A tiny community cries out for nation's help
The tiny community of Mowanjum has become the epicentre for an extraordinary spike in indigenous suicide across the Kimberley region in Western Australia, the third such spike in 10 years.
Mowanjum's council chairman, Gary Umbagai, says his community of 350 has been hit by a spiralling youth suicide rate - six deaths in six months - since positions for CDEP, or publicly funded community employment programs, were slashed three years ago from 140 to about 30.
He said there had been so many attempted suicides in recent months that he had lost count. A document obtained by Fairfax reveals in a four-month period from July last year, 18 females and 22 males were admitted to the Derby hospital that services Mowanjum and other communities, for self-harm, attempted suicide, overdosing and suicidal thoughts.
Mowanjum community leader Gary Umbagai at the gates of the town Photo: Glenn Campbell
Most cases were indigenous and also involved the excessive consumption of alcohol. Medical staff contacted by Fairfax said the number of Aboriginal people taking their lives might be higher as some deaths, including a recent road fatality, had been classified by police as accidental.
In the past 12 months, there have been 25 suicide deaths in the Kimberley region, 21 in the west around Derby and Mowanjum. The number of ''completed'' indigenous suicides last year exceeded the number of fatalities sustained by the Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan.
Mr Umbagai, who also works at the Mount Gibson iron mine, said the cuts in CDEP had led to more people drinking, engaging in high-risk behaviour and neglecting their children. Although the community was ''dry'', night patrols had no authority to confiscate grog.
The sign banning alcohol from the Kimberley community of Mowanjum, South of Derby. Photo: Glenn Campbell
He said funding applications to state and Commonwealth governments to employ youth activities officers to set up programs had been turned down.
''There is a terrible crisis here, but nobody in authority except the police acts as if there is a crisis,'' he said.
Fairfax visited Mowanjum this month with the permission of the traditional owners and after being alerted to the community's desperate plight by health workers troubled by what they believe is chronic official indifference.
''There is something dreadfully wrong in our community, but what can we do?'' Mr Umbagai said.
Mowanjum chief executive officer Steven Austin said the West Australian government was spending $150 million on a new Derby jail adjoining Mowanjum land while the federal government spends millions more annually maintaining the Curtin Immigration detention facility just down the highway.
''We have made applications for a youth co-ordinator to keep kids occupied with programs, but they have all been rejected. We get back a generic letter saying we don't meet the criteria. We get no help,'' he said.
Mr Austin said the applications for funding had been made to both West Australian Victims of Crime and to the federal department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. A spokeswoman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin acknowledged there had been continuing tensions between the local CDEP provider and the Mowanjum community and that some positions had been lost.
She said that situation was currently under review and Mowanjum had been offered the services of a new CDEP provider. She said 52 positions were available for the community to take up and departmental staff were attempting to resolve the situation.
The federal government was working with the West Australian government to provide the community with support that included funding for 14 positions at the Derby Health service.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling SANE Helpline 1800 18 7263; Lifeline 131 114; Salvo Crisis Line 9331 2000.