Drowning puts focus on lack of carers

Cheryl Goodenough |

Emelia Jade must have got through a pool gate that was “not locked properly”, police believe.
Emelia Jade must have got through a pool gate that was “not locked properly”, police believe.

A toddler who accidentally drowned in a pool at a foster home was one of six children under 10 being looked after by a couple in their seventies because of a lack of carers, a coroner has found.

Emelia Jade died after getting through an unsafe pool fence at the property in Jimboomba, south of Brisbane, about a week before her second birthday in February 2020.

In non-inquest findings published on Wednesday, Deputy State Coroner Jane Bentley found the death was accidental.

However she found the decision to place the little girl with the foster carers – aged 76 and 74 – “was influenced by a lack of available alternative placements”.

The couple had been carers for 36 years, but at the time of Emelia Jade’s death they were also looking after three other foster children – aged four, six and eight – as well as their 11-year-old grandson and a three-year-old for respite care.

Emelia Jade was watching television in the lounge room while the family went about their daily routine getting the older children ready for school before she disappeared.

She was found in the pool and could not be resuscitated.

Police found it likely Emelia Jade got through a child gate between the lounge room and the kitchen, onto a patio and then through a gate that may have been opened by other children while getting ready for school.

Finally she must have made her way through the pool gate “not locked properly due to the locking mechanism not latching properly” after the children swam the night before.

Council officers found the gate and lock were out of alignment causing the lock not to engage when the gate was closed.

The carers said the older children would open the gate by standing on its bottom rung so they could reach the lock. 

This could cause the misalignment over time which they fixed when the gate did not lock, the findings state.

Misalignment issues may also have been caused by the ground destabilising during flooding in January 2020.

Emelia Jade had first been placed with the couple on an emergency basis in May 2019, but the Department of Child Safety was unable to find other carers for her.

The couple agreed to continue to look after her during her two-year protection order “because they wanted her to have stability”, Ms Bentley said.

“They concluded though that they could not care for her long term due to her young age and their advanced years,” she added.

Child safety officers were concerned about the couple’s capacity to look after all six children, with an internal review of Emelia Jade’s death finding a monthly visit to the family was inadequate.

Ms Bentley said the number of children in care had increased by 14.5 per cent since June 2015, while the number of carer families had increased by only 6.6 per cent.

“The limited number of carers available is a known systemic issue within the child protection system,” she said.

A recruitment campaign launched in July 2020 has seen an increase in the number of approved carer families. 

But the department said there were inherent issues including foster carer numbers being too low to meet the needs of children in care, regular turnover of carers, and difficulty in recruiting carers.

Ms Bentley said the department had reviewed guidance for carers around pool safety.

Authorities are also reviewing processes for raising issues about changes to properties that are planned, such as renovations, or unplanned in the event of incidents such as flooding or a storm.