Brisbane -- A group of Australians has peered into a dark world recently as a public inquiry ponders what to do about one the nation's most intractable problems -- bad parents.
The Child Protection Inquiry has heard evidence for the past three weeks in the Queensland capital of Brisbane, venturing deep into a world most Australians would prefer to discreetly draw the curtains on and pretend did not exist.
This prosperous state, a major beneficiary of the decade-long mining boom, has been forced to confront the uncomfortable truth we have living among us: a lost tribe of children.
Amidst a population of 4.5 million people, these 8,000 kids have endured a home life so steeped in violence and drug abuse, or have been so appallingly neglected, the state has been forced to take on the role of parent.
That Canada and Europe and every developed country faces the same problem is little consolation, especially when Queenslanders are told there are now more kids in state care than adults in our prison system.
The conditions they have lived in before being rescued by the state are horrific. And their mental state after years of sexual or physical abuse conjures up visions of that 17th century London hospital which gave us that hideous label for the agonies of mental illness -- Bedlam.
Not necessarily suffering congenital mental-health problems, a small number subject to the most violent abuse have been driven literally to madness -- biting themselves and others, banging their heads repeatedly against walls and smearing excrement across their rooms.
While indigenous kids are over-represented and historical factors can at least go some way to explaining the prevalence of poor parenting in aboriginal communities, thousands are from the mainstream white community.
Put simply, a worrying portion of adult Queensland parents are too drug addled or drunk to perform the rudiments of child rearing such as toilet training. Others simply use their own offspring to give physical expression to an internal rage, bashing or sexually abusing them.
Annual budgets of more than three quarters of a billion dollars channelled into child protection appear to have little impact, with the number of kids in state care more than doubling over the decade.
The inquiry this week referred to the Canadian experience and what appears to be a policy of allowing the state to decide if dysfunctional parents should relinquish rights to their babies.
The Queensland government has some power to remove a newborn child from a potentially dangerous mother but widening that power would take political courage. Only this week the government decided to apologize to the unwed mothers of decades ago who were forced to give up their children.
That option is nonetheless under serious discussion with a range of professionals giving qualified support to a notion intuitively abhorrent to the vast majority.
This commission, headed by lawyer Tim Carmody, is unusual in that it was an election promise of the newly installed LNP state government,and was not sparked by a scandal involving a specific case of child abuse.
But with a wide-ranging brief, all avenues can be explored, with the result that the mood inside the inquiry can approach one of despair as lawyers and child-care professionals try to plot a road map out of the madness.
While the subject is too important to cheapen with sentimentality, a Queensland school teacher (speaking outside the inquiry) does tell a poignant story highlighting just how appalling some people who call themselves parents can behave towards those who would normally expect to be loved and cherished, and just how difficult it will be to frame public policy to prompt more responsible parenting.
The teacher once taught a sweet-natured child who was slow at learning but was a pleasure to have in the class room, and whose mother was a chronic alcoholic.
One day a school staff member who had visited the beach and picked up a pretty sea shell gave it to the child, who accepted the gift with great pleasure mingled with curiosity.
It later transpired that although she lived no more than 15 kilometres from the beach, the child had never seen the ocean. And although she had reached the age of six she had no possessions -- a sea shell was her first gift.
This inquiry has developed a hard-headed approach to finding solutions, but many involved concede few solutions readily present themselves.
As Carmody said wearily one recent afternoon: "You can't legislate against bad parents.''
Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.