In June 2004 a 12-year-old boy enrolled in a high school not far from Sydney.
The school was aware that the boy was a troubled child. He was under the care of the Department of Community Services (DOCS) and had recently been placed in temporary foster care. The school, as is common practice, held a meeting to discuss the enrolment. They had done their research and knew the boy was not violent and made sure all the relevant staff school counsellors, deputy principals and the Year 7 adviser were aware of the boy’s circumstances and difficulties.
The boy, who I will call Raphael, was an articulate, polite and well-behaved child. He was very small of stature and, having spent the first nine years of his life in Asia, spoke with an accent. The school had been warned that he had been bullied at both his previous primary and high schools.
The Year 7 adviser soon became aware that Raphael was having similar problems at his new school, so after he refused to fill in a grievance report, she referred him to the school counsellors.
Raphael began to see the school counsellors on a regular basis and told them his story. As a small child he had been left with friends of his mother. They had been paid money regularly to care for him but his story was one of abuse and abandonment. As a small child he was forced to work as a servant, eat food from the floor, sleep on concrete and was beaten and doused with cold water.
His mother eventually married an Australian and moved with her new husband to Sydney. Once her husband learned of Raphael’s existence, the couple immediately made moves to have him join them. His migration was delayed because of fears he might have tuberculosis. Once they were resolved, he joined his family.
Unfortunately, according to his statements during counselling, he was nine by the time he came to Australia and the damage had already been done. Raphael was unable to forgive his mother for what he saw as her abandonment and neglect. He remained afraid that she would send him back to Asia and claimed that she used this as a threat when disciplining him.
A crisis occurred when his grandmother became ill and plans were made for the family to return to their homeland to see her. Raphael became distraught at the idea of returning, convinced that he would be abandoned there again. His escalating attempts to run away, refusal to eat and stubborn attempts to remove himself from his parents’ care led to him being placed with temporary foster carers whom he liked and trusted and brought him to the attention of DOCS.
According to his new school, Raphael was extremely clear about what he wanted and what he did not want. Basically, he told anyone who would listen that he did not want to live with his parents. He wanted to stay with his foster carers. The difficulty was his foster carers were elderly and on the point of retiring and moving to the country. DOCS, the school counsellors discovered, saw little alternative but to return Raphael to his family home, particularly as his claims of abuse related to the family he had been left with in the country of his birth, not his current family.
A system of regular weekend home visits was accordingly set up for Raphael, very much against his will. When forced to return to his parents care every Friday afternoon, he became depressed and angry. When he arrived at the family home he often withdrew to his room and refused to eat. As the weekend visits continued, Raphael began to threaten suicide. He threatened to jump off the balcony and during one counselling session said ‘If they try to trick me again, I’m going to run away or I’m going to kill myself.’ He went on to say, ‘What is life? All the people who care for me they just go. I don’t get the meaning of life. I’m trying to carry these problems on my own. I’m just a little kid. No-one has to listen to me.’
The school and its counsellors became extremely concerned about Raphael. Between them they contacted the DOCS caseworker and the psychiatrist by phone on several occasions and held discussions about their concerns. The school counsellors, in particular, felt that their input was considered to be interfering, particularly by the DOCS caseworker, and that their concerns were minimised and dismissed. Many phone calls were not returned.
In the end, they wrote a joint letter listing their professional opinions and concerns and sent it to the DOCS Helpline. Copies were also forwarded to Raphael’s previous DOCS area office, the local DOCS area office, the District Superintendent for the Department of Education and Training, the District Guidance Officer, the Regional Guidance Officer and the Area Mental Health Access Team. The letter was sent on 1 December.
Raphael continued to see the school counsellors on his own, and the psychiatrist with his family. The weekend access visits continued despite his continuing protestations. ‘What do I have to do,’ he asked in one session with his school counsellor, ‘so people will listen?’ DOCS and the psychiatrist continued to believe that Raphael should be returned to his family, despite the school counsellor’s warnings.
Another crisis developed on the Friday afternoon before Raphael’s 13th birthday in mid-December. He was obviously distressed at school and made it clear that once again he did not want to go home for the weekend. He was particularly distressed that he would have to spend his birthday there. The school counsellors repeatedly reassured Raphael that they were doing what they could for him and that things would get better. Alternative Christmas holiday care was being organised for him so he would not have to spend it with his mother and stepfather.
That afternoon, he was taken on his first solo visit to a psychiatrist and to a further visit with his family psychiatrist. He was meant to go home with his parents after their joint therapy session ended. Instead, he ran away. The police were called and a few hours later Raphael was found and returned to his parents’ home. Once there, he rang his foster parents and then withdrew to his room.
The next day, his 13th birthday, Raphael was found dead in his bedroom. He had hanged himself.
The Coroner’s Inquest into his death was completed last week and its written findings are due in six weeks time. Among other things, some important points to emerge from the Inquest were that Raphael had been entitled to impartial legal representation for some time before his death, an entitlement that no one involved clearly knew or did anything about. Such legal representation may well have helped a ‘little kid’ get his voice not just heard, but listened to.
Moreover, the Inquest established that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) about such cases now exists between DOCS and the Department of Education and Training. The only problem with this is that, as of the time of writing, most school principals not only have not seen the MOU but may not be aware of its existence. Yet, as many public schools increasingly become centres of disadvantage, they are enrolling equally troubled foster children all the time.
While any suicide is a tragedy, suicide by children and adolescents is particularly distressing. Many young people who take their lives are motivated by feelings and beliefs that are often unfathomable to those who knew and loved them.
It is always hard to see what could have been done better when the reasons for a child’s despair remain essentially mysterious. Raphael was different. He knew clearly what his situation was and what he wanted and didn’t want, and he did everything he could to tell us about them.
Listening to him now will no longer help Raphael, but let’s hope it will help some other ‘little kid’ get heard.
All names and identifying details have been changed.
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