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Disappearance a tragedy

Monday, 10th September, 2018

By Craig Brealey

The fate of an Aboriginal woman who absconded from the hospital’s mental health ward and was last seen walking into the bush with an armful of weeds and flowers showed the need for more cultural-specific care, a coroner said at the end of a four-day inquest.

Two years ago Christine Young, a mother of two, slipped out of the hospital and disappeared into the arid country off the Silverton road.

Despite a long search involving police and volunteers, aeroplanes, helicopters,  trail bikes and dogs, Ms Young’s remains have not been found.

Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan said on Friday that she had probably died within a few days of going missing.

“That terrain is unforgiving and there was no water supply she could access,” said Ms O’Sullivan.

“Christine’s disappearance is a tragedy,” she said, and her family “still have so many questions”. 

The coroner found that the death of Ms Young (40), who was admitted to hospital as an involuntary patient suffering schizophrenia, was unintentional and caused by misadventure.

In her recommendations, Ms O’Sullivan said it was “necessary and desirable” that the Far West Local Health District employed an extra Aboriginal Health Liaison Officer to be on call and to work weekends for Aboriginal mental health patients.

Ms O’Sullivan also recommended that such patients be granted personal access to Aboriginal health workers and liaison officers.

The inquest was told that when Ms Young was admitted to the ward on April 22 liaison officers were not permitted to enter because they were not trained in mental health. Instead, patients had to be taken to visit them in their room elsewhere in the hospital. 

There was also no Aboriginal health liaison officer employed to be on call at night or rostered to work weekends.

The inquest also heard that when Ms Young was brought to the hospital by police who had found her half naked, afraid and in severe distress at the airport late on the night of April 21, she was given a thorough medical examination and discharged but her health records were not checked.

She was paranoid and refused to give her name but the inquest was told that she might have had she been able to speak with an Aboriginal liaison officer.

Counsel Assisting, Peggy Dwyer, said that if her records had been called up it would have been found that she had been admitted “multiple times” between 2009 and 2016, and in a similar condition and under similar circumstances.

“In November 2012 she was found wandering in the bush near Menindee or the airport,” said Ms Dwyer, and also on the Silverton road.

Expert evidence was given by psychiatrist Olav Nielssen that people suffering psychosis did better if they were heavily sedated and admitted to hospital.

“A good night’s sleep would have made her much calmer,” he said.

When she was discharged police took her to the Catherine Haven women’s shelter, but she left in the early hours of the morning and was found wandering “speechless” on Holten Drive.

Dr Niessen said she had probably been awake all night and that would have added to her distress and confusion.

Police took Ms Young back to hospital where she was scheduled under the Mental Health Act but she refused permission for her family to be informed and escaped from the ward, which was full and very busy, when a new nurse, unfamiliar with the layout, opened the main entrance to escort another patient out.

A second door has since been installed in the ward with a delay lock.

Ms Young was last seen late in the afternoon of April 22 walking naked along Brookfield Avenue to the Silverton road, with the bouquet in her arms and a “witches hat” traffic cone on her head.

Witnesses called police and went in search themselves but dusk was falling, and the next day all that was found were her clothes and tracks going up a dry creek. 

Ms Young’s mother, Cynthia Vine, told the inquest that she received a “very strange” phone call from her daughter, her only child, three days before she went missing.

They spoke to each other every day, she said, and Christine would usually send a text message that she was about to call but this time she just rang up and said “I’m about to go to Wilcannia.”

“That was on the Tuesday, and that was the last thing I heard from her.”

Ms Vine said that neither the hospital nor the police told her that Christine was in hospital, let alone missing, and that she only found out when her grandson told her that he had seen on Facebook that police were searching for her.

“I should have been contacted and I would have got the family to go up and see Christine,” said Ms Young as she wept in the witness box.

“It should not be up to the patient to decide who should be contacted. I am angry with the hospital and angry with the police. They knew my daughter was sick.

“I don’t want to die not knowing where my daughter is. My heart is just breaking to pieces. I would love to know where my baby is.”

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