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Child's drowning raises questions about how foster carers are chosen and monitored -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Nobody would dispute that if the state takes custody of a child, it should provide a safe and secure environment.

But the grieving parents of a 22-month-old boy are demanding answers about how their son came to drown in a backyard pool only weeks after he was placed in care.

An autopsy report into his death states the little boy's foster home, chosen by the community organisation Life Without Barriers, was littered with alcohol and medication and was, quote, "not a safe and secure home for foster children".

It's not the first time the agency's been at the centre of allegations of poor recruitment and monitoring practices, as Dan Oakes reports.

JOHNNY SLAGER, FATHER: He was smart, he was - he was fun.

VANESSA LEWIN, MOTHER: He was just happy-go-lucky, beautiful little boy.

JOHNNY SLAGER: He loved to go and play, loved playing on the swings. We'd go past the swings, yeah, "Daddy swing. Dadda, swing," ... (becoming emotional) ... all the time. He was a good boy.

DAN OAKES, REPORTER: Less than a year after the death of their 22-month-old son Braxton, his parent's grief is overwhelming.

In September last year, Braxton Slager-Lewin drowned in a backyard pool in Western Sydney.

He was under the care of a foster family. His parents say that care failed.

JOHNNY SLAGER: I'm the one that's got to try and make sense of it, but look what they've done, you know. (Becoming emotional) How do they justify it? What the f**k, man? How? How can they do that?

DAN OAKES: Braxton was placed in temporary foster care last year after his father contacted the Department of Family and Community Services and asked for help with caring for Braxton while he tried to come off methadone.

Braxton's mother was unable to take her son because she had a drug problem of her own.

DAN OAKES: Were you concerned about Braxton being handed over to the department?


DAN OAKES: Why were you concerned?

VANESSA LEWIN: Just because being a child in care myself and I've got my other daughter, but, yeah, I just didn't want him to go into care.

DAN OAKES: Johnny Slager says he requested that Braxton live with his sister or former partner, but this was refused by the department.

DAN OAKES: It would be fair to say you felt some pressure from the department obviously to give - to give Braxton up

JOHNNY SLAGER: A lot of pressure, a lot of pressure.

DAN OAKES: And what did they say would happen if you didn't?

JOHNNY SLAGER: Then they were gonna get a court order to say that I'm - I'd never get him back.

DAN OAKES: On August 20th, Johnny Slager signed the temporary care form, assigning care of his son to the Department of Family and Community Services for three months.

The department engaged the community service organisation Life Without Barriers to place Braxton with a foster carer. Johnny says Braxton founded moving away from him difficult.

JOHNNY SLAGER: But I noticed he was becoming more distant just after a couple of weeks and he was angry at me because - that's the feeling I got.

DAN OAKES: Just three weeks into the foster care placement and days before Johnny was due to regain custody of his son, Braxton slipped unnoticed into this backyard pool.

He was dragged blue and unresponsive from the water by his carer. A CareFlight helicopter was called, but Braxton never regained consciousness.

VANESSA LEWIN: And then we had to go to the hospital, Westmead, and identify him. And just seeing him dead on the table. (Becoming emotional)...

... Yeah, it was the worst day of my life. I never imagined I'd have to bury my child.

DAN OAKES: Photographs taken by police following Braxton's death show a backyard littered with debris.

They will form part of the evidence considered by the coroner when Braxton's death is investigated.

Child protection expert Joe Tucci says the photos raise serious concerns about Braxton's placement.

JOE TUCCI, AUSTRALIAN CHILDHOOD FOUNDATION: And for me, if a system was screening, supervising and monitoring the quality of care of this baby, there's no way that they should have let that child stay in that kind of environment.

DAN OAKES: Photographs show a slimy, green pool, rickety steps, and most damningly, a pool gate that did not self-lock.

Police noted that, "... the pool fence did not comply with legislative standards as it was not a self-latching gate ... the premises was not safe or secure for young children placed under foster care. There was also excessive amounts of alcohol ... and blister packs with medication left throughout the location and within reach of the children."

Johnny Slager says Braxton's case manager visited his son at the foster home two days before he drowned.

JOHNNY SLAGER: My house was clean. I cleaned it every day. I vacuumed the floors, I picked up his toys. He never - there was never s**t on the floors for him to hurt himself on. The place was a f**king dump. He should never have been put there.

DAN OAKES: Both the Department of Family and Community Services and Life Without Barriers said they were saddened by Braxton's death, but could not comment while the Coroner was investigating.

It's not the first time the organisation has faced scrutiny. In March, its chief executive, Claire Robbs, appeared before the child sexual abuse Royal commission to explain how it placed a foster child with a man who had been accused of sexual assault.

JOE TUCCI: I think the foster care system is under a lot of pressure. Certainly I would describe it as a crisis.

DAN OAKES: Joe Tucci says Braxton's death is a tragic symptom of a system that is too often failing Australia's most vulnerable children.

JOE TUCCI: I think that the resources that are available to support foster carers and train foster carers and even assess and screen foster carers isn't enough, and so, what we see as a consequence is that sometimes children aren't getting the right kind of care, the quality of care that they need and foster carers themselves are leaving the system in large numbers.

DAN OAKES: Braxton's family must now wait for the NSW Coroner to shed some light on how and why their son died.

JOHNNY SLAGER: I loved him so much. I miss him (becoming emotional) so much. He was my beautiful, beautiful little man.

LEIGH SALES: Dan Oakes with that report.