Appalling child protection service in Victoria

The disgusting creatures offer hush money rather than investigate their failings

A MUM whose son died suspiciously has been offered $220,000 by the Department of Human Services to end her fight for justice and keep the deal secret. Pensioner Michelle Stewart - whose son Nathan was aged 16 when he died from a stab wound to the heart - has received the six-figure offer in a legal letter from the DHS.

But the letter linked the money to a confidentiality clause that would have barred her from talking about the details of the settlement. "It's all about the suppression to them, never speaking about it again," she said.

In a brave move motivated by a mother's love for her son rather than money, Ms Stewart has turned her back on the hush fund and chosen to tell her story through the Sunday Herald Sun.

"But it's about the principle, it's about doing what is right, it's about them being accountable to some degree and paying some respect," she said.

Nathan died in a Melbourne hospital in April 2005, months after his family and school had raised concerns about his care.

Ms Stewart has staged a six-year legal battle against the DHS and the Angliss Hospital - where he was first treated for the fatal wound - claiming negligence and failing in a duty of care. In a bid to stop the case going to court, the DHS has sought a settlement by offering her a one-off payout but demanding that she never talk of the deal.

A letter from lawyers representing the DHS shows the department was willing to pay $220,000 on condition there was a confidentiality clause. Ms Stewart also claims the DHS told her at mediation she could never talk about what happened to her son under the terms of the deal. "They can't even admit that they made a mistake, they can't even say 'sorry'," she said.

Ms Stewart said she was first offered $50,000 by Eastern Health in 2008 to sign a gag clause. That was later raised to $80,000, which she also refused. In April this year the DHS made her the $220,000 offer during mediation, on condition that the department denied liability and she sign an order "to keep the terms of the settlement of the proceedings and the terms of the compromise ... confidential".

She was given two weeks to sign the DHS deal but declined, last night describing the offer as "blood money" and adding: "You can't put a price on silence. "They want me to sign away my son's story - pay me to sweep it under the carpet. "Where is the dignity in that? It's saying 'shut up'."

Bronwyn Perry, spokeswoman for Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge, refused yesterday to comment on the Minister's involvement in the case or her knowledge of the gag clause. "Given the litigation is ongoing, we are unable to comment," Ms Perry said.

The Government has assembled a high-powered legal team, believed to include three QCs, to fight the case in the Supreme Court next year.

Ms Stewart will represent herself in the trial, which is expected to last three weeks, but is unsure how she will pay for legal costs that already total more than $279,000. "You do feel powerless when you're up against such a big government body, but he was my son and I loved him so I can't give up the fight," she said.

In a statement, DHS spokesman Steve Pogonowski refused to respond to questions about the offer. "The legal process is ongoing, so we are unable to comment further," he said. "Out-of-court settlements and confidentiality agreements are a personal matter between the litigant and the department."

Ms Stewart vowed to get justice for Nathan and said she wanted an apology from the department and for it to accept some blame for his death: "I have had to fight for the right to have my son's voice heard, I should not have had to do that."

"My son has died in vain if his voice has not been heard. I often say the day Nathan died, I died too. I built my life around him - this has torn me apart," she said.

In a 2008 investigation into Nathan's death, State Coroner Jennifer Coate described him as "an intelligent and articulate boy who had been exposed to a great deal in his short life".

Ms Stewart said Nathan was taken out of her care due to domestic violence at home. No one has ever been charged in connection with Nathan's death.

Opposition child safety spokesman Luke Donnellan said it was outrageous for the DHS to try to "bury" such a serious issue. "Mistakes have been made. Why not just admit that, learn the lesson and move on?" he said. "Nobody would ever want this to happen again."

The DHS received 32 reports of child deaths last financial year and the office of the Child Safety Commissioner launched 27 inquiries into the deaths of children known to child protection workers last year.


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