By Matthew Bamford
A coronial inquest into the suicides of 13 Aboriginal people in Western Australia’s far north has heard support workers are struggling to address high levels of community dysfunction.
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Coroner Ros Fogliani is investigating the suicides of five young adults and eight children, among them a 10-year-old girl and her 13-year-old half-sister.
The first day of hearings in Broome on Monday focused on the role of teachers and child protection workers in identifying and preventing self-harm.
Senior child protection worker Rosalee Webb was based in one of the communities where the 13-year-old girl took her life in 2013.
Despite the girl telling two people in the community she intended to commit suicide, service providers were only made aware of the admissions after her death.
Ms Webb said an older woman told the girl not to be silly when she expressed suicidal thoughts.
In the days following the girl’s death, the worker was shocked to find the girl’s family gambling after they received a special $1,300 payment from Centrelink to cover the funeral costs.
When she asked about funeral clothes for the girl, the family said they could not afford to pay for an outfit.
“I knew they had received payment from Centrelink, I went to the house and they were playing cards and told me they couldn’t afford it,” she said.
Ms Webb broke down as she told of having to donate her own clothes.
Children ‘think they will come back to life’
Three years later, when the victim’s 10-year-old half-sister also took her own life at another community, local teaching staff had no idea of her family background.
The younger girl’s former teacher, Stuart Klose, said the information would have helped him detect signs of self-harm but access to her files was difficult.
“With today’s technology I can’t see why the information can’t be made available to us [more readily],” he said.
He said suicide was so pervasive some children believed they could kill themselves and come back to life.
The day’s testimony described life in some remote communities as highly dysfunctional, beset by substance abuse, and serviced by support workers who were often left without crucial pieces of information.
In one township, many children were described as being left to fend for themselves, often hungry and desperate.
Girls as young as 10 fell into the clutches of sexual predators who would lure them with cannabis, soft drinks and cigarettes.
“It’s not hard to groom the child that has nothing,” Ms Webb said.
In that community, 13 per cent of residents were registered child sex offenders.
When asked about her response to allegations of child abuse, Ms Webb said she was reluctant to talk about it with men in the community due to concerns about being culturally appropriate.
A joint operation with WA Police and the Department of Child Protection was conducted in 2012 but workers were in the community for just three days every month.
Hearings on Tuesday are expected to feature relatives of those who passed away and the impact of their loss on the communities.