Dean Shillingsworth and the people Australia forgot
THERE are some stories that are so sad that they are almost impossible to read, some photographs that you cannot look at without choking up. The death of Dean Shillingsworth is such a story – the gorgeous two-year-old boy from one of the most impoverished suburbs in Sydney’s west, whose mother yesterday pleaded guilty to killing him and stuffing him into a suitcase which she threw into a duck pond.
The manner of Dean’s death goes beyond comprehension. You look at this kid in his Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas and just shake your head in disbelief, and shed a tear that, maybe, he could have been one of the children who through the support of his extended family, or the attention of a dedicated public school teacher, could have found his way out of the dysfunctional mess he’d been born into.
That is obviously something that nobody will ever know.
The resolution of the case invites soft language about “closure” and a chance for a shattered community to “heal”, the hope that all the “stakeholders” in the field of child protection can learn from this shocking tragedy.
Without wishing to be too cynical, it’s meaningless sentimentalism unless something more tangible is done to help the children and their battling parents in these communities.
This isn’t to let the mother of Dean Shillingsworth off the hook, or to reflect on the contribution made by the absence of a consistent father figure in this shocking event.
There are plenty of parents out there who are just as poor and uneducated as 27-year-old Rachel Pfitzner, who do not plunge into a life of drug abuse or indolence, who know that bringing up a child is the most important responsibility you will have in your time on earth, whether you’re rich or poor, and who could never defy the most primal instincts to inflict shocking life-ending violence on their own child.
She’ll have it on her conscience for the rest of her days.
But for the rest of the community, we should start to question the Pollyanna reaction we have to these continuing cases of child abuse, where the media and the public express surprise and disbelief at the fact that another child has been lost, when the crushing monotony of the statistics should tell us that there’s nothing surprising or unbelievable about the death of insert-child’s-name-here.
To that end – and again, without eliminating the personal responsibility factor or the question of lifestyle choice– we need to examine the way in which people can be condemned to live in an irreparably dysfunctional state, where the rest of society almost actively tells them that they’re forgotten and discarded.
There are two pieces of writing which make the point – one went specifically to the death of Dean Shillingsworth, the other was published just a few days ago and gave the most terrible demonstration of how government and the broader community can consign a group of people to the garbage heap.
The first was by The Daily Telegraph’s Michelle Cazzulino, who visited the duckpond at the Mandurama Reserve in the suburb of Ambervale, where Dean’s body was found. (Unfortunately there is no weblink.)
Michelle wrote about how this tiny pond in a very basic suburban park was the one part of the community where people had always felt they could come to play with the kids but, because of his death, were now staying away, save for the one simple, moving gesture of making a final visit to leave some flowers where he was found.
Michelle went back to the park a year after Dean’s death and spoke to the locals again. She wrote:
“At the reserve a portrait of the smiling two-year-old was tied to a tree just three weeks ago. Already the photo has been ruined by the elements, Dean’s angelic features blurred. Preparations are being finalised for a more permanent memorial – a stone bearing his face and name will be laid during a service on Saturday night, while plans are also underway for a time capsule to be buried on the spot.”
Even the simple act of remembering the boy with a memorial was an arduous 14-month task for this community.
The second piece was by Paul Kent and was published just last Saturday and had no direct relationship to the Shillingsworth case. It looked at the forgotten suburb of Claymore, which has a similar profile of poverty and neglect to where Dean lived, where child abuse and neglect through alcohol and drug abuse is a comparable problem.
Kent’s visit was prompted by the revelation that – due to a triumph of the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet over the human faculty of reason – this busted suburb with run-down schools had failed to win a single cent from the Federal Government’s $1.5 billion fund for disadvantaged schools.
He described a place where the council doesn’t bother to mow the lawns, where average wages are $530 a week (in Campbelltown it’s $1156), where a staggering 97 per cent of people live in public housing, an appalling mix which is a sure-fire way to entrench poverty, and where one of the few local industries involves the tradies who board up smashed windows with plywood to stop local kids from firebombing them.
In a bland and matter of fact way, long-standing local resident Ken Jordan told Kent that the community regarded the sound-proofing of the six-lane M5 motorway – or rather the lack thereof – as a clear indication of how Claymore was regarded by the government and the rest of Sydney.
He described how the sound barrier runs through Campbelltown, stops when it gets to Claymore, and starts again as the M5 makes it way into more affluent suburbs.
“I don’t think I’ll be voting for them next time,” Ken Jordan said of the State Government.
Why the hell should he. It’s hard to imagine a purer form of government evil than this decision, which must have been made consciously as a cost-saving measure inside a department, and went either unrecognised or ignored by the relevant minister.
It’s the kind of thing which exposes the hysterical nimbyism we find in the inner-city over issues such as access to parks, in areas where in comparative terms, parks abound, for the middle-class conceit that it is.
It also challenges the conduct and priorities of government in having a kind of “manageable neglect” approach to poor communities, where they know that people’s expectations are so low that they can keep on disappointing them.
And it should force some deeper, ongoing thinking about whether the rest of us can structure our lives to do something for those communities where kids are at risk, where many of them have never had a book read to them, or don’t have a safe place to do their homework, and turn these suburbs into something other than places you drive past at 110km/h on your way down to a weekend buying antiques and devonshire teas in the Southern Highlands.
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