A former child welfare worker says she could have done nothing more to prevent a 12-year-old girl from a remote Aboriginal community taking her own life, despite not removing her from dreadful living conditions.
The WA coroner is investigating 13 deaths in the Kimberley in three-and-a-half years, five of which involved children aged between 10 and 13. According to research centre Creative Spirits, Aboriginal people are six times more likely to die by suicide, compared to non-Aboriginal people in Australia.
The child spent the first 11 years of her life at the Oombulgurri community, which was so dysfunctional it was closed in 2011 amid suspicions of widespread child abuse.
The girl, believed to be a possible victim of sexual assault, began drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis 10 months before her death.
About one month before the tragedy, she ran away from her home in Wyndham and had made a number of threats to kill herself.
The Department for Child Protection was notified about her high risk of self-harm, yet she had no contact with any mental health services.
— ABC News Perth (@abcnewsPerth) August 15, 2017
Former worker Coral Gore-Birch said the “shy, withdrawn” girl had been placed on a court-ordered curfew while parenting support was provided.
The girl repeatedly witnessed domestic violence and alcohol abuse at her overcrowded home, and roamed the streets late at night to escape it.
“I think we did all that we could do,” Ms Gore-Birch told WA Coroner Ros Fogliani.
“We didn’t have solid evidence to say that she was being abused. The family didn’t give us any information.”
Christine Cigobia, a former Aboriginal Support Worker for the government’s Kimberley Prevention and Diversion Team said more should have been done to intervene, but she didn’t have any powers to take the girl away from her destructive home environment.
Ms Cigobia’s team leader at the time, Ann Mills, broke down in tears several times during emotional testimony, saying her overwhelmed 12 staff members were ill equipped to help up to 80 troubled kids across three locations.
“We had children as young as eight smoking ganja… we had pregnant girls at the age of 11,” Ms Mills said.
“They were all at risk, and they still are all at risk.”
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Local Aboriginal Medical Service details available from www.bettertoknow.org.au/AMS