Child safety ‘pressure’ not to act before girls died

Rex Martinich |

An inquest is investigating the death of two little girls in a hot car parked outside their home.
An inquest is investigating the death of two little girls in a hot car parked outside their home.

A child safety officer made the “wrong” decision to not recommend protective services action on reports a toddler was in danger just weeks before she died, an inquest has been told.

The Queensland Department of Child Safety worker told a coronial inquest on Wednesday she had a high caseload with pressure to “smash out” decisions in response to allegations of children being at risk.

Darcey-Helen, 2, and Chloe-Ann Conley, 18 months, died on November 23, 2019 at Waterford West, south of Brisbane after the car they were in reached an estimated temperature of 61.5C.

Their mother, Kerri-Ann Conley, had left them in the car outside her home since 4am after returning from a drive to a friend’s place and using the drug methamphetamine.

Conley pleaded guilty in February 2023 to two counts of manslaughter and was sentenced to nine years’ jail to be eligible for parole in November 2024.

The inquest in Brisbane on Wednesday heard the child safety officer, who can not be named for legal reasons, first handled a claim about Darcey’s welfare soon after the girl was born in May 2017.

Kerri-Ann Conley
Kerri-Ann Conley pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter over the deaths of her daughters. (HANDOUT/DC5)

The claim stated midwives were concerned about Kerri-Ann Conley departing the hospital for hours at a time and leaving Darcey in the care of a teenage relative.

The officer was contacted on November 3 and 4 in 2019 by a doctor and others who were either worried or passed on concerns about Kerri-Ann Conley’s drug use and alleged dealing.

The officer told the inquest the doctor said Darcey appeared healthy and it was her opinion the others’ claims were generalised or outdated.

“I was trying to ascertain recency, frequency, severity of their concerns to get something tangible to work with,” the officer said.

The worker said she processed initial reports using the department’s decision-making tools, taking 20 minutes to do so in 2017 and 10 minutes in 2019 under performance targets at the time.

“There’s so much coming in, that is the pressure … on that particular day the direct statement from the team leader was ‘smash out as many as you can’,” she said.

In both 2017 and 2019 the officer filed a child concern report rather than a child protection notification, which would have required the department to start an investigation and assessment of the claims.

The officer’s second decision was submitted just two days before Kerri-Ann Conley woke up to find she had left her daughters to die over several hours in a hot car.

The officer said there had been “pushback” in 2019 from investigation officers, who told the intake team leader to send them fewer child protection notifications.

Barrister Benjamin Dighton, acting for Darcey’s father Peter Jackson, asked the officer if she made the wrong decision in November 2019 not to make a notification for Darcey.

“Yes,” the officer said.

She said the number of similar claims should have been enough to form a reasonable suspicion Darcey was at risk of harm.