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Commissioner warns MPs against Port Lincoln death inquiry

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A statutory officer has reserved her right to refuse a parliament-sanctioned independent inquiry into the death of a 13-year-old Port Lincoln boy killed when a rubbish truck collected the skip in which he was sleeping, telling MPs the investigation could cause “unintended harm” to two surviving youths.

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The three boys, aged 11, 12 and 13, were asleep as the industrial bin was being routinely collected in Port Lincoln earlier this month.

According to police, the 12-year-old scrambled out and started “banging” on the cabin door to alert the truck driver, but it was too late to stop the skip tipping.

The teen sustained serious injuries and died at the scene, while the younger boy was unharmed.

A motion by SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros for an “urgent” inquiry into the circumstances of the tragic incident – to be undertaken by the Guardian for Children and Young People and the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People – is due to come before parliament for a vote tomorrow.

However, one of the officers set to be tasked with the investigation, Children’s Guardian Penny Wright, has written to the state’s Upper House MLCs urging caution about the proposal – and has suggested she may not undertake the inquiry even if the motion passes.

The other officer, Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People April Lawrie, said while she was still awaiting formal legal advice on the question, “it’s my understanding parliament can’t direct me to conduct an inquiry”.

“I don’t have any statutory powers, I can’t compel or direct organisations or agencies to give me information to assist with an inquiry and it’s highly unlikely parliament can direct me to investigate,” she told InDaily.

Lawrie said she was unaware of Bonaros’s call for an inquiry until she read about it in the media, saying it “would have been useful if we’d spoken about the matter and discussed it beforehand”.

“As an Aboriginal person with the cultural connection the child I respect [the family’s] right to privacy in their grief [and] I must abide by those cultural practices and beliefs attached to his passing,” she said.

In an email to parliamentarians, obtained by InDaily, Wright says he has been “approached by several MLCs in the wake of the tragic death of a young person at Port Lincoln… so I have decided, in the interests of transparency and consistency, to offer all MLCs my viewpoint as Guardian for Children and Young People and Training Centre Visitor”.

Wright acknowledges “that this event has caused great distress and concern for the South Australian public, who want to understand how it could have happened”.

“I am aware that a Notice of Motion has been lodged in the Legislative Council naming my office in relation to the conduct of a potential inquiry,” she writes.

She notes it is “not appropriate for me to offer advice about what is inherently a political decision”, saying: “I understand that each MLC will determine their own course.”

However, she offers several “considerations” influencing “my perspective as an independent statutory officer”.

“There is a police investigation currently underway into the circumstances of the young person’s death,” she writes.

“There will also (almost certainly) be a coronial inquest which would provide an opportunity to consider the questions and issues which are concerning the public…

I note that the Coroner appears to have a discretion about whether an inquest will be held but there is a strong argument that an inquest is warranted due to the ‘substantial public interest’ in understanding this young person’s death.”

She notes the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee “also has a mandate and will investigate this event as part of their usual work”.

Wright argues there would be “both potential value and harm associated with another inquiry”.

“However, I am concerned about the unintended harm that may arise from an additional, high-profile investigation on the two surviving children,” she emphasises.

“It would necessarily impose an additional spotlight on them and their circumstances.

“There is a risk of further breaching their privacy within a small community, exacerbating their stigma and increasing the likelihood of their sense of rejection within that community.”

In a separate statement to InDaily, Wright said: “In the event that the motion passes, I will make a decision then, weighing up various considerations, but I have reservations about the value an inquiry would add, given that there is a police investigation underway and there is likely to be a coronial inquest.”

“I am concerned about the impacts a further, high-profile inquiry would have on the families and community grieving for this young boy and I need to think about the best interests of the other two young people involved in the incident and the risk of harm that would come from a further spotlight on their lives and circumstances,” she said.

Wright says she is “already making inquiries and considering systems failings, together with possible advice to the Minister and the parliament” under her existing statutory functions.

“As you would expect, I am making inquiries to ascertain the extent to which these young people were within my mandate, obtain necessary information and to be clear that I understand the best interests, rights and, importantly, ‘voice’ of the individual children/young people involved – and advocate accordingly,” she wrote to MPs.

The Government is set to oppose Bonaros’s motion, but the Labor Opposition is yet to formalise a position.

InDaily has sought comment from Bonaros.

Her motion calls for an “immediate independent joint report, to be completed by the Guardian for Children and Young People and the Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, into all of the circumstances surrounding the [child’s] death”.

It would have particular reference to “any failures, shortcomings or neglect of obligations and responsibilities by any Department, agency or sub-contracting agency”, among other matters.

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