‘Helpful’ detail that could have saved kids

The grandparents of two children murdered by their mother’s partner should have been told ‘helpful’ information about their care, a court has heard.

It would have been “helpful” to tell the grandparents of two murdered children about their mother’s drug addiction and the lack of resources to help them, a former Families SA employee has conceded.

An inquest has been launched into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Amber Rose Rigney, 6, and her brother Korey Lee Mitchell, 5, and the involvement of the Department of Child Protection, formerly known as Families SA.

The two children were strangled to death by their mother Adeline Yvette Wilson-Rigney’s partner Steven Graham Peet, who also killed Ms Wilson-Rigney on May 20, 2016.

Peet was handed a mandatory life sentence after pleading guilty to the triple murder and is serving a 36-year non-parole period.

At the time of the murders, Amber and Korey were living with their 28-year-old mother and Peet in Hillier, north of Adelaide.

A coroner’s inquest – before Deputy Coroner Anthony Schapel – was launched on Tuesday, and the court was told that the children’s tragic deaths could have been prevented if they were removed from Ms Wilson-Rigney’s care.

On the second day of the inquest, former acting supervisor and support officer at the Department for Child Protection, Avril Hale, was questioned if it was necessary for the children’s grandparents to be told about information provided to Families SA about Ms Wilson-Rigney’s drug taking.

Mr Schapel also asked Ms Hale if they should have been informed that the department did not have the capacity to investigate.

“It would have been helpful if that had been imparted to the grandparents for them to make a decision as to whether or not they would intervene,” Ms Hale replied.

She told the coroner that she believed a discussion occurred with the grandparents about concerns for Amber but said her grandfather stated there were “too many people in his home” at the time to be able to have her in his care.

“At some point I’d presume the grandparents were spoken to about some of the concerns and what they may be able to do to mitigate some of those concerns,” Ms Hale said.

“If I was a grandparent, I’d like to have known that information.”

In June 2019, the ombudsman investigated the matter and concluded Families SA failed to communicate with Steven Egberts and Janet Wells about the care and protection of their late grandchildren.

“It is … nonsensical to interpret the agency’s duty of confidentiality to preclude the sharing of information with a child’s extended family where necessary to protect the child from serious harm,” the ombudsman said in a statement.

“Here, again, the paramount consideration of the child’s best interests must prevail.”

Outside court, Mr Egberts said he and Ms Wells continued to hear new pieces of information about Amber and Korey’s care as the inquest progressed.

“It’s very hard. You make an assessment of the situation and that can all be overturned in a couple of short words or sentences,” he told NCA NewsWire.

“We were given choices to make decisions with no information … how are we supposed to make judgment calls if we don’t know she’s on drugs? It’s all new information.”

Mr Egberts said the couple had “no indication” Ms Wilson-Rigney was on drugs because they had not seen the children in 18 months.

“She was avoiding seeing us.

“We think we did the right things with the information we were given. We can’t see what we could have possibly changed without that information.

“Nothing is going to bring back Amber and Korey but there are 4000 other kids in care at the moment – how many of them get active outside help (from family or friends)?”

The court was told on Tuesday that Ms Wilson-Rigney was involved in an assault at home.

The following day, Ms Hale told the inquest the mother reacted to the bathtub assault based on her own “personal trauma”.

“She felt she was justified in her behaviour,” she said.

It was revealed Families SA closed its case after the incident when the mother agreed – by signing a department document – to seek help from Aboriginal Family Support Services (AFSS).

The court was told the AFSS stopped their involvement with Ms Wilson-Rigney because she was not willing to participate in a program to receive help.

Ms Hale spoke about the limited resources at the department at the time and said it was “only responding to tier 1 cases”.

When questioned by Mr Schapel, she said hearing that Ms Wilson-Rigney was an ice addict and there was no food in the home were not established facts but “hearsay”.

She added that department staff would have needed to go out and investigate to determine the truth.

Ms Hale conceded the children’s “tier 2” notifications could have been classified as “tier 1” or instant removal of a child if the department “had the legs” to investigate.

“Had we had the resources we would have acted … the issue was the resources to be able to do that,” she said.

“The volume of notifications that were coming into the system … it meant there were children in even more dangerous situations and in more dire situations that we needed to use those resources to address.”

On Tuesday, the court was told that Ms Wilson-Rigney frequently left her children hungry and in the company of strangers.

It was also revealed that Amber and Korey both suffered from a “severe” deficiency in speech and communication skills.

Ms Hale told the Coroners Court a lack of resources at Families SA hindered its response, and, if it had more staff it could have responded to the threats against Amber and Korey.

“In the ideal world, if we had the capacity and I had a team member that had capacity, a team member that was not breaking already, to be able to go out and do a full investigation of this I absolutely would’ve,” she said on Tuesday.

“(The case) met the threshold for intervention by the department. I did not have the capacity to be able to do that. I had no staff and there was no staff available across the entire Elizabeth office for me to be able to do that.

“There’s an enormous amount of work that we would have put into (the case) had I had the resources to do so.”

The inquest continues.

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