Where suicide lurks in kids’ minds as an easy way out
Last Sunday a group of children had been playing together for most of the day when one of them, the quiet and reserved 10-year-old Ariana Mangolamara, walked out of the house alone.
Just on dusk, the screams of children caused Senior Sergeant Neville Ripp to come running. Ariana had taken her own life in the yard, only three years after the suicide of her 12-year-old half-sister Gladys.
Ariana died in the Aboriginal community of Looma in Western Australia’s west Kimberley, the latest place she and her five-year-old brother lived after being passed around between relatives in a life marked by instability, neglect and violence.
Their father, Lawrence Morlumbun, is in jail, awaiting trial for allegedly bashing the children’s mother, Rita Mangolamara, in the Kimberley port town of Derby, 220km from Broome. Ms Mangolamara is almost deaf from years as a domestic violence victim and walks with the aid of a frame. This week she was in hospital in Kununurra, near the WA-Northern Territory border. The children had not lived with either of their parents for some time, turning up for periods in various remote locations and even in Perth.
Ariana’s death has brought international attention to the high number of Aboriginal youths who kill themselves in Australia. The Elders’ Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm and Youth Suicide, published in 2014, says that indigenous youth suicide in the past 20 years has gone from “being an extremely rare phenomenon to one where the rate … is now the highest in the world”.
It is four times higher for young Aboriginal men than non-Aboriginal young men, and five times higher among Aboriginal women. In some remote Kimberley communities, the rate has reached 100 times the national suicide average.
“To the media this story is the biggest thing ever, but to us up here it’s sadly part of life,” said Brett Wiltshire, the Kimberley pastor who runs a Christian network throughout the region.
Last year Mr Wiltshire presided over the funeral of a 13-year-old boy at Halls Creek, and he becomes emotional when he recalls so many others whose lives ended too soon. He says local Aboriginal children learn about suicide when someone close takes their own life. But he also says they come to see suicide as an option early because of reckless adults who frequently threaten to do it.
“The man gets full of alcohol and beats the woman and when she tries to leave he will say ‘If you leave I will kill myself’ and the kids are right there,” Mr Wiltshire says.
When Ariana died, she and her brother were living with an aunt and uncle who are volunteers in Mr Wiltshire’s church. The couple care for other children, too; last year they were with the children in Derby waiting for public housing, and more recently in Looma.
WA Child Protection Minister Helen Morton has described the indigenous couple, who do not have children of their own, as “good folk”. Ariana and her brother lived with them in an informal arrangement that had the endorsement of Ms Morton’s department. Some wonder how it took so long for the department to intervene. A desire to let extended family step in when parents fail permeates the department. Mr Wiltshire says it breaks his heart that Ariana had apparently finally found a safe and steady home yet chose to die.
Ms Morton points to a new understanding of how children accumulate harm. She says that once a child has experienced years of trauma and instability, the trigger for suicide can be something as simple as being told they cannot watch television.
“It is layer after layer after layer of harm and hurt,” she says. “Once those layers are there, the trigger does not need to be a major event.”
This is how it was for Peter Little, the 11-year-old Aboriginal boy who took his own life in the midwest port of Geraldton 17 months ago. The boy, who had been passed between relatives for much of his life, was kicking a footy with other children when someone refused to give him the ball. He was found dead by his playmates. In the far northern community of Mowanjum in 2011, 16-year-old Darren argued with his older brother over a mobile phone, stormed off and killed himself. Darren had also experienced a chaotic domestic life, and lived with various relatives when his mother was drinking.
This awareness of accumulated harm is driving radical change. To the dismay of groups such as Grandmothers Against Removals, many more children are being taken into care in WA. The department’s budget has almost doubled since 2008 to cope. Ms Morton says removal is a last resort, but necessary when adults fail. The priority is now stability for children, and that makes it harder for parents to get their kids back once they lose them.
Ariana was born in a Darwin hospital in 2006, and Ms Mangolamara took her home to picturesque Kalumburu on the northern tip of WA, where the King George River spills into the Timor Sea.
Nursing sister Lex Criddle, who lived at Kalumburu for 17 years until 2011, remembers Ariana as “a beautiful, beautiful baby”.
“On the growth charts she did well on the percentile scale; there was nothing wrong. And Rita’s parenting skills were fine.”
But all was not well in the community of about 400. The year Ariana turned one, in 2007, a child sex abuse scandal engulfed Kalumburu. At first 16 men, including community leaders, were charged with molesting young children and exchanging cigarettes for sex with underage girls. Ariana was about four when some of the men who had served their sentences began drifting back to Kalumburu. By 2012, Operation RESET, a police team tasked with helping communities recover after widespread abuse, established that 17 of the 100 adult males living in Kalumburu were convicted sex offenders. A report from within the Department of Child Protection despaired at a “breakdown in social norms”.
“A child was being sexually abused by a male family member. She told her grandmother, her uncle and then her aunty. No one did anything or stopped it,” child protection worker Rosalee Webb said in a presentation to her peers.
“Her aunty finally told the police when she had a fight with the perpetrator’s family and wanted to get back at them … six months later.”
A school teaching aide who knows the Mangolamara family well says Ariana “was very quiet, didn’t talk much” in class.
“When they’re quiet, you wonder if there’s something wrong. I thought she and (Gladys) just wanted their mum to be with them more,” the teacher’s aide says.
By the time the Department for Child Protection got involved about 18 months ago, their concern was for Ariana’s little brother. He was “displaying signs of physical harm”.
There are now fears throughout the Kimberley that Ariana’s suicide will become the catalyst for the closure of remote communities. Ms Morton denies this, saying it has steeled her resolve to work with leaders on reforms that will make children safer.
Rona Charles, a community elder from Derby, says the deadly culture of “talking silly” remains rife; recently, a nine-year-old close relative of Darren told Charles that a playmate of the same age had declared to her ‘I could just hang myself’.
The girl found herself counselling her playmate that ‘people will miss you, don’t do it’.
Just after Darren’s suicide, Charles said a local woman had walked around the back of her house and caught three children, all under six, playing with a rope around their neck. They were re-enacting the scene that one of the children had witnessed.
If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131114