The Guardian Australian Edition By Calla Wahlquist
“Latest coronial report must not simply ‘gather dust’ like the last 42 reports on Aboriginal wellbeing,” Pat Dodson says
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Pat Dodson says community-led solutions are needed to ‘address the clear sense of suffering, hopelessness and disillusionment that is being felt.’
Pat Dodson has joined Aboriginal organisations in the Kimberley in calling for action on reducing youth suicide, following the release of a long-awaited coronial report into the deaths of 13 children and young people.
Senator Dodson said the report showed that “little or no progress” had been made on reducing suicide rates in the Kimberley since a previous inquest was handed down in 2008, and that the latest report “must not join the 42 reports into Aboriginal well-being delivered over the last 15 years that simply sit and gather dust”.
“This report must lead a paradigm shift that leads to community-led solutions that address the clear sense of suffering, hopelessness and disillusionment that is being felt,” he said.
The 372-page report was delivered by the state coroner Ros Fogliani in Perth on Thursday and investigated the deaths of 13 people aged 10 to 24, who died in the Kimberley region from 2012 to 2016.
Five of the children whose deaths were considered in the inquest were aged between 10 and 14, three were aged 16 or 17, and five were aged between 18 and 24.
Fogliani said the “profoundly tragic” deaths were “shaped by the crushing effects of intergenerational trauma and poverty upon entire communities”.
“That community-wide trauma, generated multiple and prolonged exposures to individual traumatic events for these children and young persons,” she said.
The inquest was called in 2017, one year after the shocking suicide of a 10-year-old girl at Looma, and heard from 91 witnesses over 27 days of hearings in Perth, Fitzroy Crossing, Broome, Kununurra and Halls Creek.
In four of the cases, Fogliani criticised the department of child protection for failing to undertake an assessment of the child’s wellbeing, despite having cause to do so, and in one case she criticised the department of justice for failing to send a 12-year-old girl to mental health service, despite receiving a referral before her death that she may be vulnerable.
The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) said its findings were welcomed but not groundbreaking.
“It affirms what we have been saying for 35 years – that culture needs to play a crucial role if any initiatives are to be successful,” the KALACC chairwoman, Merle Carter, said.
Many findings were similar recommendations made in another mass coronial report into suicides in the Kimberley in 2008.
However, Folgiani’s report includes a requirement in most recommendations that any new reforms, be they alcohol restrictions, mental health services, or cultural programs, be co-designed with community members.
The 42 recommendations include:
- Introducing new laws to allow video statements to serve as evidence in chief in court in domestic violence cases, similar to laws governing evidence in sex abuse cases.
- Introducing the role of commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people , similar to the office that exists in Victoria.
- Investigating the creation of a banned drinkers register.
- Making the entire Kimberley region eligible for voluntary participation in the cashless welfare card scheme.
- Building a new mental health facility in the East Kimberley.
- Introducing mandatory screening for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and ensuring FASD is covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
- Expanding the adopt-a-cop and Elders reference group programs that currently operate in Halls Creek to build trust between community and police.
- Developing a statewide Aboriginal cultural policy and ensuring all programs and policies relating to Aboriginal people are built on principles of self-determination.
Fogliani said all of the children and young people who formed part of the inquest had grown up in homes where there was a high level of alcohol abuse and seven had experienced significant periods of alcohol abuse prior to their death. Two had high blood alcohol levels when they died; others had no alcohol in their system upon death.
She said a number of the children had also lost family members to suicide: two girls aged 10 and 13, both included in the inquest, were half-sisters; two boys in the inquest were cousin/brothers.
The inquest heard evidence that the high level of grief, constant funerals and sorry business, could cause a “clustering” effect of suicide among young people with limited coping skills.
The WA health minister, Roger Cook, said the government would consider all 42 recommendations “in the coming weeks and months”, but said the report highlighted the role alcohol played in each of the deaths.
“I think alcohol is devastating these communities and we need to take a stronger stand … we need to see what is the best way to respond,” Cook told reporters.