Annie and her family arrived in Australia as refugees nine years ago. We first met Annie in September 2015 at our Penrith Advice Bureau. She was eight months pregnant and was accompanied by her mother and a refugee support worker.
Annie had recently been charged with common assault and reckless or intentional damage to property, following an argument with her younger sister, Jane. Each charge carried a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment. The police had also taken out an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (‘ADVO’) that prevented Annie from going near Jane. As a result, Annie had to move out of the family home and stop caring for her disabled mother and three younger siblings. Without any other support, she was forced to couch surf and sleep in refuges.
Annie described to us how she had become involved in an argument with Jane one morning before Jane left for school. Jane had a significant history of truanting and other behavioural issues, which Annie and her mother were trying to address. On her mother’s instructions, Annie asked Jane not to leave the house until her mother returned from taking the three younger siblings to school. Jane refused to listen to Annie, and continued to walk towards the door. A brief scuffle then ensued between the girls before Jane kicked Annie in the stomach. Annie was seven months pregnant at the time.
Feeling shocked and betrayed by her sister’s reckless and dangerous actions, Annie took a bag of clothes that she had intended to give to Jane and set them alight. Jane then called the police and Annie was arrested.
Annie had never been in trouble with the police before and was very worried about going to court. She had recently completed a Diploma of Community Services and was very concerned that a criminal conviction may affect her chances of working in child care and obtaining Australian Citizenship. After talking with Annie further, she disclosed to us that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Following the incident with her sister, she had suffered a schizophrenic episode while in police custody and was admitted to hospital.
We explained to Annie that her actions during the incident may have been related to her mental health condition, especially as she was not receiving any medical treatment at the time. We recommended that she consider making an application under section 32 of the Mental Health (Forensic Provisions) Act 1900 (NSW) (the ‘Act’).
Under Section 32 of the Act a Magistrate can divert people who are suffering from a mental illness, away from the criminal justice system and into medical support and treatment to address the issues that led to the alleged offending conduct.
Annie accepted our advice and we agreed to assist with preparation of the section 32 application and to appear on her behalf at Court. When the section 32 application was heard in court, we provided the Magistrate with a psychological report which confirmed that Annie’s behavior was associated with her mental health condition, and recommended that she engage in regular treatment sessions with a psychologist. The Magistrate accepted the application and made Orders that Annie engage in psychological treatment and attend an appointment with a psychiatrist. As a result, Annie did not have any convictions recorded against her and her matter was dismissed. We were also able to have the conditions of Annie’s ADVO reduced so that she could continue to live at home and receive family support while she cares for her new baby son as a young single mother.
Annie was very grateful for our assistance and was relieved to hear that the charges would not prevent her from working in child care. She is attending her psychologist appointments regularly and recently told us that her relationship with Jane is much better.