock or Ali Wong doing standup. As Ferlatte puts it, “If books could give us sound and movement and voices and facial expression, that’d be wonderful. But they can’t.”

Use your hands to show whether something is huge or tiny, tap on nearby objects to imitate knocking on a door or whoosh your hands when something happens quickly. This physicality involves your children in the story. As Isbell puts it, when we’re telling a story to another person, “We’re dancing. We’re moving together.”

Encourage audience participation

“One of the things with a story told is you can change it around,” Isbell said. If your daughter wants the protagonist to be a mermaid instead of a snail, you can change that. A voyage through the high seas can become a journey to Mars. “You can change the sequence, you can change the characters, you can change the phrases. This nurtures that fluency of ideas that we want our children to develop.”

As with singing a song, you can encourage call and response, or use rhymes to keep the child actively engaged. Ferlatte recommends leaving out the end of a sentence and letting your child fill in the blank. “When you’re telling stories, you want them to be involved in the telling,” Isbell said. “We want them to be co-creators of the story, so they’re not just listening, they’re actively participating.”

This also helps if you’re hard up for material. “If you’re winging it, and running out of ideas, you can use audience participation to give yourself a break,” Sheir said. “You can even steal your kids’ ideas.”

Add a soundtrack

This last tip is helpful for if and when you’re telling stories beyond bedtime — on a long car ride, for example, or to liven up bath time. The idea is to use props or live musical accompaniment, just as professionals do at festivals or on recordings.

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“Your child is becoming your John Williams,” Sheir said, referring to the iconic composer of movie themes. Find an actual instrument or just two sticks “and as you tell the story, your child scores it. Or you can let your child take the lead — if they speed up, you speed up the action. If they slow down, you slow down, too.” You can also employ techniques like exquisite corpse, in which everyone takes a turn advancing the story. Or use Rory’s Story Cubes, in which you roll dice to determine where a story goes next.

In a time when physical bookstores and libraries remain off-limits for some of us, storytelling is a way to introduce new tales into our daily life. It’s also a way to bond with your child, to tap into her natural imagination while, perhaps, reawakening yours. In our home, I’m aware that Mum is the preferred parent for, well, almost everything — but storytelling remains exclusively my domain.

Like a long-running TV show, my stories are largely familiar and predictable, and yet my daughter eagerly asks for another instalment every time I put her to bed. Oh, and it’s a rare moment in life where telling a story that literally puts someone to sleep counts as a win. So while I can’t promise that you’ll live happily ever after, you can introduce a little creativity into a stale and sometimes-challenging bedtime routine. The end.

The New York Times

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Nearly 3,000 reports of online child sexual abuse last year


Save the Children Finland (Pelastakaa Lapset), a non-profit organisation that specialises in foster care, adoption and child protection services, has revealed that they received 2,750 tips related to online sexual exploitation of children last year.

The organisation provides a service on their website which allows anyone to report illegal activities pertaining to sexual solicitation or abuse of minors. This information is then handed over to the authorities.

Children or young adults who are victims of online sexual assaults or grooming can report crimes themselves. Additionally, the service provides support in case of nude pictures of minors being circulated online and suspected human trafficking. 

The online service received more reports than usual this Spring, but experts fear that many instances of exploitation will fall under the radar as minors are often unable to identify the markers of sexual grooming. 

In April, Save the Children expressed concern that children may be at higher risk of being targeted by sex offenders online given the current exceptional circumstances.

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Ontario expands access to emergency child care as schools remain closed


The Ontario government is expanding the eligibility for emergency child care in a bid to help parents working in critical sectors while the province’s schools remain closed to in-person learning.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce made the announcement at Queen’s Park Saturday morning, saying the government decided to expand the program after it pushed back the date elementary students are expected to return to classrooms.

“We recognize as this elementary school closure is extended, more people, more emergency and front-line workers will need support in this province,” he said.

Expanding this will allow us to responsibly build up and enable more workers to receive free child care during this difficult time, while these individuals have to physically … go into work.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the province, on Thursday the government delayed the target date by which elementary students in southern Ontario will return to in-class learning to at least Jan. 25. Students from kindergarten to Grade 8 had been slated to physically return to schools Jan. 11. The target date for secondary students to return is also Jan. 25.

While in-class learning is suspended, the province has prohibited licensed child care centres from serving school-aged children. But it offered free emergency child care to parents working in essential sectors who may not be able to support their kids’ remote learning, including health care professionals, police officers, firefighters and long-term care staff.

Saturday’s announcement extends eligibility to more groups, including parents working in Children’s Aid Societies and residential services, homeless services, hotels and motels acting as isolation centres or vaccination clinics, and education workers required for in-class instruction for students with special education needs.

Lecce said that so far 2,200 emergency child care spaces have been used, and the province has a capacity of about 28,000.

New modelling that provincial officials have warned paints a dire picture of the coronavirus second wave in Ontario is expected Monday. Asked whether students will be able to return to in-person learning at the end of the month, Lecce offered no guarantees.

“COVID obviously throws a lot of curveballs, and there’s no absolutes,” he said, adding that the government “will not and we should not compromise the safety of kids.”

According to the province, the COVID-19 positivity rate for children aged 12 and 13 increased from 5.44 per cent in late November and early December to nearly 20 per cent in early January.

The NDP slammed the Progressive Conservative government for not doing enough to ensure students can safely get back to school as soon as possible.

“It’s desperately frustrating for parents that Stephen Lecce got in front of the cameras, and didn’t announce a single measure to make schools safe to reopen. This government doesn’t want to invest in schools, and that’s putting our kids health and their education at risk,” said education critic Marit Stiles (Davenport) and child care critic Doly Begum (Scarborough Southwest) in a joint statement Saturday.

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The NDP is calling on the government to implement an effective in-school asymptomatic testing program, cap class sizes at 15 students, make urgent ventilation improvements to school buildings, and offer paid sick and family-care leave for all parents so they can afford to stay home with their children if they think they may be sick, instead of sending them to class or child care.

Lecce announced Friday the province plans to expand its school asymptomatic testing program. The Ontario government is providing $380 million for schools to fight COVID-19 by upgrading their ventilation systems, hiring more custodians, and purchasing personal protective equipment.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr



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Brisbane man charged with neglecting, murdering child



Detectives have charged a 41-year-old man with murder over the death of a child west of Brisbane in 2019.

The man, from the Brisbane suburb of Bellbowrie, was charged with murder, interfering with a corpse and neglect.

The child was allegedly killed on June 21, 2019, at Riverview, west of Brisbane.

The man is expected to appear at Ipswich Magistrates Court today.

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Cairns court hears ex-childcare manager allegedly said he ‘killed’ child left on bus


A Far North Queensland court has heard the former manager of a childcare centre, charged with manslaughter over the death of a toddler inside the centre’s minibus, allegedly told a paramedic he “killed the child”.

The body of three-year-old Malik Nicholas Floyd Namok-Malamoo was found on a Goodstart Early Learning centre bus at Edmonton, south of Cairns, in February last year.

Police allege he was left on the bus for about six hours before the alarm was raised.

Former centre director Michael Glenn Lewis, 45, and former staff member Dionne Batrice Grills, 34, have both been charged with manslaughter.

It is alleged Mr Lewis was driving the centre minibus when he and Ms Grills, a passenger, collected the boy from his home and brought him to the childcare centre.

They allegedly failed to take him off the bus, despite Malik being the only child on board at the time.

Dionne Grills leaves Cairns Magistrates Court with barrister Tony Kimmins on January 5, 2021.(ABC News: Kristy Sexton-McGrath)

This week’s committal hearing in Cairns Magistrate Court will determine if there is enough evidence for Ms Grills to go to trial.

Mr Lewis has been committed to stand trial in the Supreme Court at a date yet to be set.

On Tuesday, the court heard from Jeremy Neal, the first paramedic who arrived on the scene.

He claims he entered the bus, checked the child, and told Mr Lewis that the child was dead.

Ms Grills’s defence barrister, Tony Kimmins, asked Mr Neal if it was true that Mr Lewis said to him immediately after he told him the boy was dead: “I can’t believe I have done this, I thought I had done the head counts, I had been in meetings all day, I’ll never see my kids.”

“Yes, something along those lines,” Mr Neal said.

A police car is parked outside a sign for Hambledon State School
The boy was found on the bus outside Hambledon State School in Edmonton, Cairns.(ABC News: Mark Rigby)

On Monday, the court heard evidence from casual childcare centre worker Helen Bell, who said she was with Ms Grills when a child told them one of the children was found “asleep on the bus.”

She said Ms Grills told her, “I hope he hasn’t done what I think he’s done”, referring to Mr Lewis, as he had been driving the bus.

Referring to several witness statements, Mr Kimmins told the court his client, Ms Grills, was not responsible for the boy’s death.

“He (Mr Lewis) kept repeating, ‘I killed him, how have I done this to him’,” Mr Kimmins said.

“Mr Lewis has obviously identified in the statements that he has made that he believed he was responsible, obviously assuming that there was a duty of care on him, in accordance with the fact that he was the bus driver.”

The hearing continues on Wednesday.

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Teaching My Child to Love a Dying World


As a rabbi and climate activist, I’d already been grieving a long time. For our trees, for the great Appalachian hemlock forests, as well as for the burning Amazon, the oceans choked in plastic, the hungry people. For the whole beautiful and complex system of life, brought to its knees by a species rich in intelligence and poor in wisdom, the most dangerous apex predator ever to walk the Earth.

Abraham sat under the hemlocks on soil packed hard by his play. Last fall he named this spot Frog and Toad’s corner, and he likes to go on toddler “trips” there before triumphantly rushing back into my arms when he “comes home” to the patio. His little body rocked back and forth quietly. I resisted the urge to distract him, or myself, from our own versions of the same giant and holy grief.

Like so many, my husband and I were working from home and without child care this spring and summer. Caring for Abraham every day and sneaking in work emails where I could, I found myself more consistently outdoors in spring than I had been since my own childhood. Every day, Abraham and I walked the few short blocks from our Boston home to the back of Peters Hill in the Arnold Arboretum, a 281-acre collection of plants from around the world, owned by Harvard University and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Every day we saw, smelled and felt the changes in the trees. The collection nearest our house features the Rosacea family, and we spent hours underneath the flowering crab apples and hawthorns, marking the days by who was in bloom, whose petals had begun to drop, who had started to put out leaves, or fruit. Inspired by the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, I began a practice of using personal pronouns when referring to all plants and animals, teaching us both a new grammar that I hoped would be Abraham’s native tongue.

As we walked, Abraham and I spoke about the trees as people — and indeed, for the first month of quarantine, they were the only people besides us he got to see up close. In the absence of human friends, greeting the trees with a reverent shake of a lower branch became an obvious choice. “Hi, European larch tree,” Abraham would say in his toddler dialect, grabbing the feathery needles of the drooping branches.

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