Murder inquest highlights need for increased outback nurse safety

An inquest into the horrific rape and murder of an outback nurse in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands has highlighted the need for increased safety for remote nurses.

In March 2016, nurse Gayle Woodford was found buried in a shallow grave near the remote community of Fregon, in South Australia’s APY Lands.

On call the night she was murdered, Woodford had been a nurse with Nganampa Health Council (NHC) for almost five years. 

It’s believed her killer, Dudley Davey, overpowered the outback nurse after deceiving her into opening a security cage around her residence.

Davey had a lengthy history of violent sexual offending, with the South Australian coroner hearing during the inquest that Davey somehow “slipped through the cracks” before brutally killing Woodford.

In 2017, Davey pleaded guilty to Woodford’s rape and murder and is currently serving a minimum 32-year sentence.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Ahura Kalali, said a “catalogue of blunders” contributed to the tragic circumstances of Woodford’s death.

Davey should have qualified for the Australian National Child Offence Register (ANCOR), which allows police to share information and monitor registered offenders.

If Davey had been registered, breaches of reporting obligations could have put him before the court instead of in the path of Woodford.

Retired remote doctor and former colleague of Woodford, Dr Glynis Johns, also told the inquest the Fregon community was the most violent she had operated in during her 15 years working in remote Indigenous communities.

Dr Johns said the community needed permanent police presence, which she had previously requested on multiple connections.

“I know that NHC had often approached the police requesting better police presence in Fregon,” Dr Johns told the court.

“The reason given by the State Government was obviously funding, and I can understand that, but it wasn’t a functioning community.”

The inquest also heard that Woodford’s employer ignored advice from police about remote nurse safety.

After one of NHC’s nurses in another outback community was sexually assaulted in 2012 with the clinic shut down as a result, police recommended remote nurses should not be working alone in communities.

Former health services manager at NHC when Woodford was killed, David Busuttil, admitted to the inquiry that prior to Woodford’s murder, NHC never conducted risk assessments for nurses working on their own.

Busuttil said he thought NHC was addressing ongoing safety issues “as best we could” and were “taking steps to make staff safer”.

As the two-week inquest continues, the agenda has been clearly set with remote nurse safety and police presence in remote communities at the forefront.

By Hannah Cross

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