The short life and sad times of a Katherine-born petrol sniffer

TRAGIC LIFE: A Katherine-born man died from petrol sniffing despite repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities. Picture: supplied.
TRAGIC LIFE: A Katherine-born man died from petrol sniffing despite repeatedly coming to the attention of authorities. Picture: supplied.

THE shortened life of a chronic Katherine petrol sniffer has been laid tragically bare before a Coroner’s Court.

Despite repeated interventions by police and health authorities, the man’s apparent death wish came true in 2015 at the small community of Bulla, 370km west of Katherine.

The 23-year-old Aboriginal man, who the Katherine Times has chosen not to name, appeared to fall through the bureaucratic cracks because of the lack of a treatment centre in the NT to treat his violent and chronic condition.

The man was born in September 1991 in Katherine and went to primary school at MacFarlane Primary School.

He told authorities he began sniffing petrol from the age of 10.

In his findings, Judge Cavanagh released figures about people involved with the Volatile Substance Abuse team and through TEHS (Top End Health Service).

The coroner said the graph did not relate to the number of applications for assessment received, he was told it was 505 in 2016.

The Katherine-born man was identified as having mental health issues from the age of 17.

Judge Greg Cavanagh was told the man was addicted to petrol, cannabis and alcohol and at one stage weighed only 55 kilograms.

The inquest, held in May, was told in the seven years before his death there had been 16 separate applications made for an assessment by doctors, nurses and police because they believed the man was “at risk of severe harm”.

Seven of those assessments were lodged in the last three weeks of his life.

The Katherine Mental Health Service asked for mandatory treatment back in 2012.

In search of supplies of petrol to sniff, the man variously threatened people with a knife, a rock and, while at Bulla, threatened to shoot the nurses.

Authorities responded to the man’s condition saying there was “no suitable” treatment facility in the NT “at this time”.

In September 21, 2015, police found the man in his room lying face down in a container of petrol.

He was unconscious but came back to life in the back of a police van as police transported him from Bulla to Katherine hospital.

He ran away from the hospital and began sniffing petrol around Katherine, the court was told.

On September 24, 25, 29 and 30 the man was found by police sniffing petrol in Katherine and reports were made but little action was taken.

By October 11 the man was back in Bulla and at 10.30 that morning was found by his family unresponsive in his room.

He had a bottle of petrol nearby.

He could not be revived.

A legislated remedy requiring mandatory treatment was not used in the seven years he was considered to be at risk of severe harm.

Health authorities have since apologised to the man’s family saying if there was not a readily available treatment option “the (health) department needed to find or create one”.

The coroner made two recommendations, including increased training and a review of operational procedures in relation to substance abusers by the Top End Health Service.

Katherine TImes