Those following the inquest into Joedan Andrews’ death have been left asking one plaintive question: why were so many alarm bells ignored?
HE LOVED being naked – he would strip off his clothes and take off on his scooter wearing only his gumboots. He adored showing off his Spiderman moves. He had long black ringlets but when he heard grown-ups saying he needed a haircut, he found the scissors and gave himself a trim so ragged that his mother had to shear away most of what remained.
The people who loved him are full of funny stories about Joedan Andrews.
He would walk across balance bars in playgrounds with utter fearlessness. He wandered off occasionally but only short distances – maybe to the neighbour’s veranda, where he would employ his chubby-cheeked charms to bludge some biscuits.
Mostly, he liked staying close to his mum. Hers was the lap he preferred. It’s an instinct, the child’s longing to stay close to mother. They say it evolved to help the survival of the species. In one of the many dangerous kinks in the natural order of the world in which Joedan lived his two years and nine months, it did not work that way for him. In December 2002, Joedan chose to stay with his mother rather than go back to Mildura with his grandmother, Veronica Andrews, who had raised him for much of his life. His mother, Sarah Andrews, had just moved in with a new boyfriend, Colin Moore jnr, who lived at a former Aboriginal mission just over the Murray River from Mildura at Dareton, NSW.
He didn’t much like Moore, his mother would later tell police. The little boy was jealous of the new man in his mother’s life. If the three of them were lying in bed together, Joedan would hit him and say: “That’s my mum!”
Joedan was too young to realise that Moore had a long history of violence. Joedan would have had no idea that the mission was an isolated and troubled community in which many drank too much and got stoned too often, in which illiteracy and unemployment ran through three generations, in which angry, boozed-up young men drove like demons in beat-up cars on dark bush tracks.
Nor could he have understood that he had placed himself out of the reach of his grandmother, the woman who had watched out for him during all his mother’s troubles. Veronica Andrews had had a hard life herself – a former partner once beat her so badly she had 56 stitches put in her head – but she took over for her daughter whenever Sarah’s drug problems got out of control. She would take Joedan in and feed him. She claims her last, desperate effort to do that was just two days before he died.
Joedan Andrews disappeared on December 15, 2002. An inquest began last week and was suspended on Wednesday. In her statement to the inquest, Veronica Andrews said she had phoned a local Aboriginal welfare agency and the Department of Human Services many times in 2002 asking for her daughter to be helped, or for her grandson to be given to her (the department says it has only one record of contact from her).
Just a couple of days before Joedan’s death, Veronica claims, she had begged the Aboriginal agency to drive her to Dareton so she could fetch the boy. The family had heard that Joedan had fallen out of a moving car at the mission and was badly bruised: “We were worried about him and we did not have a car.”
An agency worker refused, she said, telling her “they could not go over the border and that (they) did not (transport people) any more. I didn’t ring DHS this time because I had totally lost faith that they were ever going to help me. I would have just lost my temper with them again.”
Veronica would never see her grandson again. Two days later, his mother reported him missing from Colin Moore’s house.
A few weeks later, fragments of Joedan’s bones were found at the mission’s tip. They had fractures that suggested he was subjected to trauma around the time of death. Police believe his body was disposed of in pieces, with part of it stored in the seat cavity of an old armchair, his inquest in the NSW town of Wentworth was told. Forensic evidence showed that dogs had interfered with his remains. The inquest would also hear allegations of the kind of human interference with his remains that is the stuff of horror.
Aborigines call the rituals of mourning “sorry business”. White culture, too, could call what happened to Joedan Andrews a sorry business. Joedan had it hard from the start. According to his grandmother’s statement, Sarah had continued to use drugs while she was pregnant, which contributed to Joedan’s lungs collapsing at birth.
Veronica cared for mother and baby for months while also holding down a full-time job in a Mildura art gallery. She had a breakdown and was hospitalised for two weeks: “They said I had a deep depression because I was overworked, and I had not enough food and not enough sleep.”
Over the next couple of years, Sarah repeatedly moved to Sydney and then back to Mildura, and on and off drugs. Veronica said her daughter took “snow cones” – marijuana mixed with speed. When Sarah moved back to Mildura, Veronica developed a steady relationship with the Aboriginal welfare agency.
At one point, the workers there told her Sarah was now under the supervision of the Department of Human Services, which runs child protection, so her case was out of their hands. Said Veronica: “I never had an interview with anyone from DHS even after I made a formal notification in 2002.”
She got sick of running down to Sarah’s house, but if she didn’t, Sarah’s sister would bring Joedan to her “with nothing, not even a bottle or nappies. This would happen three to four days out of a week. Sarah would be asleep, off her face on drugs, or not home. (Joedan) would be left with strangers. On one occasion, I found someone I knew to be a pedophile in the house. I told him to piss off and he said he was living there with Sarah as a boarder and a babysitter. He was off his face on drugs. I got locked up for punching him through the glass trying to get back in to see (Joedan) after he locked me out.”
Sarah was asked by DHS and the Aboriginal agency to do a program for young mothers with drug and alcohol problems. She refused. She didn’t want them knowing her business, Veronica said.
Veronica was alarmed to find needles lying around Sarah’s house and a little plastic bag of white powder in a child’s jacket. She said she took them both to the Aboriginal agency and showed two staff, including a drug and alcohol worker. “They didn’t say much and they did not seem to do anything. I expected them to make sure DHS knew the extent of Sarah’s drug problem and to take action.”
She said she began ringing the Mildura office of DHS directly: “I was so frustrated about them not doing their job that I became abusive towards them . . . They said Sarah was no longer their client as she was doing fine. I tried to tell them that she was a junkie partying in front of the boys but they would not listen.”
In a statement tendered to the inquest, the child protection worker assigned to the Andrews family told why she had decided that two notifications saying Joedan was at risk – one from a person other than Veronica – could not be substantiated. At the first home visit, the worker did not see any items connected with drug or alcohol use and saw no track marks on Sarah’s arms. The children were playing and seemed well.
The worker decided Sarah needed general welfare support and referred her to the Aboriginal agency for help with her marijuana use and parenting skills. But Sarah refused to work with the agency because she said someone there had breached her confidentiality. Despite this, on August 23 the worker decided the case should be closed: “No significant protective concerns were evident.”
Counsel assisting the coroner at Joedan’s inquest, Stephen Rushton, SC, said: “Someone in the department seems to have formed the view that it was a malicious complaint (by Veronica), which was a very odd conclusion to draw.”
There was another call to child protection in September 2002, alleging Joedan had witnessed a violent incident between a relative of Sarah’s and the relative’s male partner. The worker concluded that Sarah had acted protectively by telling the warring couple to leave the home. The Andrews file was closed on October 15.
A departmental inquiry later concluded that management of Joedan’s case had failed in several ways: there was too long a delay before the first visit to the family, case notes were missing or inadequate, no proper risk assessment was made, and differences between the Aboriginal agency and DHS over the level of risk were never resolved. The inquiry’s report said that the Mildura child protection team was understaffed and overloaded in 2002.
Two weeks after the child’s death, Veronica Andrews met the DHS worker for the first time. In her statement, the worker says Veronica called her a murderer.
Looking back, there are several points at which Joedan’s fate could have unfolded in a different way. Three weeks before his dis appearance, Veronica took Joedan to live with her in Mildura. A week later, Sarah crossed the state border and moved into the mission with Colin Moore. A week after that, Veronica went out to the mission to get money from Sarah for the child’s needs. It was then that Joedan saw his mother and wanted to stay with her.
Said Veronica: “I thought Joedan would be all right for a night or two because he had aunties and a grandfather out there and I thought they would look after him. I asked a few relatives to make sure that they kept an eye on them, and they said that they would.”
Local Aborigines of Veronica’s generation and older – Veronica is now 44 – remember the mission as a good place for the Barkindji or “river people” to live. “People looked after each other then,” recalls a former resident. There are still families there that do. But there are other families whose names provoke sidelong glances and mutterings about thieving, standover tactics, squatting and houses being burnt down. To many local whites, the mission is a no-go area. “Brick through your car window,” warns one. Both races call it “Nama”, after the long and winding Namatjira Avenue that snakes down its centre.
For both the desert artist Albert Namatjira and this rural mission named after him, dreams ended in the dust. “Nama” is on the outskirts of Dareton, reported in 1999 to be one of the most disadvantaged places in NSW. Many of the mission’s 150 or so people have become fringe-dwellers, an estimated 85% of them unemployed, living in a world without time other than that set by the sun. There are unlettered parents whose idea of discipline is to threaten naughty children with having to go to school. Witness after witness from the mission told Joedan’s inquest they could not read.
A favourite pastime is stealing cars and driving them in clouds of red dust along the dirt tracks that criss-cross the grey mallee scrub behind the houses. A vast dirt arena cleared of scrub is used for rallying – the chariot races of the dispossessed. A scant half-hour from Dareton is Mildura, with its suburban-dream houseboats, flash hotels and gourmet restaurants.
There are families at Nama who won’t touch alcohol because of the damage it can wreak. Those socialising with Sarah and Colin on the last weekend of Joedan’s life were not among them. Everyone agrees there was heavy drinking and smoking of “yandi” – marijuana – at two parties on December 14, 2002 – one of them at Colin Moore jnr’s house at 16 Namatjira Avenue.
Sarah told police that Joedan had earlier fallen out of a moving car when he opened the door himself and grazed his hands and upper lip, which bled a little, but was otherwise well that day. He sat on her lap while she was drinking at another house. Later, she took him back to Colin’s and put him to bed, joining him, she would say later, a little before dawn.
According to Sarah, Joedan was in bed at Colin’s house all night from 11pm. But another witness who stayed at Colin’s that night, Darren Williams, told the inquest he heard the car leaving, possibly about 4am. He got up and found the house empty.
According to Sarah’s statement, she and Colin drank and had a few “cones” when they got home that night and then went to bed. She went to sleep curled around her son but woke at 11am and he was gone. A door that should have been locked wasn’t, and a flyscreen had been removed from a window, she said. When a quick search of Colin’s house and his mother’s house next door failed to find Joedan, she rang police.
INVESTIGATORS have felt frustrated by a wall of silence at Nama. One of the goals of the inquest that began two weeks ago was to shake the tree and see what fell from it. Lawyer Rushton warned unspecified witnesses that it was more serious to lie to a coroner than to tell fibs to police: “This is not a matter where it would be appropriate for the local Aboriginal community to look at what occurred as an ‘our mob versus their mob’ issue.”
Throughout the proceedings, Colin Moore sat still and silent in a high, throne-like wooden dock in the centre of the 1880 building that is the Wentworth courthouse. He was on remand over other criminal charges. He had previously been sent a 1200-page brief of evidence and a letter informing him he was “a person of interest” to the inquest. It was of little use to him – he is one of those who cannot read.
Two main scenarios were put to the court.
Thomas Hines, a former resident of the mission, said “Collieboy” (Colin Moore) had told him he punched Joedan in the chest and that the child stopped breathing.
“I said, ‘Why did you do it?’ He said the little fella was crying, he wouldn’t shut up . . . They tried to revive him but couldn’t. And he turned to me and said if I said anything, he would kill me.”
Rushton asked: “Were you scared?”
Hines replied: “For my life.”
Kathleen Brown told the inquest she had been at the mission that Saturday with her then boyfriend, Tim Mitchell. That night, when they got back to where they were staying in Mildura, she noticed a spot of blood on his face and more on his shirt.
She asked about it. “He said: ‘Remember that little boy that belonged to Sarah? Well, you won’t be seeing him no more.’ He said . . . he died. I asked him what happened. He said driving around in the car, there was no brakes and they hit a tree and Joedan was standing up between the two front seats and . . . he hit the windscreen when they hit a tree and he wasn’t moving so they thought he was dead.
“He said they cut his head off and buried his body separately, and that if I told anyone, they were going to kill me.”
Questioned by Rushton, she agreed that the knife Mitchell claimed was used was like a machete: “He said (it was) the one I seen before. It was supposed to belong to Collieboy. He used it to cut the heads off chickens at the mission. I had seen that a couple of weeks before . . . It’s about a foot long. It had a green handle and it was old, because the blade was sort of rusted.”
Mitchell denied it all. He told the inquest he had not been at the mission that day. In his statement to police, he did say he had heard rumours that the child got caught up in a game of chicken Moore was playing with another car: “He’s just mad when he’s drunk.”
A teenage witness who cannot be named for legal reasons said he saw Colin Moore and his younger brother, John, carrying a bundle wrapped in a shower curtain a couple of days after Joedan disappeared. John Moore denied this, and also denied suggestions that he and his brother had been moving Joedan’s body around to evade the police hunt for the child.
On Wednesday, the inquest was suddenly suspended by coroner Malcolm Macpherson, who declared that there was now enough evidence for a jury to be able to convict “a known person” of an indictable offence. This followed evidence by Colin Moore’s mother, Jennifer, that her son had made a confession to her at the weekend: “He was telling me that they were in a car, driving a car, with Sarah and Joedan. They were going a bit too fast and turned a corner and Joedan went out the window. He wasn’t breathing and they panicked.”
She said her son told her that he and Sarah had put the body “in the couch”.
None of the scenarios involving a car explain why police found Joedan’s blood in four rooms of Moore’s house, including a splotch on the floor at the foot of the family’s mattress. But one of the police exhibits is a photograph of a tree at the side of a dirt track that appears to have had bark scraped off its lower trunk.
For Joedan’s family, there is still no sense of finality. Rushton said the bone fragments might be all that is ever found of him: “More likely than not, other parts remain strewn around Dareton mission and beyond. It’s unlikely that those remains will ever be recovered.”
It is not known whether anyone will be charged, whether the inquest will resume or whether Joedan’s relatives will get another chance to wear the T-shirts they donned every day of their vigil at court. The shirts boldly demand “Justice for Joedan” and carry a picture of him taken after that famous haircut. This was not the cocky child of the balance bars – the camera caught him in a moment of uncertainty, looking small and lost. As he will forever be.
Karen Kissane is law and justice editor.
First published in The Age.