Runaway teen torn apart by croc
A TEENAGER who ran away from foster care only to be found dead in a mangrove swamp in Western Australia's Kimberley region five years ago was killed by a crocodile, a coroner has ruled.
The boy, who had the mental age of a seven-year-old and is known only as HLS for legal reasons, had suffered horrific wounds to his head, limbs and torso and his left foot had been torn off.
He had been the subject of a massive search after vanishing from a foster home run by not-for-profit agency Life Without Barriers in La Djadarr Bay a day earlier.
A staff member had seen him walking towards a crocodile-infested channel on the morning of March 13, 2013 and raised the alarm after losing sight of him.
Coroner Sarah Linton found that the teen, who was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) as an infant, suffered from developmental delays and behavioural problems that contributed to the his poor decision to enter a swamp he had been told was filled with crocodiles.
"His left (foot) had been amputated and a large saltwater crocodile was seen several metres away," Ms Linton wrote in her findings, stemming from a four-day inquest held in Broome in August.
Searchers who found the body followed footprints that had been seen by a helicopter pilot from the air. The footprints formed a pattern that suggested that a disorientated HLS had been walking around in circles trying to find his way out of the mangroves.
Ms Linton summarised the horrific scene that awaited those who found the boy's body after hours of wading through difficult terrain.
"The searchers initially found a T-shirt and shorts belonging to HLS and then they found the naked body of HLS a short distance away," Ms Linton wrote in her findings.
"His left arm was wrapped around a fork in a tree and his right arm was stretched out. His
feet were about 40cm above the ground and it was immediately clear that he had suffered a traumatic amputation of his left foot and part of his left leg.
"While approaching the deceased one of the searchers saw a large salt water crocodile a short distance away and the helicopter pilots confirmed they had seen at least nine large crocodiles in the broader area during the search."
An autopsy conducted by two forensic pathologists concluded the cause of death was consistent with "immersion in a young man with traumatic amputation of the left foot and multiple soft tissue damage".
Broome zoologist and crocodile specialist Dr Adam Britton also examined the body and found the boy's injuries were consistent with a crocodile attack, although he could not say whether they had caused his death or were inflicted post mortem.
Shark scientist Dr Rory McAuley was also asked to review the injuries and concluded that a shark could have been responsible for almost all of the injuries with the exception of - significantly - the severed foot.
"Taking into account all of the expert opinions ... I am satisfied on the evidence before me that HLS died as a result of traumatic injuries he sustained during a crocodile attack, with the complication that he was immersed in water," Ms Linton said in her findings.
"The evidence indicates that HLS walked out into crocodile infested waters although he had been told by his carers of the dangers. This raises the question of what his intention was when he did so.
"In an ordinary 15-year-old, one might think such behaviour could indicate suicidal intent, but in HLS's case this seemed very unlikely."
The inquest heard testimony from FASD expert Dr Raewyn Mutch, who said HLS had the developmental age of a seven year old. His condition affected his ability to calculate risk and made him impulsive, she said.
Based on her evidence, Ms Linton said she was satisfied HLS had no intention of taking his own life. Instead, he had simply been incapable of "properly weighing up the risks" despite having been told of the dangers.
The inquest heard that HLS was raised by an aunt at a remote Aboriginal community north of Broome following his FASD diagnosis as a baby.
Over the years his behavioural problems became more pronounced and he became increasingly hard to control.
By age 13 he had developed a solvent-sniffing addiction which took a further toll on his health and behaviour.
Relatives told the inquest they had resorted to putting flyers around their bush community warning of his addiction, and asking anyone who saw him sniffing to report it to them.
But after several years of increasingly violent and impulsive behaviour, a near-fatal solvent binge resulted in him being taken into the care of the then-Department for Child Protection.
Witnesses described a happy but challenging teenager who loved music and art, but repeatedly ran away from his foster homes.
Ms Linton recommended further screening for FASD in at-risk children, acknowledging that while relatives and child protection workers had done everything they could to keep the teen safe, many other children remained vulnerable due to undiagnosed FASD.