“Queensland State Member for Mudgeeraba Ros Bates’ father subjected Ros, her two sisters and her mother Barb to 35 years of extreme domestic violence. Ros bravely relived her abusive childhood when she delivered two speeches to the Queensland Parliament on the topic of family violence and child safety. This is Ros and Barb’s story of survival”.
My beautiful mother did not leave because she loved him ♥️
Barb was a beautiful 23-year-old schoolteacher. She came from a loving Catholic family where her father was a school principal and her mother was a true lady. She had never known violence in her sheltered life, but for the next 35 years it became the norm. She moved to a small country town and was a real catch. Not long after arriving she met a dashing, handsome champion footballer.
He was smart and charming and could dance like Fred Astaire. Very quickly they fell in love and married. Barb saw his temper every now and then when he had been drinking but put it down to disappointments in his life. He had escaped the family farm and become a pilot and was playing football in the big smoke, but he got called back to work on the farm and his dreams died.
Three little girls – myself and my sisters – followed in quick succession. Even when she was pregnant and he had locked her in the nursery for three days without food or water or somewhere to go to the bathroom, she did not tell anybody and she did not leave because she loved him. It did not take long for the violence to begin. At first she thought it was her fault—that she was not good enough, that she must have done something wrong—so she would go to mass and pray that things would get better. She did not tell anyone because she had taken a vow and she was ashamed. She did not tell her sister or her parents. She thought she had made her bed and she should lie in it. She did not leave because she loved him.
Monday to Friday, he was the best father in the world but then the weekend, and the alcohol, came Friday and Saturday nights after the pub closed were always the same. We would wait for the car door to slam and then wait for the violence to begin. It generally began with the evening’s dinner, which was being warmed on the stovetop, thrown against the wall and then the fists would start to fly.
Barb would try to get my sisters and I in bed before he came home, but that did not always protect them. We had vivid memories of these nights —nights when one of them would run to the neighbours to plead with the man next door to come in and stop dad hurting mum, nights when the violence was so bloody that the police would come. They would quiet things down and then leave, and retribution always followed.
So the family stopped calling the police and Barb stayed because she loved him. One night the myself and my sister awoke to hear the most pitiful sound, like the sound of a wounded animal. We went into our mother’s room and saw her sitting on the bed, sobbing and holding a chunk of her scalp and with a large bleeding wound on her head. She could not work out how she could go to school the next day and hide it from her fellow teachers.
We found a chocolate box, took the green ribbon off it and helped her fashion a headband from the ribbon so that no-one would know. We were sworn to secrecy. We were used to making up stories about our mother’s bruises or our bruises. We were were taught to be ashamed of our family ’s dirty little secret. Many a night we would try to stop the baby from jumping up and down in her cot and giggling, because she was too little to understand that it endangered them all. The baby thought it was a game when we hid her under the bed or in the wardrobe.
I was seven when he threw me against the wall like a rag doll…
One night that still brings us nightmares was the one where we woke up to hear Barb pleading for her life. It was my big sister’s job to hide the carving knife with the red handle. No-one told her to do it – she just knew that she should. That night we had forgotten to hide the red knife. I remember standing behind our father, who was wielding the red knife. I remember picking up the metal extension of the vacuum cleaner and saying: “You kill Mum and you’re next”. And with that I was thrown up against a wall and given a black eye—and it would not be the last time. I was seven.
Everyone knew, but after a while they just stopped caring …
The nuns at our school and the parish priests prayed for our family and then they stopped asking why we had bruises or black eyes. The local police knew, but in small country towns people mind their own business. Our family was one of a number of families in that small country town whose weekends were spent covered in blood. There were no family holidays. There were no friends sleepovers, because if they did they were terrified and they never came back and they stopped being friends with us.
When we moved to acreage things got worse. With no neighbours, no-one could hear the screams. In the new house we all had our own rooms, with sliding doors along a passageway, and we would wait in dread as the first door slammed open and then the next and finally to my room where I took many a punch meant for my mother. Relatives knew and did nothing. Relatives even said “You must have done something to deserve it. You shouldn’t antagonise him.” So many times the home phone was ripped out of the wall to prevent us calling for help. There were many times, after being violently beaten ourselves, that one of us would run three miles to the only payphone in the area to ring an uncle to come and stop the fists. Eventually, because they were sick of it, no-one came. And my mum stayed because she loved him.
Why did mum stay? Because leaving was impossible…
Weekends were horrendous, but during the week no-one drank. We were a normal family. Without alcohol my father was the best father anyone could have. Noone ever talked about the violence of the previous weekend. It was never discussed, and life went back to normal and no one ever said “sorry”.
For Barb it was all about the shame. She could not leave because she was Catholic. She could not leave because she would be taking us from our father. She could not leave because she did not want her parents to know. She would often sob in between the blows and say “Why are you doing this to me? I thought you loved me?”. She tried to leave once, but he came after her and promised that it would not happen again. But it always did.
No child deserves to be beaten to a pulp…
No child should know what it is like to be hit with a fist like an iron bar. No child should know what it is like to be thrown up against a wall like a rag doll. No child should know what it is like to be hit in the face with an iron or have their jaw almost broken, their nose broken and earrings ripped from their ears.
No child should ever know what it is like to be curled in the foetal position, covering their head whilst trying to fend off kicks to their stomach, their back and their head. I vowed to never allow my mother to be hurt if I could stop it, but I knew that if I stayed then one night he would not stop and I would be dead. I left home at 15.
Watching my own back was just a normal part of life…
Unfortunately child safety often goes hand in hand with domestic violence and substance abuse. In my case maybe if the services were available to help both of my parents then my and my sisters’ childhoods would have been vastly different. Like all children we loved our parents. We could not understand why they hurt each other. We could not understand why we were in the middle.
We could not understand why for most of the week we had a relatively normal family because we did not know any different. A a child I learnt very quickly to pick up on the signs and when the switch would be flipped over, when no amount of reasoning with my father would make any difference. My older sister always tried to be the peacemaker and tried to de-escalate the impending violence and was always bewildered, and still is, when it did not work.
As a child I learnt that when the fighting started that the best place to be was in a confined space such as a passageway. I learnt well before I took up karate that you are less likely to be hurt if the fight is in the passageway because even if you are thrown up against a wall the momentum was not as great as if you were in the lounge room. I learnt that the worst place to end up was on the floor where it was more difficult to protect yourself from the blows and the kicks.
I learnt to be aware of my surroundings and to be alert to the fact that my father would often come from one of two directions and that you literally had to watch your own back. I learnt to always have another exit so I could run if I had to. These are considerations that no child should ever have to think about.
“Why are you punishing her? She is the victim.”
When I was a child there seemed no way out. In my childhood, children’s services were very different. I learnt that making a complaint meant that you would be taken away from your family —from your sisters, from your mother—supposedly for your own safety and made a ward of the state.
I know this from firsthand experience. I remember running three miles to the nearest telephone booth, bloodied and bruised, to call for help.
I can still see myself – earrings ripped out of my ears, with blood matted through my hair, my favourite jumper ripped and having trouble breathing due to broken ribs, my nose streaming blood, my lips bleeding because my teeth had been smashed through them and still just running on sheer adrenalin to get away. This time though it was different.<
This time instead of ringing an uncle for help I rang my sister’s old boyfriend who lived just up the road from the telephone booth. I can remember sitting on the concrete sobbing when he arrived and he picked me up and he said: “No more. No more. Not ever again. This time we have to end this”. I was 14. We went straight to the police station and for the first time in my life I made a formal complaint because I truly believed that I would never survive another attack like that one.
The interview with the police is still a blur. I think now that I was concussed because I do not remember all of the beating, I just remember thinking I was going to die. They did not take me to the hospital. They asked me if he was still at home and I knew he was not because I had seen him drive past the telephone booth while I hid so he could not see me. He had driven to his mate’s place to drink even more alcohol and the police picked him up outside the home and booked him.
His blood alcohol content was 0.25. I went home and the police brought him back and everyone just went to bed. The next morning the police and child safety officers arrived. They interviewed my mum and me and then informed mum that they were going to take me away, that I was to become a ward of the state. I remember mum screaming at them, saying: “Why are you punishing her? She is the victim. Why aren’t you punishing him?”. The rest is a blur. I do recall recanting my statement to the police and I refused to cooperate with the police or Child Safety. I remember having to go to a psychiatrist like there was something wrong with me and mum again saying: “Why are you doing this to us? He is the one you should be taking away, not her.”
The scars may change and fade, but the memories burn always burn deep…
Many years later all three sisters realised that we still bear scars that we believed had been buried so deep that now as older women were coming back to haunt us. There were no family holidays or friend stay-overs, but there were also no birthday parties and Christmases were horrendous. These memories that I think we had all suppressed were actually beginning to affect us all in direct ways so we did something that I would never have thought of doing: I found a regression hypnotherapist.
The regression hypnotherapist sessions were startling. Suppressed memories which ensued from these sessions were brought to the surface. My older sister’s earliest memory was crawling over the tea rose carpet and around overturned furniture to my mother who was sobbing behind the couch. She must have been 6 months old if she was crawling. My earliest memory was standing at the back door trying to open the door and I could not work out why it would not open.. I remember saying “I’m too little. Jos will have to open it.”
That was the day that we had been to the picture theatre and returned home to a locked house. I recall mum putting me through the bedroom window so I could open the door. I remember her saying: “Open the door, love” and me saying: “I can’t, Mum, the door has nails in it.” My father had nailed the door shut. My younger sister Cath, who we thought we had done the right thing by protecting her, felt that her two older sisters did not like her and could not understand why we sent her down the paddock in the dark. Her memories were: “Why do the girls leave me out? The only friends I have are my dog, my horse and the cows.”
After those sessions we realised that our parents were not the same people they were in our childhood years. I know people could not understand how we could forgive our parents, but the truth is as a child you love your parents and even when things were bad the alternative of being made a ward of the state was more horrendous and frightening a prospect to us than was staying.
My older sister cannot stand having doors slammed behind her even to this day. I cannot stand anyone shouting in my face because I am still that seven-year-old girl who was thrown up against a wall, but I am also the 14-year-old girl who was ready to stand and fight. I wish that services had been available back then. We stayed together because it seemed there was no way out, but we also became very strong women because of our experiences.
While we forgave dad, our mum could never speak about his abuse…
My sisters and I eventually forgave our father. He died 11 years ago and Barb died four years later from a broken heart. I tell this story in memory of my mother. I tell this story because she was too ashamed to. I tell this story through the eyes of a child and I tell this story because I was the middle daughter.
Barb’s favourite prayer was: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” She could have changed it but she did not. She chose to stay. She did have courage, but it was not courageous to stay. She should have had the wisdom to know what lifelong effect her decision to stay would have on her three girls.
Today, I am using my experience to make life better for women and children in crisis…
Alcohol and drugs play a huge role in domestic violence and child safety is inextricably linked to homes where this is the norm. I often wonder if the services had been available to help my father with his drinking problem, to help with anger management and to have been able to recognise why he felt his life was not what he had wished it to be, whether all of the trauma that we endured would have been negated.
I am proud that I am a survivor of my own childhood and I am particularly pleased that as Queensland’s Shadow Minister for Communities, Women and Youth, Child Safety and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence my understanding, empathy and sympathy in my deliberations will also help others.
If you are in domestic violence crisis help is available from the Australia-wide telephone hotline 1800RESPECT. If you want to take part in the “Why I Stayed” project click here ♥️♥️♥️
Main photograph by Sherele Moody © 2016.