The West

Picture: Mary Mills

It is the story that has rocked and baffled Laverton: two children, dumped by their parents, living in the town's rubbish tip and forced to rummage through waste for food.

Depending on whom you speak to it is also an urban myth, a beat-up or fact.

"It's like the Loch Ness monster," says Regina Sullivan, who patrols the town in a minibus that picks up abandoned children and drunken parents.

"Someone knows someone who knows someone who supposedly saw something."

It started six months ago when a council grader driver relieving himself in the bush returned to find his lunchbox stolen and tiny footprints in the sand.

An elderly local says he has seen the children.

"I've seen kids myself out at the tip scrummaging for food," he says. "Looking through bags and eating rubbish. I've seen that. There's no denying it."

The story spread. By the time it made its way into a Goldfields Esperance Development Commission report leaked last week, it had the children - a boy and a girl - living at the tip for months and feared to have died, alone, somewhere in the bush.

"I think people exaggerated it because Laverton needs help," says a woman at the Desert Inn Hotel, where locals and mine workers gather for a nightly feed and children wait outside for hours while their parents drink themselves into oblivion.

"I think they thought that it might get people to do something. And something definitely needs to be done here."

The claim was one of the most shocking in the leaked report, published in The Weekend West, which tilted the spotlight of chronic indigenous abuse on to the small Goldfields community, 950km north-east of Perth and the home of the last pub until Uluru.

It is also a place where domestic violence is rife and children are regularly abandoned for hours or days because their parents are drunk, in jail or have left them with people who can't look after them.

The tragic reality of this Goldfields town is that even if children were not living at the rubbish tip, it is not too much of a stretch to believe they could have been.

Picture: Michael Wilson

Laverton is the first major stop west of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, the vast, 250,000sqkm tract of land with Aboriginal communities stretching to the Northern Territory and South Australian borders, where abandonment seems to be a theme that runs through the place.

The town's youth centre, the only place children could let off steam, is closed. It and its basketball court have been padlocked since Laverton lost its only youth worker.

The women's refuge, where bashed women sought protection, is also shut because of staffing issues.

And the town hasn't had a drop-in centre since the 1980s, when the building which housed a petrol-sniffing treatment centre was sold.

And despite Laverton being the first stop for people from the lands, the Department of Indigenous Affairs has not had a full-time presence for more than a year.

It is monitored remotely and sporadically from Kalgoorlie.

On the edge of town, the watchhouse at the gates of the Wongatha Wonganarra community centre is another grim metaphor for what has happened to the town.

It lies abandoned and badly smashed.

The community's phone is disconnected.

"The phone's in there," says Alfie Sullivan, rubbing his hands by a fire and tilting his Akubra to see who is talking to him.

"Or maybe it's been smashed up, too."

The night watchman who used to work there suffered the same fate as the building.

A mob of drunken locals accused him of dobbing in his own family, bashed him and destroyed the watchhouse.

"They called him a police pimp because he was putting people in jail," Ms Sullivan said.

"They said he was a traitor to his family. He put his family in jail. It's not his fault people get drunk all the time. That's their fault. We've got no watchman no more."

When the subject of children is mentioned, Alfie looks up, points a gnarled finger and says: "You come here … maybe you can do something to save these kids.

"Something's got to be done. The parents … all their money goes to the publican. The kids have no food.

"They let the kids do what they like. The kids don't even go to the school. They just run around the streets."

Yesterday, as heavy winter rains bucketed the town for the fourth day running, everyone was staying indoors.

Few people are willing to talk openly about the town's problems.

Police and the hospital staff have been told not to comment and locals don't want to be named, saying they don't want to rock the boat.

But they concede it is between December and February when the heat and the troubles are at their peak.

The town's 700-strong population doubles as people from the lands flood into the community, setting up 20-25 camps along the creeks and drinking and fighting until they are too drunk to fight any more.

"They all head to Laverton like it's a seaside resort or something," Regina Sullivan says.

"That's the time when this town is really run off its feet. That puts pressure on the hospital, the police, everything.

"Because they don't drink every day, they hit the drink hard.

"Sometimes dad will hit mum and then mum's in hospital and dad's in jail or on the run from the cops and you've got a kid standing on the street with nowhere to go."

That is when Ms Sullivan or one of the other patrol drivers becomes a de facto foster parent, taking the child home and giving them a bed and a meal because there is no one else who will take them.

"I get kids coming and saying 'mum's drunk and I don't know where dad is' and I give them a bed for the night and a feed," she says.

"Sometimes the mother is really drunk, battling to walk, with a kid walking behind her.

"We've seen it.

"She can't even take care of herself, she's battling to get one foot over the next."

At Easter, Ms Sullivan was called to the police station to sit in on an interview with a 15-year-old boy arrested for breaking and entering because his parents could not be found. She does this regularly, often for children as young as 10.

On a back road across town, the Edwards family huddles around a fire as they are asked about the children.

"A lot of parents look after their kids here, but some of them don't," one woman says, "and the bad things they do to those kids …"

She stops when she is warned "not to talk about stuff and cause trouble".

She pauses for a moment.

"I won't say anything," she says quietly. "But you know what happens."

Picture: Mary Mills
The West Australian

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