news

Starved to death in suburbia, by a mother who just couldn't cope.

Two policemen arrived at the suburban house, to find that the children had starved to death.

On the evening of June 16, 2008, two policemen arrived at a house in Sunnybank Hills, in Brisbane’s southern suburban sprawl.

Once inside, they opened a bedroom door to find the bodies of the family’s 17-month-old twins.

The toddlers, a boy and a girl, weighed 4.72kg and 4.97kg, respectively.

They had starved to death.

The twins had been placed in the room three months earlier. At first, their mother would visit them with bottles of formula. But the bottle feeds started to become more sporadic, until their mother decided that it would be easiest to shut the door and ignore their cries.

She found the twins’ bodies on June 9, 2008.

After a week, she gathered the courage to tell her husband. The pair kept their children’s death a secret. It wasn’t until the twins’ 11-year-old sister found the bodies of her siblings in the bedroom on June 16 that they realised they couldn’t keep the deaths hidden any more.

The children’s grandmother was called to mind the other children. The police arrived shortly after.

When questioned about how the twins had passed away, their mother told the police prosecutor: “I don’t think I fed them enough.”

But there was more to this family’s story than that.

The couple were high school sweethearts, but their romance had eroded long ago. She was a mother of six. He was a gambling addict, and alcoholic. She had a strong presence on virtual reality website, Second Life, a place that provided her with escapism from reality.

“They were a family that was not coping.”

Images taken inside their seemingly normal suburban yellow-brick house published by The Courier Mail earlier this year show that the family lived in squalor. The laundry floor was covered in clothes. The father’s bedroom was a mess of beer bottles and electrical cables. And, all through the house there was litter: scraps of paper, bottle tops and other bits of mess.

The mother was suffering from debilitating mental illness. And that’s something that’s incredibly important to acknowledge.

In extracts from an interview two days after the police discovered the bodies, published by The Weekend Australian Magazine, she told Detective Senior Constable Darren Kemball that she wanted to do something to help her children, but she just couldn’t:

ADVERTISEMENT

Mother: I kept telling myself they’d get better.

Detective Kemball: What did you think would happen if you continued that way?

Mother: Um. I kept telling myself that I… I was going to… to fix it.

In the same interview, she said:

Every day I told myself that I was going to ring the police so that my babies had to be buried. I was never gonna hide them but I just didn’t want to give them up. I hoped that they would wake up and hoped that it was a dream. It never was.

The father spent long periods of time isolated from the family, drinking in his bedroom or at the pub playing poker. He would reportedly drink up to $40 a night worth of beer and would walk past the twins’ bedroom each night to get to his own, but would never look in. The mother told Detective Kemball that he had no interest in trying to rectify the situation:

Detective Kemball: And what did he do in relation to you trying to tell him that you needed help?

Mother: Nothing much at all. He just… I think he didn’t believe me. Anybody could see from the state of the house, from the state of me, you know.

At his trial last month, he described himself as a “piss-poor father.” Perhaps The Weekend Australian describes it best: “He was there but not there. Present but not present. He was a ghost.”

They were a family that was not coping.

The couple’s four remaining children have reportedly been placed in foster care.  In August of this year, their, now 35-year-old mother pleaded guilty to two charges of manslaughter, escaping a murder trial. She has been sentenced to eight years in prison, five of which she has already served in custody. She is also immediately eligible for parole, a decision the judge made on the basis of her mental illness.

Their father, now 33, was sentenced to eight years in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2017.

Speaking outside Queensland’s Supreme Court, the twins’ grandmother told the media: “We all feel guilty. Anybody and everybody who went to the house or lived around there, we all feel guilty. And, yes, we should have done more.”

But it can be hard to know what to say to a family that is in distress. To a family that you know isn’t coping.

We asked Anne Hollonds, CEO of the Benevolent Society, for some advice on how to start the conversation:

Anne Hollonds.

If you have a niggling feeling that someone you know is not doing so well, it’s OK to say “How can I help you?” or  “Can I help you with the shopping/washing/baby-watching etc?”

This is better than asking “Are you OK?” because if she says “yes”, it’s hard to take the conversation further. Offering to help, or even inviting her kids over to your house, is a better way to build the trust and confidence that may help her to feel safe enough to speak about things later on. Persevere in a friendly way. Keep things light, and share some of your own struggles so that it becomes “normal” to talk about problems in your relationship with her.

Remember that shame and fear of being judged are huge barriers for a parent to admit they need help. Have compassion for these feelings, try to see things through her eyes, and persevere gently. Stay involved, even when you feel rejected by her.

If your friend refuses your offers of help, or to take her to see a doctor or counsellor, or to allow someone to come and visit, you will need to get some help yourself. Visit your local community service providing family support or counselling. Or call one of the helplines on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website.

Ask for advice about how you can help your friend to get help. You may need to try a number of different services before you find someone who “gets” what you and your friend need. Remember, being in the role of helping a struggling friend is tough on you, too.

There are services available everywhere to support parents who need help. The frustrating thing is that the people who need help the most are least likely to reach out or find these services. So it is up to each of us to build the bridges of help for those who need it.

Being a friend who hangs in there through the tough times is the greatest gift you can give another person.

Most importantly, trust your instincts. In our culture we are biased towards assuming that everyone is coping or we need to keep our nose out of other people’s business. It’s hard for us to see things for what they really are, and this stops us from reaching out to someone who is not able to ask for help.

We are all responsible for Australia’s children. And we all need help at times. Be the help someone else needs and you will be joining a movement of all the mums and dads of Australia who care for our kids. You will be part of the rising tide of prevention and early action which will lift up all our kids and stop the vulnerable kids from being left behind.

If this post brings up issues for you, or you just need someone to talk to, please call Lifeline on 131 114. You can visit the Lifeline website here. You can also contact the Post- and Ante-natal Depression Association (PANDA) during business hours on 1300 726 306, or by visiting their website here.

Have you or a friend ever felt out of your depth as a parent? What do you think can be done to stop tragedies like this one?