Name: River Smythe
Date of birth: 22/1/05
You are the social worker at a large government secondary school in Melbourne. You receive a referral from a teacher at the school who is a ‘mentor’ for a home room group of 24 students. The referral process at your school is informal, and the teacher (Clara Thurgood) has dropped by your office.
Clara explains, “Look, this is a really strange situation. This boy, River Smythe, joined Year 10 this year. He moved from Queensland with his mother, apparently. He is very quiet and seemed really shy and well-behaved at first. He didn’t say anything, really, just kind of sat there watching everything. Then I noticed that he started hanging around with those boys that hang out on the basketball courts. As you know, a lot of those boys come from really rough families, and have involvement with things like alcohol, drugs, stealing stuff, getting in trouble at the housing estate where most of them live. It seemed a bit strange that such a nice, quiet kid would hang around with those boys.”
“Anyway, yesterday there was a fight on the basketball courts at lunchtime, and a boy who was walking by came to tell me he saw River pull a knife on another kid. By the time we got there the fight had broken up, and River emptied his pockets and we couldn’t find a knife. What he did have in his pocket was a green seashell, which is kinda strange.”
You look at River’s enrolment records. The information states that River is 15 years old, and that he lives with his mother Melita Hargood, who is 37 years old. His father, Sasha Hargood, does not live with River and his mother, and his address is listed as ‘unknown.’ River’s mother has ticked the box to identify that River identifies as Murri (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander). They live in the local high rise housing estate.
You ask Clara Thurgood to let River know that you would like him to come and see you as he’s new to the school and you are wanting to touch base after the incident on the playground. River does not turn up for the appointment.
You go to the homeroom session with Clara Thurgood, and invite River to come and have a chat in your office.
He follows you to your office, and you explain that you thought it might be a good idea to have a chat, as he is new to the school and there were concerns about the incident on the playground.
River looks at his hands throughout most of the session, playing with two rings and a bracelet on his wrist. Despite your attempts to engage him in small talk, he does not engage and you are not able to find out much information about his background, or what is happening in his life. He does share that he has recently moved from Queensland with his mother, who works “at some office in the city.” When you ask him if he has any brothers or sisters, he starts chewing his lip and says, “No.” He then asks if he can leave.
You receive a call from Peter Sargeant, a history teacher. He tells you that a group of boys were involved in a ‘stand off’ in history class. Peter explains that the topic was Indigenous history and the Stolen Generations, and a student “made a snide comment to the effect of ‘well they should just get over it. It happened a long time ago. They shouldn’t get free housing and education like they do.’” Peter describes, “River and two other boys in the class, who are Indigenous boys got quite agitated, and got up and kind of stood over this kid. It was very tense. The kid obviously said something very inappropriate, but it got pretty heated and I thought they were going to hit him.” In the end, the situation was defused by River, who pulled the other boys away and said, “He’s not worth it. Come on, he’s not worth it.” He asks if you can speak to all of the boys.
You arrange to see River and the two other boys (Jock Duarte, and Billy Maxwell). You know Jock and Billy, as they have been involved in a lot of incidents in the classroom and on the playground. They also have been involved with the police on several occasions for minor shoplifting and loitering on the housing estate. (You arrange to see the other boy who made the racist comment separately, and the Principal develops a response to address the racist incident). You ask the boys, “What happened?”
They describe the incident just as Peter Sargeant has described it. Billy says, “look, it’s just not fair. How come he can say that sort of shit to us and get away with it?” You agree that the comment was offensive, and let the boys know you will be following it up with the Principal. Jock and Billy seem surprised. “You mean we’re not in trouble?” You explain that there will be no disciplinary action because the situation was diffused. You chat with Billy and Jock for about fifteen minutes about their anger at the racism they experience. River doesn’t say anything the whole time. He looks at his hands and plays with his rings.
After the boys leave, Jock comes back to your office. “Look,” he says. “I don’t really like social workers, but you’ve always been pretty cool with us. I don’t know why… but there’s something about River. I don’t know why he is hanging out with us. He seems too...nice. Anyway, we really like him, but he seems kinda sad all the time. Maybe you can talk to him.” “You thank Jock” you said, and he goes back to class.
You arrange to see River (during the homeroom class). River comes into your office, and you notice today that he seems less reluctant to engage. You see him looking at a piece of art on your wall, and talk about the drawing for a few minutes. Once he seems more relaxed, you ask him, “So what’s going on? How do you like being at this school?”
River responds, “Well, it was pretty shit to start. But now that I’m with Jock and Billy, kids leave me alone. I don’t get hassled anymore.” When you ask him what was happening, you notice he starts to shut down.
You change focus and ask, “So you seem to really like art. Are you doing any art courses?”
He laughs sarcastically. “Art is for sissies,” he says. “At least that’s what Irving says. Irving’s my mum’s boyfriend. He’s the reason we moved down here. He doesn’t like art, and he doesn’t like me. But my mum seems to be happier now that we’ve moved down here, so I guess I just have to put up with it.” He suddenly gets up and says, “Well I gotta go” and leaves the room.
The Principal, Mrs Billings, comes to your office. “Well, they’re up to it again,” she says. “Who?” you ask. “Billy and Jock and their followers,” she says. “The police came by to say they saw them throwing eggs and sticks at some other kids on the way to school. The cops said that there was a kid they hadn’t seen before, and he started talking about human rights and systemic racism. It’s that new kid, River Smythe. The cops said he was actually really polite, but that he better watch it hanging around with those kids.” She asks, “Can you talk to him separately? And then see Jock and Billy? You know, I really like those kids, but they are going to end up in the slammer if they don’t channel their energy someplace a bit more useful.”
River comes to your office. He is very animated. He says, “My nan was right! If you start talking about human rights, the cops don’t know what to do. They stopped in their tracks. Anyway, we weren’t doing anything wrong. We were just getting back at those kids who were saying bad stuff about Aboriginal people.”
“Can you tell me about your Nan?” you say. “She sounds like a very smart lady.”
His face clouds over. “She was. She was the best. But she’s gone, my sister’s gone, and now I’m stuck in this shit hole with Irving and my mother is starting to go off the deep end again. I don’t know what I’m gonna do, ‘cause I’m trapped here and I have no one. I found that our old church up North has a branch here, and I went to a meeting and it was great, it was just like being home again, but then Irving found out and he was SO angry. He said that all churches are bad and that they abuse children. So now the only people I have are Billy and Jock.”
He suddenly stops talking. “Look, don’t listen to any of that. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
“River, I’m not sure that you’re fine. It sounds like you’ve got a lot going on. I’m wondering if you wanted to talk a bit more about any of what you’ve just told me.”
“Nah,” River says. “There’s no point. But thanks for trying,” he says as he walks out the door. He pauses. “Ya know, school used to be a great place. I was somebody. They thought I was talented. But now, it’s a terrible place. It was too dangerous being a nobody, so now with Jock and Billy, I can be somebody you don’t mess with. That’s what my life has come to, I guess.” You call after him, but he runs down the corridor.
You get another call from Peter Sargeant. He says, “Look, I really like River, but he was incredibly disruptive in class today. To be honest, I wonder if he was drunk. He kept laughing for no reason, and mucking around with Billy and Jock. Can you talk to him?”
You go to find River, but he has left school for the day. You try to find Jock and Billy, but they are not at school either.
You get a call from a teacher from the school in Queensland where River attended. The teacher’s name is Jerome Beazley. Mr Beazley says, “I was River Smythe’s teacher up here in Queensland. River was a great kid, one of our best students. Anyway, he left a message on the school answering machine last night. He sounded drunk or drug affected, but from what we could make out from the message he said that he was having a hard time and he wanted to know if we could help his Mum.
He said he’s worried about her.” He continues, “I tried to ring the number back but it says it’s disconnected. We don’t know how to reach the family. I’m wondering what you can do to try and help them? They’re great people. It was just so tragic what happened...”
Just as you start thinking about confidentiality and duty of care issues, River walks into your office.
You put Mr Beazley on hold, and say to River, “River, you won’t believe this, but I’ve got Mr Beazley from Queensland on the phone. Would you like to talk to him?”
River shakes his head emphatically. “No, no… I don’t want to disappoint him. But – maybe you can talk to him? Maybe you can talk to him and think of a way to help my Mum?”
You ask River if it is okay for you and Mr Beazley to talk about his situation. “Yes,” he says. “As long as you can help my Mum, but don’t get her in trouble with Centrelink. Irving would be so angry if she lost her payments.”
River agrees to come back after the phone call. You tell Mr Beazley what has happened. He tells you what has happened in River’s family. “Look, they were a great family – traditional custodians - a really important and respected family up here,” he explains. “River’s nan, Aunty Lois, was an Elder and very respected in the Aborginal community and by the whole community. She was an activist, a real human rights advocate. She’d been taken away as a child, and was really involved in advocating for the Stolen Generation families. She was a dynamo. River’s mum, Melita, was also a big advocate. She worked at the Legal Centre, and was studying to be a lawyer. River’s dad wasn’t on the scene. River had a little sister, Kiara. She was a cheeky little kid, and her and River were very close. They used to do a lot of art together, entering competitions. River was quiet, but very well-respected at school. He was a bit fidgety, but art helped him to focus.”
He paused, and then continued. “Unfortunately, there was a car accident one rainy night, and River’s nan Lois and his little sister Kiara were killed. It was terrible. River and his mum were devastated. His mum became very withdrawn and started drinking and taking pain killers. She quit law school, and lost her job at the Legal Centre because she consistently couldn’t get to work on time. River tried to hold everything together. They had a lot of support from their church, and things started to look like they were getting better. But then his mum met a guy on an online dating site, and before we knew it they left to go and live with him. The community was devastated to lose them – and even after all of it, everyone really looked up to his mum because she was such a great advocate and support for families. And River – what a great, gentle kid.”
You agree that you will arrange a meeting with River and his mother.
On the day of the meeting scheduled with River and his mother, you get a call from Irving Stallone, who identifies as River’s mother’s partner. He speaks rapidly, and does not give you the chance to speak. “Listen, I don’t think you need to be poking your nose into this family’s business. Melita doesn’t need anyone’s help. She needs to keep her head down, keep on doing her ‘work for the dole’ bullshit to get her Centrelink payments, and stop getting all worked up about ‘sorry business’ and ‘Stolen Generations.’ River is a sissy, he should be playing footy instead of drawing and painting. They need to move on from the accident, and focus on the future. And if I ever see River going to a church again, I’ll ring Child Protection. I don’t trust churches, I had a bad experience as a child and no kid should ever go NEAR a church. We’ll sort this out on our own, thank you very much.” He hangs up.
You get a call from River’s mother, Melita. She is very softspoken and polite. She says, “Look – I know River’s been getting into some trouble at school. But he’s a good boy. He’s lost his way since… the accident, and since we moved here. He’s hanging out with a right bad crowd. I think those kids steal stuff and take drugs. His friends were so DIFFERENT up North. We were friends with all the families from the church, we used to go camping together. They were such nice people. We were all so close. And...I haven’t been… I haven’t been a very good mother, but I want to try to step up and be there for River.”
She continues, “But...it’s all so hard. I have to take three buses to my “job” - you know,” she says scornfully, “my ‘work for the dole” thing. There’s no supermarkets that are cheap near the housing estate, so we spend a fortune on food. I was falling into a bit of a heap...again...but things are going to be better, I can tell you. Irving is trying to be like a father to River, and River is treating him really badly. If River could just try to see Irving’s point of view, maybe we could be… a… a… family. Irving’s just trying to protect River because he was abused as a child at a church. And he thinks that River will get bullied if he doesn’t play football. He had a lot of problems himself as a kid, and he just wants to try to help River. Can you please talk to River and get him to stay away from those kids?”
Just after you get off the phone with River’s mother Melita, the police ring. River, Jock and Billy have been arrested for holding up a convenience store. The police say that they appear to be substance-affected. You ring Melita to let her know. She begins to cry and asks if you can meet her at the police station.
When you get to the police station, Melita is getting out of a taxi. You go into the interview room together to see River. When he sees his mother, he says, “How did you get here so fast? And wont’ you get in trouble at work?”
She says, “I took a taxi. And I don’t care about work. I care about YOU.”
River becomes very upset. “We can’t AFFORD a taxi!! Why do you think I agreed to help them rob the convenience store? I thought if we had more money you could go back to law school. And Billy and Jock – they’re not that bad, ya know. They looked out for me when no one else could.”
When he sees his mother’s disappointed expression, he says, “I know you tried Mum. It’s just been really hard. Everything. And I really…I just didn’t know what else to do. I thought you were getting ….sad again, and I didn’t know what would happen if you got depressed again.”
River looks at you, “And this social worker was trying to help. I’m sorry,” he says to you. “I should’ve been more honest. I felt all alone and on my own at home, with Mum having to do that stupid work-for-the dole job. Mum,” he says passionately, “You were studying to be a LAWYER and they’ve got you doing cleaning. It’s bullshit!!
“And Irving talking about footy all the time, and telling me to “keep my chin up and move on from the past. He found me crying once and told me “Suck it up princess.” And on the housing estate, if you’re Aboriginal they think you’re some sort of criminal. I was getting harassed and beat up until Jock and Billy took me under their wing. And they wanted me to try drinking and drugs. And ya know what – they were right! It makes you feel better, and forget about...stuff.”
He continues, “All I’ve got left of Nan and Kiara is this” (he pulls out the green seashell). “The seashell we found on the beach the night before they died.”
River’s mother starts to cry. “River, I wish I’d known. But you know what? You’ve got a lot more than that seashell. You’ve got Nan’s courage and determination, and Kiara’s kindness. We’ll get through this, River, I know we will.”
Melita looks at you. “I don’t want him taken. You know – by Child Protection. My mum was stolen by “the welfare people,” and I’m not gonna have him be stolen by anyone. We don’t want anyone’s help, we’ll get through this on our own. Thanks for trying to help, but we are NOT charity cases.”
The Aborginal Youth Justice Worker comes in to talk to River and his mother. You give them space to talk amongst themselves, and say to River and Melita, “I’m going to keep checking in, ok? I just want you to know that I’m here for you both. And thank you for trusting me with me your story, I know it must have been hard to share.”