IN a bizarre series of events, one mother’s worst fears became a reality when she went to pick up her seven-year-old daughter from school one day to find out she was gone.

In August last year, Serena* from Moe was doing the school pick-up rounds, needing to pick up her young daughter from South Street Primary School, Moe early – to get to a therapist appointment.

Having to first pick up her younger son from kindergarten just down the road at the Moe Early Learning Centre Preschool, Serena thought everything was fine.

Despite Kinder running a few minutes late, nothing was out of the ordinary, so Serena headed to the primary school nearby, where she expected her daughter to be waiting for her.

“I just checked the gym on the way in because they had an assembly … she didn’t seem to be there, so I went up to the office area to see if she was there, and she wasn’t,” the young mother recalled.

“I went and spoke to the receptionist and asked, ‘Where’s my daughter?’ and she told me she was right there sitting on the chairs.”

Soon began a parent’s worst fear. Serena was immediately filled with concern, frantically searching for her daughter up and down the school halls.

“It was very scary; I didn’t know where she was; I didn’t know who had her,” she said.

Serena’s concern only grew with the knowledge that her daughter had a series of disabilities, including a speech impediment.

Of course, Serena had no way of knowing that her daughter was safe and sound; she had just been taken out of mistaken identity.

A registered social worker came into the school reception just moments before and mistook the child as the one she was meant to pick up for an access visit.

It took the school around half an hour to realise what could have happened. Once the puzzle was solved with the help of CCTV footage, the team at Moe South Street called the social worker as she was driving through Trafalgar to let her know she had withdrawn the wrong student from school.

Serena alleges that her daughter tried to explain to the social worker that she had taken the wrong child.

The mother also understands that the receptionist was working in the office at the time of the student’s sign-out.

The social worker immediately returned Serena’s daughter once notified, but the ordeal has strained the family.

“She is very scared; she told me she wanted to move school; she didn’t want to go back,” Serena said.

“Still, now, she still tells me she’s scared of the lady who took her and of it happening again.

“My daughter has multiple things stemming from the incident such as nightmares … she was already seeing a psychologist, but it’s now focused a lot on what happened; she has struggles leaving me and sometimes will cling onto me and not let go.

“She was a happy, bubbly kid who would want to venture off before this incident, but no more.”

Serena was of the understanding that her daughter would receive mental care after the traumatic incident but was unsatisfied with the lack of support she had received from the school and the Department of Education.

“I was told promises that were broken. I pulled her out and moved schools because of the incident, which was a pain because the school was very close by,” she said.

“It was getting to the point she didn’t want to go to school at all, and she was just so scared.”

The Department of Education met with the family and representatives from the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) shortly after the incident.

The Departments closed the case on the understanding the concerns have been resolved.
Serena has since lodged a complaint to the Victorian Ombudsman concerning the incident.

“I don’t want it to happen to anyone else, it’s heartbreaking to think a school put my child in so much danger and still to this day nobody has been held responsible for what happened,” she said.

The Express approached the Department of Education and the DFFH for comment.
“We deeply regret what happened at Moe South Street Primary School in August 2023,” an Education Department spokesperson said.

“The school is working with the student and her mother to provide ongoing wellbeing support, and the department has also been working with the school to ensure that regrettable incidents of this nature never occur again.”

The Department of Education and the DFFH has been engaging with the Ombudsman on the matter since the complaint was raised.

The DFFH reiterated these sentiments, calling the incident “regrettable”.

When questioned whether the Department has taken any measures to ensure an incident like this doesn’t occur again, a DFFH spokesperson said they have taken action.

“The department undertook a local review of practice in relation to collecting children from childcare, kindergarten and school settings to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and we have worked with the Department of Education to ensure child sign-out processes are strengthened and aligned,” they said.

The Latrobe Valley Express understands that all relevant DFFH staff have been advised of the strengthened processes that must be followed when collecting children from childcare, kindergarten and school settings.

* First name used to protect identity.