A 13-year-old boy who had been in State care is in Princess Margaret Hospital with burns to almost 40 per cent of his body, after setting himself alight during a horrific petrol sniffing incident in the Pilbara.
The boy is believed to have inflicted the injuries on himself when his family tried to intervene after he was found sniffing in a shopping centre car park in South Hedland. He had to be flown to Perth by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
The incident has prompted calls for urgent government intervention to curb solvent abuse in the Pilbara, with sources telling The West Australian that the boy is just one of 30 “chronic sniffers” in South Hedland alone.
Pilbara MP Tom Stephens described the boy’s case as an awful tragedy but “inevitable”, accusing the State Government of stripping away support services for substance abuse programs.
“The agony and cost to this kid is awful,” Mr Stephens said.
“The pain to the family will be huge. The distress to the wider community will also be huge. A compassionate government would respond urgently to the needs of such kids. Enough is enough.”
The Youth Involvement Council’s Youth Accommodation Program coordinator Jean King said her organisation, along with the Drug and Alcohol Office, was doing all it could to identify and help at-risk sniffers but without a dedicated rehabilitation facility, WA fell behind other problem States and Territories.
“To support our community we need every available resource and a safe place for our youth to be rehabilitated,” she said.
One source involved with a community strategy group on substance abuse said it “sounds terrible but we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen”.
“If you were talking to the Drug and Alcohol Office, they would probably say ‘be careful’ and ‘don’t highlight it’,” said the source, who did not want to be named.
“I listen to them and I take their advice but I do struggle with it because if this happened on the main street of any major city, you can guarantee it would be on the news tonight. Yet it happens here (and nothing is done).
“It is very frustrating that there is such a bad problem and that nobody is talking. I want to stand in the middle of town with a loud speaker and shout out how desperate we are to try and get some help with this but apparently that’s not the way we need to be going about it.”
Drug and Alcohol Office executive director Neil Guard said a tender process to expand alcohol and drug services in the Pilbara and Kimberley was undertaken in August, with work underway to boost existing prevention and treatment services.
“In response to reports of volatile substance use in Port Hedland, a range of services have met on a number of occasions to consider this issue,” he said.
“Since then progress has been made on establishing a reporting and response system to ensure a more timely and coordinated response to incidents.”
DCP director general Terry Murphy said the Department was committed to working in partnership with government agencies and local communities to address the serious issue of solvent abuse in children.