Australia Kimberley boy had 30 caseworkers in 13 years before his suicide
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A coronial inquest into the suicide of a young West Australian boy who was in foster care has been told that he had 30 caseworkers assigned to him in just over a decade.
"Child J" — as he is known for both legal and cultural reasons — died in Broome in April 2017 while he was under the care of the Department of Communities.
The boy had been in care since he was just two years of age.
He had suffered with complex and severe mental health issues, due to suspected foetal alcohol spectrum disorder as well as a history of domestic abuse.
On the second day of, former Department of Communities and healthcare workers raised concerns around what they believed contributed to the 15-year-old's decision to take his own life.
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Case manager took stress leave
The Coroner heard from a former Department of Communities caseworker, who managed Child J in the five-month lead-up to his death.
That worker confirmed she had no prior experience in child protection nor in the Kimberley when she took up the post, and was charged with dealing with a number of children who had complex mental health and social needs.
"It's well known that case managers don't stick around for very long in rural areas," she said.
The former caseworker said employees were told to be conscious of the fact there was often high caseworker turnover, and for children with attachment disorders like Child J, this could be difficult to deal with.
During the second day of the inquest, evidence was given that, over the 13 years he was in state care, Child J had 30 different child protection workers assigned to him.
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The former caseworker said she took stress leave from her role about one year after Child J's death.
Caseworkers, foster family under stress
Previous testimony from the former Kimberley case manager said a full caseload around the time Child J was in state care was typically around 15 children.
Staff were expected, at a minimum, to visit the children quarterly.
However, in regard to Child J, caseworkers often tried to visit him more regularly due to his high-level needs and the crowded foster care home where he was living.
The Inquest heard there were repeated attempts by the department to address Child J's living situation with his foster parents, because he lived with a number of other high-needs children and could often act out violently when distressed.
Tensions came to a head in 2009, when mental health professionals referred Child J to an acute mental health inpatient assessment down in Perth, at Princess Margaret Hospital.
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While this was seen as a positive step, the department did not consent to the admission because there were concerns about the medication he had been given by the boy's foster parents.
When a Department case manager and Child J's foster family attended a meeting to clarify what medication the boy was taking, the overseeing Kimberley mental health professional said the experience was like "dealing with divorced parents".
The Inquest heard there was tension between the parties because of a previous run-in, and it contributed to a delay in Child J's mental health team getting him the assessment he needed in Perth.
When the department eventually agreed to admit him to Princess Margaret Hospital, further treatment was abandoned when Child J was reunited with his mother.
The inquest was told Child J's behaviour continued to deteriorate after that reunification.
Department claims refusal to engage
Lawyers for the Department of Communities have continued to highlight Child J's refusal to engage with the programs that were regularly offered to him.
The court heard the boy often disregarded offers of help from Headspace and school psychologists while in Broome, and that he had dropped off the radar when he moved to Carnarvon to be with his father.
While he was there, he attended two appointments with a mental health professional, but only after he had been picked up and dropped off at the facility by child-protection workers.
However, he was ultimately discharged when it became impossible to get in contact with either him or his father — despite records showing the boy had expressed suicidal thoughts only months prior.
When asked if discharging the boy was a missed opportunity to try to re-engage him with mental health help, the Carnarvon professional said this wasn't necessarily the case.
"It was a missed opportunity that he never attended," he said.
The inquest continues.
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