Last weekend a bright, happy twelve-year-old boy from Hermannsburg, 120 kilometres west of Alice Springs, lost his life after sniffing petrol under a crucifix in the former Lutheran mission settlement. The sniffable fuel had been discovered in an abandoned vehicle which still carried high-aromatic fuel from pre-Opal days.

Yesterday afternoon I visited the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) at Tangentyere Council, and spoke to Blair McFarland and Tristan Ray, two youth workers who have been deeply and immediately involved in combating petrol sniffing in Central Australia.

McFarland told me that the boy who died had been an eager participant in the community’s recreation program. He was a “child star” of Hermannsburg, a short film showing kids from the community, which I had seen projected onto the “story wall” in the Todd Mall only a few weeks ago.

The film can no longer be screened because it features images of the dead boy. Politicians and policy-makers must redouble their efforts to ensure that the film stocks for the Story Wall programs will not be further diminished by tragedy.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen children, one as young as ten, have commenced sniffing petrol out at Hermannsburg, after the Christmas holiday youth programs had concluded. This is a chilling demonstration of the crucial importance of well-designed recreation programs for young people as a bulwark against petrol sniffing.

“Opal offers a window of time to act on sniffing and its underlying causes” says Tristan Ray.

But he is adamant that BP’s life saving fuel is not, on its own, enough. The government’s eight point plan has identified a suite of complementary measures including, improved policing, rehabilitation and treatment, and crucially, alternative activities for young people.

In June, Mission Australia will commence delivery of an $8 million dollar program to deliver integrated youth services to the communities of Mutitjulu, Imanpa, Docker River and Aputula. The grant includes capital investment in recreation halls and accommodation for youth workers.

Ray says that this is the way forward, and has called for similar programs to be implemented in communities like Hermannsburg, Areyonga, Papunya, Kintore, Mt Liebig, Yuendumu and Willowra.

In mid-March, a Weekend Australian story proclaiming that petrol sniffing had been conquered has proven sadly premature. “Petrol sniffing scourge defeated” shouted the joyful headline, despite a quote from McFarland warning that “it’s not over yet.”

The tragic death at Hermannsburg, the first this year from petrol sniffing in the region, demonstrates that the scourge of sniffing demands eternal vigilance.

Peter Fray

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