Convicted murderer Rick Thorburn and his wife wanted to foster children with “high and complex needs” in order to receive additional payments they believed would help them out of financial difficulty, an inquest has revealed.
Thorburn killed his 12-year-old foster daughter Tiahleigh Palmer in 2015, after he discovered his 18-year-old son, Trent, had had sex with the girl.
He was charged in 2016, and later pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two other young girls, aged 4 and 11, in his care.
On Friday, a coronial inquest revealed Tiahleigh’s cause of death was either deliberate asphyxiation or choking, at the hands of Thorburn.
The inquest findings, handed down by Deputy State Coroner Jane Bentley, also revealed the Thorburns had requested to care for a high-complex needs child, which attracts a higher compensation rate between $960 to $1400 a fortnight.
This compensation does not include any further “incidental payments” such as clothing and school uniforms, recreation and leisure activities costs, transportation, meals and other household costs which were further reimbursed.
Tiahleigh had been assessed and found to have “high and complex needs” with “many challenging behaviours”and was placed with the Thorburns in 2015.
While the report found the Thorburns had indicated they wished to care for a child like Tiahleigh, they did not elaborate as to why.
“The initial Foster Care Agreement noted that the Thorburns both feel that they have the capacity to care for child/children displaying a range of high to complex needs’,” the report stated.
“Mr and Mrs Thorburn expressed to … staff that they wished to care for any child with high or complex needs, and this included children with highly sexualised behaviours, however explanation for this desire was at no time provided by the Thorburns or requested by the agency.”
Ms Thorburn later changed her placement matching, no longer wishing to care for girls with sexualised behaviours given she had two teenage sons in the home.
The inquest heard it was “unclear” whether the Thorburns fully realised the challenges associated with caring for high and complex needs children, and found the family had a “distinct lack of experience” with dealing with such children.
Mr and Mrs Thorburn both outlined to assessors that they had a “history of struggling financially”, and that financial concerns were one of the only areas that had been of any major concern for the couple.
“In itself financial concerns should not, and would not raise suspicion to relation to motivation to provide foster care. However, viewed in the context of carers who, without adequate reasoning, outlined they only wished to care for children with high or complex needs, it would have been expected that this motivation be fully investigated by the foster care agency,” the report found.
The family’s financial problems were further revealed in a message Trent Thorburn had sent his cousin just hours before Tiahleigh’s murder.
“I just want the kid gone and out of my life but I know she is also a sauce (sic) of income for Mum and Dad and I can’t risk us loosing (sic) money because she is gone,” he wrote.
Thorburn killed Tiahleigh between 7.30pm and 9.30pm on October 29, 2015 when the two were at home alone, hours after the Thorburns had learned of Tiahleigh and Trent’s relationship.
Having complained of stomach aches, the couple feared she was pregnant.
During the inquest, Thorburn claimed Tiahleigh had packed a bag and was walking down the driveway when she began screaming and swearing at him.
He claimed he grabbed her around the waist and put his hand over her mouth, as he dragged her back at the house. By the time they were on the veranda, Thorburn claimed the girl had stopped responding.
Thorburn had claimed it was an accident, and that he had no memory of the night, but the inquest found that was an act, and that Tiahleigh had been killed deliberately.
During the inquest it was alleged Tiahleigh had been in a sexual relationship with Thorburn as well as with his teenage son, however the Deputy State Coroner said there was insufficient evidence to prove this claim.
“The most probable reason that Mr Thorburn killed Tiahleigh was the reason he gave to his family – he killed her to cover up the fact that Trent had been abusing her in an effort to protect Trent from being convicted of incest and imprisoned,” the coroner’s published findings stated.
“I find that Mr Thorburn is completely without remorse … It is clear that he perceives himself as being unfairly dealt with and victimised by the media and public opinion, as does Ms Thorburn.”