Aboriginal children in Outback Australia are so neglected by their alcoholic parents that some have suckled from dogs’ teats in a desperate search for food, it has been reported.
The shocking revelation came from a coroner investigating the appalling rates of suicide among Aborigines living in the remote and beautiful Kimberley region of Western Australia.
Earlier this month the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, delivered a much-publicised apology to Aborigines for past injustices, but critics questioned whether his words would lead to any practical improvement in the wretched lives of indigenous people.
“The plight of the little children was especially pathetic and, for many of these, the future is bleak,” said coroner Alastair Hope.
He was presenting a 122 page report into the deaths of 22 men and women in the region since 2000, some by suicide but all linked to alcohol and drugs.
During his research, he heard evidence that malnourished children had been sucking the teats of dogs for food and that young men had attempted suicide after being refused a can of beer.
Aborigines in isolated towns like Fitzroy Crossing lived in overcrowded, ramshackle houses surrounded by rubbish and with little furniture. People slept on filthy foam mattresses beside diseased dogs in temperatures which reach 40C or more in summer.
“In these communities there is nothing to do for most of the inhabitants for most of the time. Alcohol and drugs provide an escape,” Mr Hope said.
There was “little refinement” about the binge drinking, with Aborigines becoming stone drunk on warm beer and wine mixed together. Some died after wandering onto roads and being hit by cars.
The welfare of Aboriginal people was nothing less than “a disaster”, Mr Hope said, in a report which highlighted how little Aborigines have benefited from Australia’s 17-year run of economic prosperity.
“These are horrific findings from the coronial inquiry,” said indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin.
“Findings that I’m sorry to say are repeated in many parts of remote Australia.” Alcohol abuse was so entrenched among Aborigines in the Kimberley that foetal alcohol syndrome was 21.5 times higher compared with the rest of Western Australia.
Mr Hope said that widespread alcohol abuse and extreme negligence left Aboriginal children vulnerable to sexual abuse. Despite spending GBP 565 million a year on tackling Aboriginal disadvantage, the Western Australian government’s approach was “seriously flawed” because funds were allocated to 22 different agencies with little coordination.
The coroner called for restrictions on the availability of full-strength alcohol and the linking of welfare payments with adults’ caring adequately for their children.
“Even if we did everything right as from today, we are still heading into hell. We have a huge problem from the legacy of the past,” said a local MP, Tom Stephens.
“Even just tackling everything right from now, we’ve got a descent into chaos and crisis like you would never believe possible.”