The former foster carer of a 13-year-old boy who took his own life while in state care has told a coronial inquest that he was unable to care for him because he could not make ends meet.

Key points:

  • Zhane Chilcott took his own life in 2016
  • His foster carer says he had trouble supporting him on the income he received
  • A psychologist says Zhane longed for stability

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this story contains the image and name of a person who has died.

The boy’s family has given ABC News permission for his name and image to be used.

Zhane Andrew Keith Chilcott died in July 2016, while he was living in a residential care unit at Morphett Vale, in Adelaide’s south.

The inquest into Zhane’s death has previously heard his life was filled with instability and that he lived in about 18 different placements, including foster care, emergency commercial care and residential care.

The inquest today heard from Stephen Rimes, who had been working as a foster carer for 14 years, and had previously taken care of three other children full-time.

Zhane Chilcott enjoyed camping and gardening with his foster carer’s son.(Supplied: Coroner’s Court of South Australia)

Prior to taking in Zhane in 2014, the biological father-of-three wrote him an email saying he was “happy that he was coming to live” with them, and that “your new brothers are excited to meet you”.

Mr Rimes enrolled Zhane in a mainstream school, about 16 kilometres away, and drove him there each day.

The inquest heard Zhane’s behaviour quickly began to improve. He called Mr Rimes “Dad”, and developed a bond with Mr Rimes’s biological son, who has since died.

“Almost every weekend, they’d go out camping, or hang in the garden, just family things,” Mr Rimes said.

Zhane Chilcott on his second birthday.(Supplied: Coroner’s Court of South Australia)

The inquest heard there was an “100 per cent” improvement in Zhane’s school results within six months of his being enrolled.

“He became a school leader, he worked at the breakfast club, he did Aboriginal artwork,” Mr Rimes said.

Mr Rimes said Zhane had told him that prior to being in his care “he didn’t really have a life”.

Foster carer lost house in Port Pirie

The inquest heard that Mr Rimes had received about $1,200 a week for children he had previously cared for.

But for looking after Zhane he only received $1,300 a fortnight, plus travel expenses.

He said he understood the rules meant he was not allowed to have another job.

“It was a 24/7, 365-day job, looking after the kids,” he said.

Mr Rimes said the care provider had told him another child would be placed in his care “within three months” of taking in Zhane to help make up the amount of money he was receiving.

He told the court that when that had not happened, he began to feel financial pressure and got a casual job in Port Pirie, but was unable to even start it due to the requirements of looking after the young boy.

Mr Rimes said he was forced to sell his house after having Zhane in his care for a year, just before being told the carer payment would be doubled.

“I was relieved I wasn’t going to lose Zhane,” he said.

He said while he had made arrangements for a new place for them to live in Port Pirie, someone from the department then told him the pay increase would not happen.

Zhane felt ‘unlovable’: psychologist

A Families SA senior clinical psychologist who had worked closely with Zhane told the inquest the boy was left feeling “bad and unlovable” from all the placement moves and instability.

“[He thought] that he wasn’t worthy of good care and that the world was a really unsafe and unpredictable place,” Kara Savilla told the inquest, through tears.

“With Steve, we had an opportunity to start to repair the way Zhane felt about the world and about himself.

“Zhane had said, ‘Every time something good happens to me, it gets all messed up.’

“I think Zhane’s transition back to rotational care … would have been very damaging and further confirmation that he was ‘unlovable’.”

The Department for Child Protection was previously known as Families SA.(ABC News)

She told the inquest she wrote an email to two of her managers in June 2015 saying she believed Zhane’s needs “should be considered paramount” in the contract dispute with Mr Rimes, and that it was the best environment for Zhane to live.

She said she never received a reply in writing.

“[Zhane] was a really distressed boy, he would engage in some behaviours that were quite harmful to himself and to others and that was his way of communicating his distress.

“A lot of that started to abate when he was in Steve’s care; we saw huge improvements in his emotional behaviour functioning, his school attendance, he was doing beautifully at school.

“I genuinely felt and my clinical experience was telling me this would be a very traumatic event for Zhane if the placement broke down.”

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