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There are times when gaping-mouthed, incredulous anger is the only response I can muster. ABC’s latest 4 Corners Report called ‘Dangerous Territory’ is responsible.

 

We are probably all becoming inured to tales of the horrors and violence meted out to children by the parents and families expected to care for and about them. In fact, I’m sure there are times when the latest report of a child’s death or mistreatment barely registers more than a fleeting sadness and a quick wondering about ‘what has happened to us as a society’.

 

2010 has however, been something of a vile vintage year for stories of epic, systematic neglect and killing of children.

 

Anne Manne’s painful, understated essay, ‘Ebony’ in The Monthly started the year. Reading this essay is like watching the proverbial slow motion train-wreck. You can almost finish the sentences: dysfunctional families, dysfunctional services, dysfunctional communities, dysfunctional everything. The only things done effectively are the starving of Ebony to death and the vaporizing of any trace of personal responsibility from any party.

 

In Adelaide we have had the ‘House of Horrors’ case where five children were tortured, starved and neglected by a menagerie of interconnected adults missing only a ‘Dueling Banjos’ soundtrack. One perpetrator’s ‘defense’ was that they were not his children and that he ‘cared about himself and didn’t need to acknowledge that they were there’. Exactly.

 

But the latest ‘4 Corners’ account of the death of 12 year old Deborah Melville surpassed even these. Deborah was placed by family services into the care of an extended family ‘auntie’ already living in semi-squalor. What process of family assessment could remotely consider such surroundings to constitute ‘care’ was a mystery. Deborah was to end her life, barely able to walk, literally thrown out into the back yard to lay in extreme pain with a case of osteomyelitis described by the pathologist as ‘by far the worst case’ he’d seen. Whether Deborah was comforted by the visit from two Family Services workers the day before she died is unclear. As she lay on the kitchen floor crying and in distress, she was reassured that ‘I’m your new case worker and I’m not here to take you away’. During Deborah’s deterioration her ‘auntie’ was usually to be found at the Darwin Casino. The Coroner’s Report showed her monthly income from benefits and wages was $10,129.72, and she was estimated by police to have spent over $1.6 million at the local casino slot machines in just over 4 years. How we reconcile our notions of poverty and disadvantage in view of these figures I have no idea.

 

As Deborah lay outside dying in the dark, still screaming in pain, she shouted for a light to be switched on. Eventually one was switched on and her last words were: ‘Yeah – yeah I can see the light’.

 

Whether the family, neighborhood and community who ignored her so callously, or the Family Services Department that failed her so comprehensively and culpably will, is another question entirely.

 

 

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