By KIERAN FINNANE
It was a case that attracted widespread reporting and commentary back in June: a young mother was arrested and charged for an alleged assault on her 16-month-old son. The details of the allegation, made by the child’s father and revealed by a police media release at the time, were shocking: the father said his wife had hit the child over the head a number of times with a can of soft drink, picked him up by one leg and slammed him into the ground three times and then into a fence, before holding his head under her arm and punching him to the head.
In court last week there was no-one in the public gallery to hear the evidence about what happened – apart from the Alice Springs News. In the witness box the father stuck broadly to his original story while the young woman firmly denied most of it, admitting only to shaking the pram in which she was pushing the child and slapping him on the cheek three times. She also admitted to threatening to kill the child, with the words “I’ll kill your son”, but she said, “I didn’t do action”.
The father’s story was very similar to his account of another alleged assault on the child six months ago on Elcho Island. The mother again disputed most of the alleged facts, admitting only to drawing the child by one leg across a bed in order to pick him up and later, while screaming, holding him tightly to her with her arms and legs in an attempt to prevent anyone from taking him (“they might think I would do silly stuff”). She did finally hand him over to a relative.
She denied having been drinking or having smoked ganja on both occasions and the court heard no evidence that she had done so, other than the father’s account. However she pleaded guilty to both “aggravated assaults”, the aggravation being that the victim was a child and she was an adult.
Magistrate John Neil wondered what the basis for her guilty plea was in relation to the Elcho Island incident as on her own evidence “at its highest” it did not seem to be an assault. The young woman’s lawyer was wondering too: he’d been under the impression that the Crown would have further witnesses, as other statements had been taken.
In the end all that was before the court were two often conflicting accounts given under oath, with some elements in common.
Mr Neil found his way between them, in the end satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that, on Elcho Island, the way in which she held the child, while screaming, was adverse to the child’s interests and the way in which she had pulled him across the bed involved excessive force. These acts constituted an assault. He could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that any of the father’s other allegations in this instance had happened, given that the defendant firmly denied them.
In relation to the Alice Springs incident Mr Neil found that the young woman had used the child to put pressure on her husband, by harming and threatening to harm the little boy. He noted deficiencies in her account: she put her admitted acts of shaking the pram, slapping the child and uttering the threat as all happening while she followed her husband who was on his way to call the police. Clearly something had happened to cause him to be going to call the police, said Mr Neil.
Under questioning the woman had reversed the chronology to have herself slapping the child before her husband left the house to call the police. Mr Neil accepted that explanation, unable to be satisfied “to the requisite standard” of events having been otherwise. He found beyond reasonable doubt that the shaking of the pram – which had the “potential to do harm” – and the slaps to the face amounted to violence perpetrated on the child. He said any slap on the face is “inappropriate at best” and “wildly reprehensible at worst”.
A psychiatric report had been provided to him. On its basis he said the young woman has “significant emotional issues” but is not mentally ill. “Most worryingly” the report suggested that she does not have good insight into the needs of the child and showed little remorse. This lack of insight points not only to what she did do but to what she might do, he said. “That’s what’s so worrying.”
The young woman is apparently not open to counselling and no orders were made in this regard.
He sentenced her to 14 days for the earlier incident and two months for the later one, to be served concurrently. However these sentences come on top of an eight month sentence she is currently serving for other unrelated offences (committed before the birth of her child), for which she was only arrested and charged after her arrest for the assault on the child.
The child is now in the care of his father, with the Department of Children and Families “keeping an eye on the situation”.
‘Cursed’ food sparks fight – twice
Sitting through this hearing was like being a fly on the wall in a ghastly domestic dispute. The young woman’s husband was colourful in his accounts and was allowed fairly free rein, including many times getting to his feet, trying to talk directly to his wife, and telling the woman’s lawyer that he could read his mind and knew “white people’s tricks”. The young woman mostly sat with her back turned to him, but every now and then she left fly, including calling him a liar, despite her lawyer’s attempts to keep her quiet.
The husband hardly covered himself in glory – not that that is relevant to the court’s business (“I have no interest in offences that may have been committed by the first witness,” said Mr Neil). Both incidents happened during the day and both times, the husband was sleeping, while his wife was out getting food. On both occasions when she came back, he was not satisfied with the food.
In Alice Springs it was a cold winter’s day. They were in a house with no power and there was nothing for breakfast. At about 10 in the morning the young woman left the house in Van Senden Avenue to look for food, pushing the little boy in his pram. She went first to Yipirinya Hostel, a couple of blocks away, to see if an uncle could give her “feed and money” but “he got none”. Her aunt told her to go to Abbott’s Camp – some 12 blocks away – to see her aunt’s mother.
It turned out this woman was at the Gap Hotel. She waited for her at BP shop: “Aunty, this little boy hungry, he got no feed.” The woman took her to shop at Piggly Wiggly’s and she walked back to Van Senden Avenue with five shopping bags. By now it was about 3pm. She said she pushed the pram inside, with the shopping. She was tired and asked her husband, who was still in bed, to cook for her. That’s when he got “wild at me”, saying that the “feed had been cursed”.
In the witness box her husband said he asked where she had found the food. He said she answered, “Why you want to know?” He repeatedly asserted that for a “black Aborigine man” these are “very bad words”. They put in his mind the idea that the food might be poisoned, that his wife might be trying to kill him. (“That’s all you think about!” his wife threw back in the court. “You make up stories!”) He said she looked “wild from my words”, accusing him of thinking her “families are blood-suckers” and she was “chucking” the food all over the floor.
So they were back to where they started, cold and hungry. And now they were also fighting.
She said she tried to hurt him but he was “too powerful”, that was why she used their son to put pressure on him to go and “look for feed”.
On Elcho Island, his country, despite a restraining order against him, it appeared the couple were living together. On the day of the assault there was also a shopping trip that preceded the argument between the couple. This time, the young woman had money, it was “payday week”. She told the court what she had bought – flour, Weetbix, milk, sugar, eggs, etc. The prosecutor suggested she had also bought some marijuana. She admitted that she had bought one bag. She also said she had kept $30 in her pocket for playing cards and that her husband was “sulky” with her because she hadn’t given him money for Kava (a natural sedative that at strength can be ‘psychoactive’, inducing feelings of happiness). She firmly denied that she had smoked that day – she was saving it for later – and she denied having had a drink. In Alice Springs, similarly, she denied being under the influence: “No smoke, no ganja, nothing”. When she went around “looking for feed” she was “a normal person”.
Her husband said she was heavy smoker and drinker, sniffed petrol at times, she did what she wanted to do and he couldn’t stop her.
In his descriptions of the assaults on their son, he suggested she had used the boy as “a shield” to block him, the husband, from hitting her. He wanted to hit her to make her behave.
She said that on Elcho Island, after she had pulled her son to her by his leg and taken him up to her shoulder, her husband had used a belt to “whack” her in the face because he “felt I did it [pulling the child] rough way”.
Asked by the woman’s lawyer why, on Elcho Island, he was just “looking” at what his wife was allegedly doing and did not try to intervene, the husband said that it was his wife’s “problem, not mine”. In Alice Springs as she was allegedly slamming the child into a fence, he said he was “running away” – to the public phone.
By KIERAN FINNANE