How could this happen?
It was the question echoing around the country after a 13-year-old Aboriginal boy died in Port Lincoln on Tuesday morning after the rubbish skip he was sleeping in was emptied into a garbage truck.
The scene at Port Lincoln after the boy lost his life early on Tuesday morning. Credit:Nine News
Initial headlines suggested the boy and his young friends were homeless and had been forced to sleep rough in the industrial bin. They pointed to a terrible symbolism about the treatment of First Nations people, and the lack of opportunities available to young people living in regional and remote cities in Australia.
But the boy’s family and police maintain he was a loved and loving young man who, rather than being homeless, had a large family he could call on at any time. They have been angered by media treatment they believe has simplified his death and compounded his family’s hurt.
After the boy’s death, his name and photographs of his smiling face were widely published. But as the days wore on, and the media continued to converge on Port Lincoln – photographing his family and young friends, and filming mourners through the fence of the family home – his community locked down. They have asked that his name and photograph not be used for cultural reasons.
Port Lincoln, aka “the seafood capital of Australia” is a city of extremes. Situated on South Australia’s stunning Eyre Peninsula, it is long reputed to have the country’s highest proportion of millionaires, thanks to its lucrative tuna fishing industry.
Port Lincoln rests on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.Credit:South Australia Tourism Commission
But there are also plenty of people doing it hard. At the 2016 census, 27.2 per cent of Port Lincoln households got by on $650 a week.
The boy was the second of five brothers; part of a large and close-knit extended family and community in the regional city of about 18,000 people.
His aunty, who asked not to be named, said he was close with both his parents as well as his brothers and grandmothers.
Through tears, she remembered him as a quick-witted kid who’d spin a yarn with anyone who’d listen.
“He was a young man with a big outlook on life. He loved hunting, fishing, camping … he was a cheeky young boy who had a big imagination.”
Superintendent Paul Bahr told reporters in Port Lincoln that the boy and his two friends, aged 11 and 12, had been roaming the streets on Monday night.
The trio went to a nearby hotel to ask for water, before trying to get shelter at a local McDonald’s.
Then, they climbed into a large skip bin outside the next-door Repco outlet in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The weather in Port Lincoln overnight on Monday had dropped to 12 degrees by then, and the bin – containing cardboard boxes from the auto parts store – offered some shelter.
Soon after 5am, a Veolia truck pulled up next to the skip to empty it.
One boy managed to jump out as it tilted, running to the driver’s window and banging to alert him. Another boy managed to escape injury. But the 13-year-old boy suffered serious injuries and died at the scene.
Superintendent Bahr said the episode had been traumatic for the survivors and emergency services.
“Dealing with a young child who is suffering significant trauma and not being able to save their life after a lot of effort has gone into attempting to revive him is going to be very difficult to them,” he said.
He was at pains to stress the three boys had warm beds to sleep in, and were not homeless.
The boy’s cousin Montanah Elvey, who launched an online fundraiser to pay for burial costs, said suggestions he had been homeless were hurting the family.
“People need to stop putting the blame on the parents and the family as it’s not their fault,” she wrote.
“At the end of the day kids will be kids, so can people please just respect that the family are just trying to process it all … no one knows why the kids were in the dumpster instead of being at home in bed. I have been told that [his] parents were always out trying to find him when he did decide to take off and he would just run away from them.”
Another community member urged people not to “read the comments” or pay attention to “disgraceful media and people making judgments”.
“[He] had a loving home to go to, many aunties, uncles, nanas, grandfathers live not far from the township, he got brought up along the coast, fishing, hunting, camping, he was a good sweet boy with a bright smile. He just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Members of the local community began gathering at the family home on Wednesday, to enter into a period of cultural mourning stretching days.
Football great Eddie Betts, who grew up in Port Lincoln, said the local Aboriginal community was close-knit and dismissed suggestions the boys were homeless.
“Being a big mob, we all know each other and care for each other and our kids’ safety is always important to us uncles, aunties and elders,” he told The Australian.
“No kid in our mob goes without love and security.
“It’s important to know that in Aboriginal families, we always open the door to our kids no matter what, so reporting of [him] being homeless is false.”
Port Lincoln mayor Brad Flaherty said given police were conducting a coronial investigation, it was unhelpful to speculate why the boys were in the bin overnight.
“Is there a community or an organisational failure? Well, who would know at this stage. I don’t believe so but again, that’s up to the coronial investigation. The fact the kids were sleeping in there, who knows why they were in there? Only the people who were involved are going to be able to tell us what their story is, and that’s being investigated.”
Cr Flaherty said the community was behind the boy’s family, friends and community.
“The community on the west coast, we’re quite resilient and quite tight knit because we’re a long way away from everywhere,” he said.
“In situations like this we tend to come together pretty well as a community and we bring in that resilience.”
The South Australian coroner is investigating.
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