A quarter of a century after Marcus Einfeld wept at the sight of Toomelah’s children playing in raw sewage, the community has been told it must accept an intervention-style takeover or face the demolition of the township and relocation of residents.
The former Aboriginal mission, which shot to the national spotlight in 1987 when Mr Einfeld’s human rights commission inquiry found 500 people were sharing one tap, has reached crisis point again.
The threat of drastic action to tackle poverty, poor health, truancy, rundown infrastructure, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and chronic unemployment was made during a series of meetings between government agencies and residents over the past three weeks.
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While the NSW government denies either option is under consideration, it acknowledged previous attempts to address Toomelah’s problems had failed and new approaches were being canvassed.
“The situation in Toomelah is shocking and heartbreaking,’’ the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Victor Dominello, said. ‘’It cannot be acceptable to any government or any community leader.’’
But the prospect of forced removal or government intervention similar to that in the Northern Territory has terrified the fraught township of about 300, where many blame successive government policies for the pitiful state of their home.
One official said Toomelah, serviced by more than 60 government and non-government agencies, was “the most depressing place in the world’’ and there were few options left. “The place is squalor at the moment,’’ the official said. “It would be better off to relocate everyone because you cannot sustain it. People live like this because they choose to.’’
When the Herald visited last week, sewage pooled in the open between houses, numerous buildings were gutted by vandals, rubbish littered the streets, and residents talked of multiple suicide attempts each month.
“I drove in there last week and I cried,’’ said an elder, Madeleine McGrady - who moved away a year ago for health reasons. “I’ve never seen it so bad.’’
The school, which the Herald was told only half of Toomelah’s children attend, was broken into eight times in the Easter holidays, she said.
Others blamed a lack of help from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, which stopped funding the local land council more than two years ago after it failed to meet its legal responsibilities.
But the state body said it has been helping, particularly over the past few years.
“Ultimately, the Toomelah community must be empowered to tackle their own problems and the NSW Aboriginal Land Council will continue to assist in this regard,’’ a spokesman said.
The community now fears it could be one of at least four NSW Aboriginal communities, including Walgett and Wilcannia, facing intervention-style programs.
“[We were told] they’re going to come in and bulldoze the whole community down, every structure, and the only thing that’s going to be left standing is our cemetery,’’ a resident, Glynis McGrady, said.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, said the Commonwealth had not proposed “appointing a government manager to the community or relocating the community’’.
She would not say why a senior departmental official, James Christian, attended meetings at Toomelah last week, or when the minister herself last visited the stricken township. - By Saffron Howden, Sydney Morning Herald
Two water towers stand ominously at the edge of Toomelah. Reg McGrady points up to them and, in his quiet voice, says matter-of-factly: “We had a girl jump off there a few weeks ago. She’s all right now.’’
A pause, then: “[Another woman’s] fella, he tried to hang himself.’’
Broken glass, discarded plastic bottles and crushed cigarette lighters crunch underfoot along the short roads criss-crossing the community of roughly 300.
The unkempt grass yards, scorched and blackened by fire in places, lead to the skeletons of former homes where the windows are shattered, the doors ripped from their hinges and the interior walls shredded and scattered, in pieces, across the floors.
“We go to sleep with poverty in our faces and it’s still there when we wake up,’’ resident, Glynis McGrady, said.
Sewage collects in puddles between some of the community’s 50-odd houses, sending a sickening odour wafting over the streets in the midday sun.
Despite public inquiries and untold millions in government funding over the past quarter century since Marcus Einfeld famously wept at the sight of children playing in sewage, many things have stayed the same in Toomelah.
Children still play in festering waste water pooling in ruts on the road. The street lights stay dark at night. The only shop has closed down. A doctor visits just once a week. And, the Herald was told, half the children do not attend school.
“There was raw sewage running up the hallway [in one house] last year,’’ Ms McGrady, a mother of five, said.
Mr Einfeld’s ‘’Toomelah Report’’ for the Human Rights Commission shocked politicians into a flurry of spending 25 years ago. Another shock jolted them into action again in 2004 when elders appealed for assistance with widespread child sexual abuse, prompting a concerted child protection response, with some success.
But the 100-year-old former mission - where the newer kit homes built at huge cost using corrugated iron bake their residents in summer and freeze them in winter, leaving astronomical electricity bills in their wake - has, against all odds, slipped off the radar again.
Suicides and attempted suicides have climbed to three or four a month, and drugs and alcohol have tightened their grip, locals say. And the elders are dropping one by one, mostly from cancer. “Everyone’s dying,’’ Ms McGrady said.
The Local Aboriginal Land Council, once responsible for the maintenance of Toomelah homes, is all but collapsed and no longer receives funding from the State Land Council.
“The Toomelah community has faced significant challenges over many years,’’ a State Land Council spokesman said.
‘’[It] has been denied the provision of many basic services from all levels of government since the establishment of the community.
“In addition to this, the community inherited housing stock which was substandard. This poor housing stock has plagued the community ever since.’’
But some believe Toomelah, plagued by factional wars fought along family lines, has sealed its own fate.
“The amount of money that has gone into that community would blow the minds of the Australian taxpayer,’’ one service provider said.
“This community does not want to be developed, hence it will not be developed.’’
Others, though, talk of the glory days of the Aboriginal Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program - stripped from the community and many others like it in mid-2009 - when men and women worked to keep the streets clean, tended the cemetery, and ran men’s, women’s and youth groups.
“They were seen as role models in the community because they were working on CDEP,’’ Rene Adams, who runs the Toomelah Co-op, said.
“They did the catering for the wakes; they did the funerals. They even dug the graves.”
Many of the former participants had since moved to disability benefits and were unlikely to be employable again, she said.
“Intergenerational trauma’’ was an open wound in Toomelah and no amount of money would help if it was spent on poorly built houses, an empty school canteen building, or a dodgy sewerage system,” Ms McGrady said.
“What do they call it? Wilful blindness,’’ she said.
“We still seem to be in that hard-case basket. We don’t fit in anywhere.’’ - Story courtesy of SMH