opinion

It's time we all found some compassion for Tiahleigh Palmer's mum.

Years ago when I was considering a career change, I had the great fortune of working for a while in the community sector. I was studying counselling and I worked as a case manager in a not-for-profit service providing accommodation for homeless men and their children.

Homeless men always evoke images of ancient, wrinkled men in soiled clothing, sitting on street corners. But of course, homelessness is far more complex than the stereotypes. These were men who had fallen on difficult times and when they became homeless, so did the children in their care.

Some of the dads were full-time carers. Others only had part-time care. And that’s part of the reason the service was born. To make sure these dads didn’t lose their children because they had fallen on hard times.

I say I was fortunate because not everyone is lucky enough to deal closely with people who are going through some of the most difficult times in their life. Homelessness is one of these. Losing your children – or being on the brink of it – is another.

 Losing your children - or being on the brink of it - is one of the most difficult times in a parent's life. (Image: Facebook)

I worked with women too. Some had drug problems or had lost their children because they failed to leave abusive partners. I remember one woman almost daring me to judge her for smoking cigarettes while heavily pregnant. She had quit heroin for the sake of her baby. She told me she was doing the best she could.

Some parents had issues with drugs, many struggled with a lack of education, some had been abused when they were young, some were perpetrators or victims of domestic violence, most were poor, almost all had made bad choices.

But what they all shared was a desire to maintain custody of their children. To be good parents. Some struggled more than others. Some would not make it and their children would be removed for good.

But others were determined to change their lives and to right the mistakes of their past, to learn life skills and lessons so they could be the parents their children wanted them to be.

Watching the reporting this week around 12-year-old Tiahleigh Palmer, whose foster father has been charged with her murder, I can understand how easy it is for people to judge.

And I can understand the need to do so. A young girl is dead. Who is to blame?

 A young girl is dead. Who is to blame? (Image: Facebook)

While we know that, ultimately, only the person who took her life is to blame, we still have a natural desire to share that blame, to find scapegoats, to pin this on people who could have, or should have, helped.

One of those people has been her mother Cindy Palmer. In online articles and Facebook posts this week and last October when Tia went missing, the commentators have asked: "Where were you?"

The implication is that had Ms Palmer been a better mother, her daughter would not have been in care. Had she been more fit, her daughter would not have been dead.

But of course, this is not true. Tiahleigh's mother had every reason to think that her daughter would be safe in a home the state said was safer than her own.

ADVERTISEMENT

It should also be noted that no-one has been asking "Where is her dad?"

No-one seems to blame him for not being around in his daughter's life.

I don't know Tiahleigh's mum. I know a little about her circumstances, but let's face it - I know nothing about her life story or her struggles. I do know that like every other mother, every other woman, she is probably flawed. Like so many of us, she had made mistakes. And I know that some of her's must have been big ones, because they resulted in her child being removed from her care.

I also know she was trying to get her life back on track; that she had contact with her daughter and was hoping they could be reunited permanently soon.

According to the Daily Mail Ms Palmer - who had Tia when she was young - did intermittent jail time through 2011 and 2013. And while her criminal record has not been released, "friends would only say it was 'petty... not violent or big stuff'".

Ms Palmer had contact with her daughter and was hoping they could be reunited permanently soon. (Screenshot: ABC News)

Tia's former foster carer Julie Pemberton told the Daily Mail that 'Tia loved her mum dearly and Cindy adored her girl. Her mum is so good, she has got it together'.

"She had Tia young and might have made a few mistakes but she is lovely and absolutely adores her daughter," she said.

It is easy to cast men and women into the roles of good mother/good father, bad mother/bad father. But it is also patently untrue.

Life is complex. And hard. Not everyone grows up with opportunities. Not everyone has the fortune of being born into a stable home with parents who understand and can teach life's rules.

And this is why I say I was fortunate to work with these mums and dads. Because it is a great honour to be invited into other people's lives and be privy to their struggles. It is humbling to see how hard they work. And it is a gift to be able to look at others and empathise and know life is not black and white.

Amid all the judgement please remember Tiahleigh's mother this week sat in court and heard details about the way her daughter was allegedly killed by the man entrusted to care for her.

She heard allegations that Tia was the victim of incest by the 19-year-old foster brother living in the same house.

Ms Palmer has every right to feel intense grief. Her child is dead. And she has every right to feel completely let down by a system that said 'we can do a better job of caring for your child than you'.

It is an utter tragedy that a young girl has died. But don't forget the woman who has lost her child... twice.

And see if you can muster a little compassion.

00:00 / ???