After nearly a decade of love, it took only a day and the catalyst of one incident for Mary and her husband Martin* to have their sometimes violent foster son taken from their care forever.
"One day he punched me in the chest in a public place and my husband restrained him and took him outside, and he was accused of abusing the child," Mary said.
"I was accused of emotional abuse when I didn't comfort him after he hit me."
Mary said her primary school-aged foster son was already on a warning from police that he would be charged if there were further attacks, after being aggressive at school. The husband's restraint had stopped the boy using his hands, she said. In her own case, she said a psychologist had earlier advised against immediate comforting of the child after he had hit her.
But after a complaint from a witness, the boy was removed from the couple's care the day after the incident. As painful as this was for the parents, Mary said her son was most distraught and his actions after removal showed a clear opposition to the state's action.
"He said at home [on the day], 'I just had this big explosion inside, it was nothing about you'," Mary said.
"He ran away from all the other places he stayed in because he wanted to see us."
While no criminal action was ever taken against the parents, Mary said the directorate's administrative findings that the allegations against husband and wife were "substantiated", they were unable to be challenged.
"You can't think about anything worse to be said about you than that you're a child abuser, so a finding of that kind, which is devastating, you need to have that tested," she said.
An expert engaged by the government did investigate the case, and Mary told her a safety plan would need to be put in place before the boy could return to them, as the couple wanted. But the mother said the expert had to take as fact, rather than look into, the negative findings against the couple. The expert advice was for contact, but not for the son to return.
An ACT Community Services Directorate spokeswoman said the directorate was restricted by law from discussing details of individual foster children. She confirmed decisions of substantiation were not reviewable under the Children and Young People Act.
"Allegations of abuse and/or neglect may only be substantiated following a comprehensive investigation process which is informed by: interviews with; parents/carers, the child or young person, other involved professionals, third party witnesses to events, and in consideration of the child's history and progress in care – including previous allegations and investigations of abuse or neglect," she said.
"Where an allegation is substantiated, this means that on the balance of probabilities, the directorate has reason to believe or suspect that the child has been, is being, or is at risk of, abuse and/or neglect."
The spokeswoman said the directorate did not endorse the use of restraint by carers as a behaviour management strategy.
A directorate spokesman said support and guidance provided to carers was tailored to the individual circumstances of the family and the child they were caring for.
"This includes access to support services, and experts in managing the behaviour that often presents as a result of trauma," he said.
There was no specific examples provided by the directorate when it was asked what actions a carer could take instead of restraint when a child had been violent and members of the public were nearby.
The ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal confirmed in February it had no power to review the directorate's placement or removal of children. Mary and Martin said law changes were needed. They now have irregular contact with the boy they raised.
"I've told him he remains my child and I love him," Mary said.
Minister for Children and Young People Mick Gentleman, asked what he would do to ensure parents had appeal rights, said only that he maintained his faith and respect for protection staff working to achieve the best outcomes for children in the complex area.