Tiahleigh Palmer was 12 years old when she died. Missing for a week, her body was discovered by fishermen in a river north of the Gold Coast. Tiahleigh's tragic death has evoked condemnation from the public, and in the wake of charges being laid against her alleged killer, her foster father Rick Thorburn, the vitriol has been considerable.
The public has also been swift to attack Trent Thorburn, Tiahleigh's 19-year-old foster brother who police have charged with "incest", with one social media user imploring the inmates of Queensland correctional facilities to "put the kettle on" in reference to the prison justice-style burns suffered by Daniel Morcombe's killer, Brett Peter Cowan, earlier this year.
But for all the outrage at the alleged criminal actions of the Thorburns, there is an alarming amount of abuse directed towards one woman who stands relatively alone and yet in the centre of this tragedy.
That woman is Cindy Palmer, Tiahleigh's biological mother.
In any news article on Tiahleigh's death, a disturbing level of abuse directed towards the mother of a child who met a violent death can be viewed in the comments section of social media. Unsettling in its callousness, in the wake of Cindy making her first public statement in months at a police press conference last week, the knives were out:
Comments on the Brisbane Times Facebook page where an article related to Cindy's attendance at court after the Thorburns' arrest included "… if I see that stupid mother stampeding around I will scream! Where were you when your little darling needed you? You were an unfit parent who shipped your daughter into foster care and now you come out enraged!"
Overwhelmingly, it seems the critical question to be answered by many members of the public is not who killed Tiahleigh or why, but why she was in foster care in the first place.
Cindy Palmer was a young mother who was absent from Tiahleigh's life due to periods of incarceration for offences that friends have stated were minor and non-violent. The former foster parents with whom Tiahleigh was placed prior to her placement with the Thorburns have stated that Cindy adored her daughter and that the ultimate goal was reunification.
It would be speculation to presume why this did not eventuate, but this has not stopped the righteous from finger-pointing the blame for her daughter's death at Cindy, who despite her attempts to turn her life around and regain custody of her daughter, was robbed of the chance to do so.
Notably absent from any public condemnation is Tiahleigh's biological father. Cindy's parenting choices have been extensively questioned while Tiahleigh's father – whose identity has not been made public – has escaped criticism. Whether or not he is aware of his involvement in this tragedy is unknown, but it is clear that when questions were going unanswered in relation to Tiahleigh's whereabouts, it was Cindy who was making the most noise, taking to social media pleading for answers and assistance.
This public show of determination to bring her daughter's killer to justice gathered some community support, but for every positive comment directed towards her, there is an equally harsh backhand, reminding Cindy that if she had been a better mother, had made better choices, perhaps Tiahleigh would never have been in foster care and would still be alive today.
Not only does this line of reasoning subject mothers such as Cindy to a level of scrutiny that is not directed at fathers, it also absolves violent offenders from being held completely culpable for their alleged criminal misdeeds. It is akin to the woman wearing a short skirt "asking" for rape, or the woman who stays with a partner who is violent towards her "allowing" abuse.
It is yet another example of our refusal as a society to hold men responsible for their crimes against women, instead searching for reasons to blame the woman for whatever hellish situation she may have encountered. In the eyes of many, if you are a mother, and you have a lack of support, insufficient resources and you make a poor choice in partner or direction in life; in the event that your child meets a violent end at someone else's hand, the fault lies squarely with you. You should have done more.
To quote Brene Brown, blame has an inverse relationship with accountability. Blame is something we are drawn to because it gives us the sensation of control, but instead of actually gaining control, we lose the ability to empathise. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the public criticism of Cindy Palmer. She is not a saint – but nor is she a sinner.
The details of Tiahleigh's family life will no doubt be made public in due course, but instead of speculating on what resulted in Tiahleigh's placement in care, perhaps we should spare a thought for the mother who is left behind. We are quick to judge others and place arm's distance between the wrongs that have befallen them, reassuring ourselves that those kinds of things don't happen to "people like us".
But when violent crimes are committed we should remember tragedy can cut through education, wealth and status, and when it happens, there is only one person responsible, and that is the perpetrator.
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