1 Dec. 2007

DOCS and Death in Bree

The knives are out for DOCS in the NSW media these days, and I don't like to join in, given that many of the complaints leveled at DOCS amount to a call for children to be taken away from their families more easily, but this case seems to be rather different.

An infant has been killed by his carers in Brewarrina in Western NSW (this is a coroner's finding – since it is not possible to determine which of the two did it, prosecution has been ruled out). DOCS failed to intervene to prevent it, failed to notice abuse of the boy despite having visited his home. In this respect the case is similar to a number of recent DOCS scandals. What marks this case out is that DOCS had placed the boy there in the first place, against the wishes of his mother, moreover. Caution in intervening to take children away from people is advisable – giving custody of children to people who kill said children is quite another.

Now, the people who were given the custody of young Mundine tick two boxes: they were related to Mundine (an aunt and a cousin) and they were (therefore), like Mundine, Aboriginal. It is clearly preferable for Aboriginal children to be housed with relatives, or at least with Aboriginal people, all other things being equal. But, DOCS ruled out the mother's father, the boy's grandfather, who the mother wanted as carer, on the basis of a background check, before giving the boy to other relatives against the mother's wishes with no background check:

Had DOCS checked their background it would have found the foster father, Eric Orcher, a cousin of Mundine's father, was wanted by police, had "an extensive history of violence including domestic violence", and had served time in jail.But no assessment was undertaken and this "gross breach of departmental procedure" remained unexplained, the Deputy State Coroner, Paul MacMahon, found yesterday.

While we should be mindful of the racism which leads to children still being taken away from Aboriginal families in this country, we see here a different aspect of racism, a racism of indifference which allowed an Aboriginal boy to die.

Clearly, I think, there should be an inquiry into this, and I wouldn't want to prejudge the issue. Having some experience of the NSW public service, I wouldn't be surprised if the problem was not one of simple racially-biased negligence,* but rather one of a lack of training, staffing or funding, although this might also turn out to be a matter of allocations that reveal racial or regional discrimination. Brewarrina is the only local government area in NSW with a majority Aboriginal population, note.