Where the good times roll children are dying

SYDNEY - Floating on a suburban duckpond, a toddler's bloated corpse is found stuffed inside a suitcase. Atop a dirt-infested bed, a little girl dies from starvation and dehydration.

In a country where the good times have never rolled so well, these are harrowing cases that expose a rarely-mentioned but ever-present and dark underbelly.

According to experts, the chilling deaths of Dean Shillingsworth and Shellay Ward symbolise an epidemic of child abuse and neglect.

In NSW, where both children perished, Premier Morris Iemma echoed the thoughts of many grappling for answers when he wondered aloud over the demise of 7-year-old Shellay.

"We're a modern, prosperous state," he said. "I know there are pockets of disadvantage but I shake my head that a child dies, allegedly, through starvation."

Heartfelt as Iemma's comments may be, he is in the line of fire. With revelations the state's child protection agency was aware of both children's plights - and did nothing - there are accusations his Government is culpable.

At the NSW Department of Community Services, commonly known as DOCS, scandal and controversy have long weighed as heavily as its case workers' ever-increasing workload.

In NSW one in seven families - and one in 15 kids - are reported to DOCS. Research suggests a child is abused every 13 minutes.

In 2003 former Premier Bob Carr effectively acknowledged the organisation was in crisis when he committed an extra 1000 frontline staff and over A$1 billion to fix the system.

But this year's annual report by the NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour confirmed DOCS was still plagued by major and persistent failings.

Obliged to investigate the deaths of all children in the state, the Shillingsworth and Ward cases have now landed on the Ombudsman's desk.

He will pay particular attention to the role of the child protection agency, which received reports expressing concern for Dean's welfare before his body was found in the suitcase in Sydney's south-west.

The 2-year-old's mother has since been charged with his murder.

DOCS had also been aware of problems with the Wards long before Shellay's mother Sharon called 000 earlier this month from their home in Hawks Nest, north of Newcastle.

The autistic youngster had weighed just 9kg - 12kg less than an average girl her age - and police told her father Blakeley she had succumbed to starvation and dehydration.

"I love my kids to death, all three of them, and now one of them is dead," he told reporters afterwards.

"I don't know how this can be. She'd like eat anything."

The account from a man who claimed to have once been a roadie for rock band AC/DC was at odds with those of his neighbours.

They told how complaints led to DOCS taking the youngest of the four Ward daughters into foster care, but left the other three with their parents.

Shellay had never been to school, and her older 13 and 15-year-old sisters hadn't attended since 2005.

Janice Reid told the Sydney Morning Herald how Shellay had rarely emerged from their previous home in the Sydney suburb of Matraville, which was infested with excrement and knee-deep in rubbish. Reid, a DOCS foster carer, went into the house as industrial cleaners arrived following the family's move to their present address.

Patches of faeces covered the floor of Shellay's room, which stank of urine. "It just smelt like a bad, filthy public toilet," she said.

Debbie Jacobsen, a NSW Foster Care Association board member, met DOCS management to express concern for the Ward children.

She is among many demanding to know why nothing was done.

DOCS staff complain of being suffocated under a huge caseload, and piles of paperwork generated by mandatory reporting requirements.

In response, Iemma has announced an inquiry headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice James Wood, who is best known for overseeing a Royal Commission into police corruption.

Opposition politicians say DOCS should be subjected to a commission with the same binding powers.

Wood's investigation is one of several focusing on the deaths and several other apparent DOCS bungles that have come to light in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Shellay's parents are due to appear in court today after being charged with her murder.

They were arrested on Friday at a railway station more than 100km south of Sydney.

DEAN SHILLINGSWORTH

Age: 2

Found: Dead in a suitcase on a duckpond.

His mother: Has been charged with murder.

SHELLAY WARD

Age: 7

Found: Dead in dirty room from starvation and dehydration.

Her parents: To be charged with murder today.

NSW STATE GOVERNMENT

The state Ombudsman will investigate both cases.

The Government has announced an inquiry headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice James Wood.

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