Beware the queen bee



The Devil Wears Prada is the buzz of the film world, but female bosses like the powerful magazine editor it portrays aren’t just celluloid creations.
“The details of your incompetence do not interest me. Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling; she sent me dirty, tired and paunchy. And RSVP yes to Michael Kors’ party, I want the driver to drop me off at 9.30 and pick me up at 9.45 sharp … Also, tell Richard I saw all the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive. Is it impossible to find a lovely, slender, female paratrooper? Am I reaching for the stars here?”
Meryl Streep as magazine editor and fashionista Miranda Priestly in the film The Devil Wears Prada.
REVENGE is meant to be a dish best served cold, but The Devil Wears Prada is hot. It is a chick-flick about a she-devil editor at a top fashion magazine. One day she decides to take a chance and hires “the smart fat girl” as her junior assistant.
The perfectly normally endowed new staffer finds herself in an office of ridiculously thin women (“I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight,” says one) who are forever erupting into cries of “Prada! Armani! Versace!”
Even more ridiculous are the demands of her imperious mistress: “Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning,” or, “I need 15 skirts from Calvin Klein.”
What kind of skirts?
“Please bore someone else with your … questions.”
According to Time reviewer Richard Schickel, “Streep is, predictably, a marvel as Miranda, flapping her wings, nipping at her perpetually frightened flock, hissing her contempt for their frightened ways.”
The film is based on a book of the same title by Lauren Weisberger, a former assistant to US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who is widely believed to be her model for Miranda Priestly.
In a show of stylish defiance, Wintour attended a preview screening dressed in – mais oui! – Prada. The film is due out in Australia next month and is already an American box-office hit.
The immaculately turned-out Wintour once had a cream pie hurled at her face by animal protesters who were angry that her magazine promoted fur.
The character of Miranda Priestly is a pie in the face for women in leadership positions who have had to battle the stereotype of the powerful woman as dragon lady, bitch and ballbreaker. The film also plays on the idea of the catfight, a phenomenon dear to the hearts of unreconstructed men who like to believe that, deep down, women dislike and back-stab each other.
Real female bosses don’t act like that, surely?
In fact, painful as this might be for the sisterhood to admit, some do. Female lingo has long had a name for it, too: such a woman is a queen bee.
It is true that both water-cooler wisdom – the views you get in a straw poll in an office – and social science research suggest that women managers tend to have a more caring and sharing approach to managing staff than men do.
In organisations where women made up at least 30 per cent of the top three ranks of management, according to a study by Professor Colleen Chesterman at Sydney’s University of Technology, staff said they found their working environments more congenial, collaborative, goal-focused and people-oriented as a result. They also believed women could manage in tough times and were prepared to make hard decisions such as cutting staff and rationalising budgets.
Professor Leonie Still, of the Centre for Women and Business at the University of Western Australia, says male managers tend to take charge (problem-solving, delegating, influencing upward). Female managers take care: supporting, rewarding, mentoring, networking, consulting and team-building.
“He would rather be taking a client or a boss out to lunch,” she says. “He builds relationships outwards, looking for the next promotion. She prefers to look at maintaining relationships within the team …”
But it is difficult in organisations where female leadership has not reached the “critical mass” of 30 per cent.
In stressed, competitive workplaces dominated by men, even the women managers adopt a hard-edged macho style, according to research on high-tech companies by Professor Judy Wajcman at the Australian National University. “Some of the women identified with women, but other women feared being ‘tainted’ by being seen to be interested in women. It’s fear of discrimination. It’s as if they were telling the men, ‘I’m not like them, you can trust me because I’m in a different category,’ ” she says.
Meredith Fuller is a counselling psychologist specialising in career development. In her practice, Fuller sees both the queen and the workers she has stung.
What drives her? “She often has a great sense of entitlement, which can come from having been daddy’s princess. The entitled princess’ strategy is flirtatious and seductive, with a high edge of manipulative anger. She will play the cutesy game. She’s charming and witty but when she’s not turning it on, she’s full of rage. Men want to help her and don’t understand why other women don’t like her. She has an enormous saccharine smile but she will hunt out anyone who’s any good, work them like a dog, hide them away, present their work as her own and get rid of them. It’s search and destroy.”
The second kind of queen bee is desperate to prove that she is better than everyone else, “and that can come from a childhood that left her with poor self-esteem. Rather than feeling entitled, this woman is a bitter and twisted competitor. Her game is usually, ‘I’m going to be a better boy than the boys. I’m going to look fantastic and I don’t care who gets punished in the process.’ It’s all about her, in a very narcissistic way, and she can be very aggressive, intimidating and scary.”
The queen bee sees her problem as the tiresomeness of others in her hive: ” ‘I have got these idiots working for me! They’re all hopeless! They’re all envious of me, passive aggressive towards me, they are all out to get me, they are so resistant!’ She perceives herself as someone who’s a real star, who’s special, and isn’t it tragic that there are so many mediocre people in the world and they all happen to work for her?”
Fuller says that underneath her apparent arrogance, the queen bee is desperately insecure that she is not good enough and that she will be found out. “Some go to the extreme of fearing they will end up a bag lady on the street. They are so afraid they will collapse that they encase themselves in a suit of armour; you know, the ones who’ve got the $10,000 suitcases and the $3000 shoes? They talk about their accoutrements as being their secret weapons, so that they can walk into the awful meeting with bravado: ‘I’m sassy, I’m brilliant, no one’s going to mess with me.’ ”
As actor Lily Tomlin says – the trouble with the rat race is that even if the woman wins, she’s a rat.
But women who aren’t rats won’t stay with women who are. Katherine Milesi, a partner at accounting firm Deloittes, says she has a friend at another company who has just resigned because of a queen bee. “She was interfering with this person’s time outside work, constantly contacting her outside of work hours. She made it very difficult; she was demanding and controlling. This person had very strong feelings about having to take action; she doesn’t have another job to go to.”
Executive recruiter Kathleen Townsend, who helps in the hiring of chief executives, general managers and managing directors, says this sort of behaviour is rare. The importance of people skills is now much more recognised than it used to be: “The Gordon Geckos and other people who were standing on others to get to the top are increasingly less attractive to companies.”
She has occasionally struck “tolerance of appalling behaviour and massive egos”, which was associated either with creative enterprises such as movies or with some big-billing partners in law and accounting firms whose ability to attract revenue was highly valued. But they went through junior staff quickly, and tend to be found out now by the relatively recent practice of the exit interview.
It is only when women become leaders in large numbers that we will learn how much dysfunctional female behaviour is personal to the individual, and how much is a response to the power dynamic of the individual workplace.
In her research, Professor Leonie Still found that when the tables were turned, junior men could behave manipulatively with women bosses: “The man will flirt and flatter and play the submissive male to get what he wants, then he will go around and boast to everybody that he can get anything out of the boss – and there’s always a sexual connotation to it.”
For Professor Judy Wajcman, the question is not so much whether men and women manage differently, but the way in which women are judged more harshly for doing what men do.
“When men are decisive, they are seen as strong, directive managers. When women do exactly the same thing, they are seen as ambitious and hard.”
They are also less easily forgiven for blunders, according to Elizabeth Bryan, president of the NSW branch of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
They tend to be cautious managers because they know there is little margin for failure for them: “If a woman makes a mistake, you get very, very quick judgement – ‘She couldn’t hack it, she couldn’t handle it.’ You just don’t get the same thing with males, they’re just not criticised in the same way,”she says.
There will undoubtedly be chats around the water cooler about The Devil Wears Prada.
Women on the defensive can always quote Meryl Streep on where she found her inspiration for the role of uber-bitch Miranda: “I thought of all the most wilful studio honchos I know, mostly men.”
How to avoid the sting – If your manager is a destructive queen bee …
1: Never be alone with her for important exchanges. She will lie in the form of “not remembering” what you remember about what was decided.
2: Transparency is your weapon because secrecy is hers. If you find yourself shafted by her in a meeting, say sweetly in front of colleagues, “I am really confused that you said that, because I thought we had agreed that this and this was happening.
Can you help me understand what has happened here?”
3: Counter her attempts to undermine by dividing and conquering and working individuals very hard, by talking to colleagues and finding support. Don’t allow yourself to be isolated by self-doubt.
4: Be protective of your privacy. Make sure not to leave your work open, because she will look over your shoulder and her eyes will “vacuum” your desk.
5: Stay calm. Many staffers who must answer to queen bees tolerate illtreatment for months and then explode over something minor. She will turn this into evidence of your emotional instability.
6: Protect yourself with records. Write confirming emails after verbal exchanges and cc others; always print out and keep hard copies of communications.
Source: Meredith Fuller, counselling psychologist in career development.
LOUISE ADLER CEO, Melbourne University Publishing
LOUISE Adler often quotes American author Nancy Kline in speeches about women and business: ‘Invited into the seats of power, we agree largely to leave behind and devalue our women’s culture. We respond with ‘Thank you, I accept your invitation to enter the boardroom and agree to put all my energies into … lying (and call it diplomacy), into obsession (and call it loyalty), into exploitation (and call it resourcefulness), into conquest (and call it reward), and into control (and call it power). I will not cry or … expect tenderness …’ “I think that’s women’s experience. But I take the view that women can lead differently, that they don’t have to behave in the way men do.”
ELIZABETH BRYAN, NSW branch president of the Australian Institute of Company Directors
“YOU need a critical mass of women to create a woman-friendly environment. In a lot of professions, the graduates are over 50 per cent women. By the time you reach managerial and professional status, about 44 per cent are women. The next stage up is executive management and that drops to 10 per cent women. CEOs are only 2.3 per cent women. It’s fear of female power. Most of the senior women come up through support roles, where they are not seen as a threat. But you probably won’t get a woman running the core business of the company. As soon as you are a line manager, you have real power and are therefore a real threat. Before we get real change we will have to have lots of women, not just the occasional extraordinary one.”
KATHERINE MILESI, partner with accounting and consulting firm Deloitte
“THERE is still some degree of reticence in women about putting themselves up for promotion, particularly from senior manager to director, and from director to partner. Often it’s because they are starting on a family and don’t believe it’s possible to have a family and be a partner at the same time. About 12 months ago, a couple of people had a word in my ear, and they changed my mind about that. I have a part-time partnership; I have every Friday off because of my children. When you are first in management, it’s certainly a learning curve asking people to do things for you. Women will often be a little bit more apologetic – ‘Can you do this as a favour for me?’ rather than ‘This needs to be done and can you do it?’

Sins of the mother


What is it with mothers and daughters? Karen Kissane tries to make sense of this volatile relationship.
SHE had tried to teach her daughter all the right things about resisting the modern world’s caging of girls. Be happy with who you are, not how you look; wear what you like, not just the brands that carry cachet with the kids at school; stay in touch with your own feelings about what you want and follow them.
And then came the awful moment, the one that challenged her fond beliefs about her mothering. Her teenaged daughter was going to the movies with friends. She came to say goodbye dressed in a pair of tights
with a hole, a skirt and top in colours that did not match, and a favourite handbag that her mother thought clashed with the lot. The comment was out of her mouth before the mother could stop it: “Going for the Little Orphan Annie look, are you?”
The ugly words hung in the air between them. The daughter slid her eyes away and quietly kissed her mother goodbye.
The mother says, with regret, “Here she was, being quirky and individualistic and anti-fashion, using her clothes to find out who she was, and it was me who tried to put her in the cage. And I know exactly why it happened; even now that I am middle-aged, whenever I tell my mother I have something important on, one of her first questions is, ‘What will you wear?’ She still reminds me when she thinks I need
a haircut.”
What is it with mothers and daughters?
The relationship between mothers and daughters is different to that of any other dyad in a family, researchers say; it can be more intense, more volatile, more conflicted, more painful and more rewarding. Part of the reason for this is that talk is a much bigger part of the mother-daughter exchange, and what mothers say – and what they leave unsaid – has a powerful effect on their daughters, who yearn for their mothers’ approval and resent that yearning. Although daughters often do not realise it, the reverse is also true.
American linguist Deborah Tannen has studied mothers and daughters and written about her research in a book published earlier this year, You’re wearing that? Understanding mothers and daughters in conversation. Writing in the Washington Post, Tannen says, “For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together – and the explosive that can blow it apart. That’s why you can think you’re having a perfectly amiable chat, then suddenly find yourself wounded by the shrapnel from an exploded conversation.”
She found the most common complaint from daughters to be:
“My mother is always criticising me.” The corresponding complaint from mothers was: “I can’t open my mouth. She takes everything as criticism.” Tannen says mothers subject their daughters to a level of scrutiny they otherwise reserve only for themselves, and that the Big Three topics for criticism are hair, clothing and weight. A mother feels obliged to criticise because she knows women are judged by their appearance, and because daughters represent their mothers to the world, Tannen says.
Sometimes, it is because a mother just doesn’t understand a daughter’s choices. Tannen gives an example from her own life. Tannen had recently taken a teaching position at a prestigious university. She showed her mother around her new office, with her name on the door and her publications on the shelf. Her mother asked if she would have done all this if she had stayed married (her mother had been distraught at Tannen’s divorce). No, Tannen said, she would never have got her PhD if she’d stayed married.
Her mother replied: “If you’d stayed married, you wouldn’t have had to.” Ouch! Tannen wrote: “With her casual remark, my mother had reduced all that I had accomplished to the consolation prize.”
But what mothers do not say to their daughters – “what my mother didn’t tell me” – can also have a profound effect. There is the thin-lipped, disapproving silence about
a daughter’s actions. There is the avoidant silence about the awkward topic – sex, periods, the family scandal. And then there is the great silence, heavy with things unspoken, that is maternal depression, which was so beautifully and wordlessly portrayed by Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s film about the almost-submerged mother, The Piano.
The psychological effect of the great silence on daughters is well documented, with the daughters of depressed mothers at greater risk of depression themselves. What happens in the psychic space daughters share with their mothers has profound physical effects, too: one study of girls in America and New Zealand found that those whose mothers had mood disorders reached puberty earlier than those whose mothers did not. Their mothers’ unhappiness and instability kick-started their periods. The researchers speculated that human females might have evolved to
respond to early childhood stress by accelerating pubertal development.
There is also some evidence suggesting that personal secrets in a mother’s history can play themselves out again in the next generation if they are hidden away. One study more than a decade ago examined families in which the mother had had an abortion when she was young. In those families where the mother did not tell her daughter, the daughter had a higher likelihood of finding herself in need of an abortion in early adulthood than did the daughters of families where the mothers had talked about their own experience. Perhaps those who do not learn from family history are also destined to repeat it.
But mother-daughter relationships are so complex and so nuanced that it is sometimes hard to judge the application of a worthy principle such as openness; when to tell, and how to tell. Erica Frydenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, says mothers might not tell daughters about an abortion, for example, because they do not want their daughters to prejudge how to manage a pregnancy.
The timing of a revelation can also be crucial. Erica tells of a woman who was told on her wedding day that the person she had thought of as her mother was actually her aunt; that her biological mother had died when she was tiny. “She was so shattered
by this information that she never spoke to the aunt again for the rest of her life. Judgements about discovery are very tricky.”
For every daughter who feels she has suffered over something for which her mother did not prepare her, there is a mother who feels her daughter resisted being forewarned about possible painful experiences.
Maggie Kirkman, at the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society at the University of Melbourne, was a co-researcher in a study about the way parents talk to their children about sex. “Relationship information was one of the things parents wanted to talk about, and daughters often didn’t want to talk about it.”
Kirkman says mothers trying to warn daughters about potential life problems can be a bit like a doctor trying to deliver bad news: “People will swear blind that no one told them, and they were told but they found it too distressing to absorb it.”
The difficulties of falling in love, and falling out of love, can be similarly uncomfortable for daughters to hear about: “I tried to tell my daughter how it felt when someone important fell out of love with me. She was sympathetic, but I think she felt it wasn’t something that a mother should be sharing. Daughters want parents to be coping and to be bulwarks against the world rather than people who will fall apart when something happens.”
On the other hand, in Kirkman’s study there was a woman who blamed her teenage promiscuity on the fact that her mother did not talk to her about sex or relationships and failed to educate her “that you don’t just throw yourself into a sexual relationship without thinking of the consequences”.
In the world of classic “chick lit” – Jane Austen, the Brontes, even the light-hearted Regency romances of Georgette Heyer – it has always been the task of the mother to guide a daughter in the proprieties and protect her from sexual predations. Often in these authors’ stories the mother is absent or inadequate (a contrivance
to give their heroines greater trials and greater freedoms), but even then, she symbolises protection or restraint. In her book, Beyond the Myths: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Psychology, History, Literature and Everyday Life, Sydney researcher and psychologist Shelley Phillips points out that when Rochester begs Jane Eyre to be his mistress, it is the ghost of her long-dead mother who tells her to flee temptation and leave Rochester and Thornfield.
For Erica Frydenberg’s daughter Lexi, though, one of the great strengths of her relationship with her mother is that her mother did not ever tell her about judgements she had made about her daughter’s adult relationships. Lexi, 33, is a Melbourne pediatrician. She is also mother of a little boy and is five months pregnant with her second child.
Lexi says she feels her mother has given her great freedom to make her own choices. She never heard much about Erica’s own experience of childbirth and early parenting but Erica was always there to help with cooking and cleaning when Lexi was sick or exhausted: “I was grateful that she was there to support me and didn’t put her own issues on me and didn’t constantly reflect on her own experience.
“We have never talked in depth about marital relationships either.
I think she adores my husband and is completely there for us, but we never sat down, even when I was going out with men, and said, you know, ‘He’s got this or that going for him, or not going for him.’ She gave me freedom to form my own opinions.”
Long after one long-term relationship ended, Erica told her daughter that she had found the man exceptionally boring. “I had no idea,” laughs Lexi. “I thought she thought he was a great catch.”
Another time, when Lexi was in a “total dilemma” about her reluctance to marry a man who seemed perfect, her mother did not buy into the debate. She referred Lexi to a psychologist who could help her think it through independently. “It was a clever thing to do at the time because if the relationship had worked out and she had put her two cents in, it would have changed the dynamic between us, and if the relationship didn’t work out because of something she said, I would have resented her for it. By being supportive but suggesting that I do the deep talking with someone else, she wasn’t putting a value judgement on the relationship.”
Erica Frydenberg herself had been brought up by a mother who was a Holocaust survivor and who was progressive for her culture and her times, but who did initially resist Erica’s determination to adopt Australian freedoms, such as mixing with boys and going to university. When it came Erica’s turn to mother Lexi, she decided it was important “to respect the other, and to be there to assist and to ‘scaffold’ but
to really trust in my kids’ capacities”.
Erica remembers only one time they ran into trouble in Lexi’s teens – “saying she was somewhere when she wasn’t, an under-age drinking thing. That wasn’t very hard”. And Lexi remembers only one major dispute: her mother wanted her to have a big wedding, and Lexi wanted a small one. “That was the biggest crunch time.
I hadn’t actually anticipated her opposition because she had always been so open-minded. But in the end Adam and I dug our heels in. We wanted to form our own boundaries as a couple.”
Such a rebellion-free youth is unusual. According to Shelley Phillips, most daughters report that they argue more with their mothers than with anyone else when they are teenagers and young adults. Conflicts often centre around everyday things such as tidy rooms and outings but the intensity can escalate out of all proportion to the issues. Daughters argue with their mothers because it is during fights that they work out who they are and what is important to them. Many researchers have concluded that daughters do not want to “separate” from their mothers or break the relationship; they want to maintain emotional closeness all through their adult lives in a way that is not as common with sons.
Kim Kane, 33, a commercial lawyer and children’s writer, has forgiven her mother all her “sins”: making Kim eat celery sticks and carrots at childhood parties, studying at university instead of being “a proper tennis-and-tuckshop mum”, vacuuming furiously outside Kim’s bedroom if she slept in too long. Says her amused mother Barbara, “That is grotesquely exaggerated!” She adds, “Kim was always my great leveller.”
They see themselves as close – they share a love of trashy magazines and the high arts, and often go to the opera or to a gallery opening together – but Barbara says she doesn’t expect that closeness to extend to talking about everything. “I’m very close to my mother but I don’t tell her about things that would worry her. I’m sure my girls are the same, they’d just give me the general headline.”
Asked to think about “What my mother didn’t tell me”, Barbara says that, while it is not something she would have expected to come from her mother, she does wish now that when she left home she had known that it was wise to get established in a career before starting a family. She had three children because she wanted them to have the fun of siblings, but it meant that her own career as an art historian began late and had to be squeezed in around family commitments.
For Kim, too, the only thing she wished she had known involved the world of work: she found some corporate environments tougher, blokier and more bruising than the sheltered world of her family, and realised that she had to upskill in boisterousness and bad language. “That’s something my family could not have prepared me for because we don’t act like that.”
Just like the women in Tannen’s research, Kim remains sensitive to her mother’s criticism in a way that she is to no other. When she showed her mother the manuscript of her first children’s novel, her mother took seriously the request to say what she thought. “She said, ‘Well, it’s good, there are some strong characters, but I’m not sure about this.’ I was absolutely gutted!
I found myself saying to publishers, ‘This is what my mother thinks’.
I sounded like a 14-year-old!”
Lexi Frydenberg recently had an ultrasound for her pregnancy. Her mother came with her because her husband was away. They were both delighted to hear she is expecting a daughter. Says Lexi, “We both had tears in our eyes. Because I have a very strong bond with my mother, I’d like to have that with a daughter.”
You know how it is with mothers and daughters.
Mother-daughter books …
1. The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
Four mothers and their first-generation, Chinese-American daughters dealing with culture clashes.
2. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Single motherhood in 19th-century New England.
3. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
The silly Mrs Bennet is heroic in her tireless attempts to get her five daughters good husbands.
4. White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
Heartbreaking coming-of-age story.
5. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Civil War tale of runaway slave Sethe, who is haunted and comforted by the ghost of her murdered daughter.
6. Unless, by Carol Shields
A wry feminist meditation on women’s roles.
7. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells
A novel of imperfect love and forgiveness.
and films …
Freaky Friday (1976 and 2003)
Mother and teenage daughter swap bodies and are forced to live each other’s lives.
High Tide (1987)
Gillian Armstrong’s tale of a maternal relationship lost and potentially found.
News from Home (1977)
An engrossing meditation on the bonds of family, identity, exile and creativity.
Stella Dallas (1937)
A mother raises her daughter alone, renouncing everything to allow her child a better chance in life. — JANE SULLIVAN AND PHILIPPA HAWKER

First published in The Age.


Carol Matthey was this week committed to trial for allegedly murdering her four children. Karen Kissane looks at the evidence presented about the case and the woman, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
THERE is no dock in Court 20 at the Melbourne Magistrates Court to separate the accused from the rest of the room. Carol Louise Matthey sat in the front row of the public seating, close to her lawyers but not far from those who had come to watch her case.
She is a solidly built young woman who invariably wore her hair pulled back into a bun or a ponytail. Her clothes were plain: jeans, cotton shirts, pull-on ankle boots. Every day she carried a water bottle and an A4 notebook and pen and took notes as witnesses gave evidence.
Sometimes she had companions sitting in the row behind her, and she would occasionally turn to them and murmur a comment. “Bullshit!” she said audibly once, apparently disagreeing with the evidence being given at the time.
Four children had brought Carol Matthey to this courtroom. The purpose of the hearing was to determine whether she had a case to answer on charges of murdering her four children. The case for the proscecution will not be finalised, and the case for the defence not known, until the matter goes to trial.
The trigger for the case that led to this hearing was her three-year-old daughter, Shania. Shania had been a colicky baby, but she became a happy, cheeky child. She often had a runny nose or a cold because, like many active small children, she liked to strip off her socks and her jumper.
She was a daddy’s girl, according to a statement from a neighbour tendered to the court: “She was always so delighted to see her dad come home in his truck and always spoke of Dad. She also clung to Carol, wanting to be picked up all the time, and always carried her bottle of milk around with her.”
The week she died, she and her parents visited the house of one of her mother’s friends. “Shania was great,” the friend later recalled to police. “She was catching bugs and playing, laughing and giggling. Everyone seemed very happy.”
A few days later, according to her mother, Shania had a mishap. She had been pretending to ride her Barbie doll’s horse on a coffee table. She had fallen off the table and begun to scream. Then she stopped breathing. Her mother rang for an ambulance, saying that her daughter was purple and unconscious. She told the operator that she was beginning resuscitation. Moments later, a child’s gasping cry could be heard.
When Geelong ambulance officers arrived, they found Shania being nursed in Carol Matthey’s arms. The little girl resisted being examined and seemed fine, and the ambulance officers did not know she had reportedly been unconscious and then resuscitated, so it was decided that her mother would take her to the family GP for a check-up.
Shania never made it to that doctor’s appointment. That night, her mother gave her a bottle when she called out for it in the early hours. Carol Matthey got up for her shower the next morning and was surprised, she later said, that Shania did not come into the bathroom when she heard the water running. She said she checked on Shania and found her in bed, not breathing and without a pulse. An ambulance took the child to hospital but she never came out of what doctors call “asystole” – her heart had stopped.
It was Wednesday, April 9, 2003. Shania Jayne Matthey was dead. Her death was unexpected. Shania was the fourth Matthey child to be found suddenly dead. Carol and Stephen Matthey had already lost three other children, who had died as babies. Shania was their fourth child to die in five years, and as a preschooler, was outside the 12-month age limit for sudden infant death syndrome, according to several witnesses. An autopsy failed to find any cause of death.
The police then took an interest in what remained of the Matthey family.
In February last year a police investigation resulted in Carol Matthey, 26, now of Bannockburn, being charged with having murdered the four children: Jacob, Chloe, Joshua and Shania. This week, her committal hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates Court came to its conclusion.
The Crown case painted her as a killer who smothered one child after the other. Her defence counsel, Ian Hill, QC, said there was no medical evidence that any of the children had been deliberately harmed, and that Matthey had most probably lost her children because of some shared genetic disorder about which medical science knows little or nothing. “The primary and stark question in this case is whether any of these children were killed at all,” he said.
Magistrate Duncan Reynolds had the task of deciding whether to commit Matthey for trial. His work was cut out for him.
CAROL Matthey is the third of five sisters. She left school at 15 to work as a shop assistant at a fruit and vegetable outlet, according to a statement tendered to the court by Jodie Matthey, who is married to one of Carol’s brothers-in-law. The store, plus a 365-hectare market garden at Bannockburn, were owned by the Matthey family. By 16, Carol was dating one of the family sons, Stephen Matthey. They had Jacob in May 1998, and three more children – Shania, then Chloe, then Joshua – in quick suc-cession.
By the time Shania died, the Mattheys were living in the Geelong suburb of Herne Hill, in a plain, brown-brick, three-bedroom house with white net curtains that had been bought for them by Stephen’s parents. Ste-phen Matthey’s family were not a talkative bunch, Jodie Matthey, told the court: “(They) pretty much just talk about business. It’s more about a business relationship than a family.”
Carol had broken off communication with her own parents, Jodie told police: “The reasons for this are very complicated, but it all seemed to stem from her parents never accepting Stephen from the beginning of their relationship.”
According to another statement, from a friend Geraldine Taylor, Carol and Stephen Mattheys’ relationship was “not close. They were not an affectionate couple. They did seem happy, but they were not close or affectionate.”
Stephen Matthey worked long hours, according to a statement from a neighbour, Dorothy Minett: “Onmarket days, he would leave home between 12am and 1am, and on normal days he would leave for work about 5am. He would (never) get home before 6.30pm or 7pm.”
A number of witnesses who knew Carol Matthey in everyday life were called or statements were tendered from them, including two relatives, two playgroup friends and a neighbour, as well as her maternal and child health nurse and both her bereavement social workers. Each stated that from what they had seen, she was a normal, loving mother.
Minett told police, “Carol seemed very good with Shania. I never, ever noticed anything untoward about Carol’s parenting of Shania or any of her children.” Said Taylor, a mother at the Matthey children’s playgroup: “I have never seen her spanking her children, ever. (She raised her voice) every now and again, but she was very calm.”
All these witnesses stated that Matthey was a quiet, reserved woman who was not one to show her feelings. Jodie Matthey had found her to be a good friend; when Jodie was in a wheelchair with multiple fractures following a car smash that also injured her daughter, “Carol would visit me often and help me look after my family.”
Sergeant Solomon, the primary police investigator, found Carol Matthey to be calm and relaxed when he first interviewed her at her home. He also noted two black plastic boxes on top of a microwave oven in her kitchen. In response to his question, Matthey said they contained the brains of two of her dead children, Shania and Joshua. The Coroner’s Court had kept the brains for further testing. “The accused explained that it was her intention to have the two brains and Joshua’s ashes placed with Shania (in her grave) in due course,” Solomon said in his statement, which was tendered to the court.
According to Crown prosecutor Susan Pullen, SC, the first indication of Matthey’s allegedly “violent relationship” with her children came before any of the deaths. It was a house fire in August 1998, when she was the only adult at home.
A fireman at the scene briefly recorded the probable cause as a fault in the newly installed central heating system, and an insurance company paid the Mattheys’ claim. But two expert witnesses told the court they believed the fire actually began in a child’s bedroom. Country Fire Authority investigator Graham Lay said he had pulled the heating unit apart and found no fault with it, and that the pattern of charring showed that the fire began above the floorboards, not in the heating ducts below.
Gerard Nealon, a forensic scientist who investigated the blaze for the insurance company, also believed that the fire started in the bedroom, and that its lighting probably had involved “some kind of naked flame with some human involvement”.
A few weeks after the fire, Carol and Stephen Matthey wed in a private ceremony.
The first death came four months later.
Died aged seven months on December 8, 1998
On October 28, 1998, an ambulance was called for six-month-old Jacob, whom his mother described as being purple and having trouble breathing. One of the ambulance officers, Anthony Clark, told the court that he had trouble finding the house, and that no one came out to flag the ambulance down. “When we arrived, (Carol Matthey) and a male were sitting on the front step. I thought they were having a cigarette at the time.”
“Even before the time I knew Mrs Matthey had been charged, it always struck me as odd the way she presented,” Clark said.”
She was devoid of all emotion … (and) when we arrived at the scene, they weren’t actively looking after the child.” The Mattheys sent the ambulancemen to the back of the house, where Jacob was found pale, unresponsive and grunting.
Children’s neurologist Dr Ian Hopkins, who treated Jacob, concluded that he had suffered “a significant sudden insult to the brain”, which can depress breathing and consciousness. Such “insults” could be caused by head injury, metabolic disorders or impaired circulation as a result of epileptic seizures. A seizure could also be the result of having been deprived of oxygen.
There was not strong evidence for an infection in Jacob’s case, Hopkins told the court, although he did have an enlarged liver and spleen and a high count of white blood cells. Jacob recovered, and no cause for this episode was ever found.
Dr Janice Ophoven, an American forensic pediatric pathologist and medical examiner, reviewed the Matthey files and was flown toMelbourne fromMinnesota to give evidence. She told the court she believed Jacob’s “apparent life-threatening episode” was consistent with him having been partially suffocated. His white cell count was “most telling”: “Children who have been asphyxiated will have a sudden and substantial rise in white blood count in the absence of infection … I have substantial experience with children who have been suffocated short of death and rushed to hospital with signs and symptoms similar to this, and they recover essentially completely, without diagnosis, after receiving an insult to the brain.”
Ophoven said she had seen children who were resuscitated from “multiple asphyxial episodes” before they were eventually killed. Medical staff often don’t suspect deliberate smothering “because, unfortunately, it takes the death of more than one child for people to figure out what’s going on”.
On December 8, five weeks after his episode, Jacob died. Jodie Matthey told police that when she arrived at the family home that afternoon after a call from a relative, ambulancemen were trying to revive the baby, and his parents “were both extremely upset and crying”.
Pediatric pathologist Dr Peter Campbell did the autopsy. He concluded that while bronchitis was a possible cause of death, the findings better reflected sudden infant death syndrome.
Dr Susan Beal, an Adelaide SIDS expert who has attended the death scenes of more than 500 babies, told the court that there had been such a poor death scene investigation in Jacob’s case that his cause of death should be called undetermined rather than SIDS, although SIDS remained a likely diagnosis.
She wrote in her report, tendered to the court, that factors weighted towards “filicide” (killing by a parent) include Jacob’s previous unexplained apparent lifethreatening episode, “which increases the possibility of non-accidental injury”, and his age (most SIDS deaths occur between one and six months.) Ophoven said she believed blood found in Jacob’s nose was due to the kind of injury seen in suffocation, where blood can be seen without any other sign of injury. The blood did not come from a “bloody purge” from his lungs, or it would also have been found in his airways, she said.
Those dealing with the Mattheys following Jacob’s death saw a normal grieving couple. Nerida Mulvey, a SIDS counsellor who was called in to help the family, later told police that Carol and Stephen Matthey seemed to experience the kind of grief common to SIDS families, expressing intense anger about Jacob’s death and looking for ways to memorialise him.
Died aged nine weeks on November 27, 2000
Carol Matthey became pregnant again soon after Shania was born in November 1999.
Chloe was born on September 14, 2000.
Geraldine Taylor saw Chloe at a playgroup party a few days before she died. “I held her for a while and she was fine. She was a beautiful baby.”
The day Chloe died, Jodie Matthey received a call from Carol asking her to come over. “I asked her why, and she said, ‘Don’t worry,’ and then hung up. I called her back straight away and said, ‘I’ll be there in a minute’. I knew something was wrong by the tone of her voice. When I arrived at her place, I found two ambulances there, and Carol was crying hysterically.
Chloe was on the bed in Carol and Stephen’s room with the ambulance people trying to revive her.” They all went to hospital, where Chloe was pronounced dead.
Neighbour Dorothy Minett later went over to visit Carol: “She looked dazed. She wasn’t crying but looked in a world of her own … For a couple of days Carol wouldn’t respond to anybody. She just lay in bed and wouldn’t eat or drink. I couldn’t get her to speak.”
JodieMatthey, too, saw CarolMatthey as devastated: “I recall her asking me why Chloe had to die. She said losing one child was bad enough, but not two.”
Dr Peter Campbell, who had conducted the autopsy on Jacob, also did the postmortem examination of Chloe. He concluded again that this was SIDS, a diagnosis used for mystery deaths of babies aged under 12 months.
SIDS is what doctors call “a diagnosis of exclusion”-it is what one concludes when all other reasonable possibilities have been eliminated. It is a category into which many different causes of death that are as yet unknownmight fall, including heart, respiratory and metabolic problems.
In recent years science has unravelled some of its mysteries. About 10 to 15 per cent of cases that were previously called SIDS are now known to be the result of genetic flaws that produce conditions such as Brugada syndrome or long QT syndrome, in which sudden, dramatic problems with heartbeat can cause unexpected death.
SIDS rates generally have plummeted in the Western world since it was discovered that lying babies on their backs to sleep helps prevent it.
According to Professor Stephen Cordner, director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and another expert who reviewed the Matthey cases, SIDS is a diagnosis that does encompass “the possibility of smothering, although in the minds of parents and perhaps some pathologists it has acquired the status of natural causes”.
Campbell wrote in his autopsy report on Chloe that SIDS “is a diagnosismade after a full post-mortem examination including X-rays, microbiology, toxicology and metabolic study fails to explain death … While a second child in a family can die of SIDS by chance, recurrence raises the possibility of an inherited or genetic condition as a possible cause, as well as the spectre of nonaccidental injury.”
Chloe showed no sign of deliberate injury, he wrote, and metabolic tests were normal. “Other metabolic conditions, as yet unknown, may still be the cause of these two children’s deaths, but we have no way of diagnosing those at present.”
Ophoven said she would call Chloe’s cause of death undetermined, rather than SIDS, because it was not possible to exclude homicide. Dr Beal would call it undetermined because Carol Matthey had told an investigating forensic officer that she had laid Chloe to sleep on her back, and babies did not die of SIDS while on their backs unless their faces were covered.
Died aged three months on July 10, 2002
“Carol became pregnant again some months after Chloe’s death,” Jodie Matthey said in her statement. “Again, Carol was happy about being pregnant but was even more concerned now. I could tell by the look on her face that she was concerned about the wellbeing of the child she was expecting.”
Joshua’s birth, on March 30, 2002, was difficult. He was born by emergency caesarean six weeks premature with the cord prolapsed, and his mother was ill herself afterwards. Given the family’s history of SIDS, Joshua was given an apnoea monitor for use at home, which had an alarm that would go off if he stopped breathing. Joshua started projectile vomiting. He had developed pyloric stenosis, a problem with the digestive tract that could be fixed by a minor operation. He was admitted to the Royal Children’s Hospital and had surgery on May 10, 2002.
What happened while Joshua was in hospital, and the possible reasons for it, has triggered one of themost dramatic divisions of opinion between highly respected doctors in this case.
The operation Joshua had was so minor that it does not even involve the cutting of muscle, and the incision, just near the belly button, is small. But nurses noted that Joshua seemed to be in significant pain afterwards. Wrote one at the time: “He was extremely pale, arching backwards and his whole body was totally stiff. I was unable to move his neck due to his rigidity. His face was grimacing, very tense and flexed. His hands and feet were clenched. Baby had minimal respiratory effort . . .”
Joshua was given morphine for his pain and an hour later stopped breathing. He was resuscitated and stayed on a ventilator for 60 hours. Four hours after his initial arching, he was still tense, sensitive, startled at noise and resisted handling – and “a child with a morphine overdose would (normally) be a rag doll”, director of surgery Dr John Hutson told the court.
Dr Peter McDougall was the neonatal pediatrician overseeing Joshua’s postoperative care. He believes the baby’s arching was a response to pain and that his breathing stopped because of the dose of morphine he was given for that pain.
McDougall told the court he certainly did not share the views of Hutson, who believed that Joshua’s arching could have been due to a more sinister cause: being poisoned with strychnine after he returned to the ward from surgery.
Hutson told the court that Joshua’s pain was disproportionate, and that a baby with abdominal pain would normally not arch because it would pull the wound tighter.
Joshua also required ventilation for five times as long as a normal baby who had reacted badly to morphine. “We couldn’t understand why he was taking so long to get better.”
Hutson realised later that Joshua’s symptoms, such as neck stiffness and ultrasensitivity to handling, were classic for both tetanus and strychnine poisoning, but tetanus was extremely unlikely in a baby so young.
Hutson acknowledged that he did not think of this theory at the time: “We never looked for it, so we never saw it, so we never did any of those tests (for poison) … (but) I think it’s the most likely explanation for the series of events which occurred in the Children’s Hospital, which I have never seen before or since in 25 years as a pediatric surgeon.”
Carol Matthey was stunned and anxious over Joshua’s sudden decline, nursing staff wrote in their notes at the time. Jodie Matthey said Carol had sent her messages during Joshua’s crisis saying she had cried her way through a whole box of tissues.
Joshua recovered and returned home and was noted by a paediatrician onMay 24 to be healthy but a little pale; a blood test found he was anaemic.
The day before he died, Carol Matthey took Joshua to GP Cindy-Lou Nelson. He had an ear infection and Nelson prescribed the antibiotic recommended for this condition, amoxycillin.
The day of his death, July 10, 2002, Carol Matthey and her children were at a supermarket in Corio about 5pm. She later reported that Joshua began to cry, and after about 10 minutes the family returned to the car.Matthey later said she then noticed that Joshua was not breathing and began CPR.
When ambulance officers arrived, they found the baby’s pupils fixed and dilated, his skin pale and his fingers blue. He was pronounced dead at Geelong Hospital.
Pathologist Dr Michael Burke did the autopsy. Swabs he took from Joshua failed to isolate a particular germ. But swabs that had been taken while the baby was at Geelong Hospital were positive for a bug called klebsiella, which is resistant to the amoxycillin that had been prescribed for Joshua. Burke concluded that Joshua had died from klebsiella septicaemia – that is, that the ear infection had turned to blood poisoning.
Dr David Ranson, a forensic pathologist who would later conduct the autopsy on Shania and who reviewed Joshua’s case, told the court he saw no reason not to accept Burke’s finding on Joshua. He pointed out that babies with septicaemia could die very quickly.
But four other doctors doubted the finding.
Forensic pathologist Dr Allan Cala said he accepted that klebsiella was present, but he did not believe it had turned to septicaemia.
Pediatricians Dr KymAnderson and Professor Michael South, and Dr Susan Beal, argued it was more likely that the klebsiella germ had come from contamination of Joshua’s sample in the hospital environment.
Anderson said: “I have never known a child of that age to die quickly from klebsiella septicaemia … they would become sick over a number of hours or even longer, and the child would normally have a fever, be very lethargic, and have been vomiting.
(He) would be obviously very sick.”
After Joshua’s death, Carol Matthey was again laid low. Family friend Geraldine Taylor told police she was so upset that she could not get out of bed. “She was crying and wouldn’t speak and just lay there.”
Taylor said in court: “I just thought it would be a natural reaction after what she had been through.”
Carol and Stephen Matthey were separated at the time of Joshua’s death, according to Jodie Matthey’s statement: “The night that Joshua died they got back together and stayed at their house at Herne Hill.”
The Mattheys’ marriage had been in difficulty; Stephen worked such long hours, and Carol also confided to two friends that she believed him to be having affairs, according to statements. Depression and marital difficulties are not uncommon among couples who have lost children tragically, SIDS counsellor Leona Daniel told the court.
Died aged three years and four months on April 9, 2003
“Very soon after Jacob’s death, Carol became pregnant again,” said Jodie Matthey in her statement. “She was happy about this but concerned the same thing might happen to this child.” On November 18, 1999, Carol Matthey gave birth to Shania. Then she discovered she was pregnant again, with Joshua, despite having had injections of the contraceptive depo provera, she told social worker Nerida Mulvey. “She said that she did not want another pregnancy so soon.”
In July, 2001, Carol Matthey told a GP that Shania had had two episodes where she held her breath or stopped breathing (apnoea) for more than 30 seconds. Shania also had a history of asthma that did not respond readily to Ventolin treatment.
Shania’s breath-holding had been witnessed by at least one other person.
Geraldine Taylor told the court that she had twice seen Shania become distressed after she had a tumble while playing. “She let out a real sobbing cry and then stopped (breathing) … I had heard of other children doing it, but I had never seen it till that day.” Taylor said that both times,Matthey quickly went over to her child, blew in her face to get her breathing started again and comforted her.
When he conducted Shania’s autopsy, forensic pathologist Dr Ranson could find no cause for Shania being found dead in bed the day after her fall from the coffee table. He believed that marks on her mouth were due respectively to a “drying artefact” on her top lip, and the postmortem draining of normal blood supply from her inside bottom lip.
Three forensic odontologists (dentists) who had examined Shania’s mouth at autopsy also agreed that there were no injuries.
But specialists who later looked at postmortem photographs of Shania’s mouth disagreed with this. A fourth forensic odontologist, a pediatric dentist and a forensic pathologist told the court they saw injuries.
These had included an abrasion on the inside of her top lip, and marks on the inside of her bottom lip that looked to be the same size and the same distance apart as her two front top teeth, suggesting her bottom lip might have been pushed against her top teeth.
Forensic pathologist Dr Cala believed they might be signs that “external pressure” had been applied to Shania’s mouth.
Ambulance officers who had tried to resuscitate Shania were mystified by “pink frothy f luid” found in her trachea.
Ranson reported that a subsequent review of all the pathology results for each Matthey child by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine had not revealed anything that would “permit me to infer” that their deaths were caused by a third party.
At the time of Shania’s death, Carol Matthey seemed to be as distraught as she had been over the other children. When Jodie Matthey heard the news about Shania’s death at 7.40am that day, she made the now-familiar dash to Geelong Hospital. She found Carol Matthey crouched up against a brick wall in the ambulance loading area, her head down, weeping.
Neighbour Dorothy Minett told police that Carol had said she had not been back into Shania’s room since the day she died.
In November 2003, seven months after Shania’s death, Sergeant Solomon found in Shania’s bedroom a small toy Barbie horse and a baby’s bottle full of curdled milk.
ACCORDING to Jodie Matthey’s evidence, Carol Matthey has repeatedly questioned why this has happened to her: “How she could lose four children?” Jodie Matthey stated that the two women have talked together about whether it could be genetic problems, heart problems, asthma-even the types of formulas the children were on. The court heard that the Matthey’s have faced numerous medical tests. Doctors wanted to find out if they had a shared genetic defect that might have caused the four children to die.
Initial DNA testing in Australia suggested that this might be so. Tests in the US, however, found that while the Matthey children all shared a genetic variation, it was a common one and was not linked to any disorder that can kill.
Dr Michael Ackerman runs the Long QT Syndrome Clinic and the Sudden Death Genomics Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in the US. He reviewed the DNA testing, and in his report, tendered to the court, concluded: “I find no objective evidence to support an argument for a genetic heart rhythm disorder and a resultant lethal ventricular arrhythmia in the four children.”
In his evidence to the hearing, given on video link from Minnesota, he said that if the cause of death was genetic – if all the children died from the same problem – then the autopsy findings should be identical for all four cases. He also said that, if there was a shared genetic disorder, at least one parent should be showing symptoms of it.
Yes, he acknowledged, there can be more than one SIDS death in a family, but “from the vantage point of my long QT clinic and sudden death clinic (which has tested over 2000 patients), this example would be conceded to be an extreme outlier.
I don’t have a single family, in a very large collection of families, where there has been four sudden deaths among infants.”
In fact, as prosecutor Susan Pullen pointed out in a sharp aside to junior defence lawyer Gerard Mulally when he referred to Shania as a baby, Shania was no infant. “She was 3½. Years!”
EXPERTS called in the case were divided over whether it was mother, or Mother Nature, who took the lives of the children, with many agreeing either was a possibility. Drs Beal and Ophoven were firm in their views that homicide was the most likely explanation.
Ophoven, who has performed autopsies on more than 800 babies, wrote: “What we now know is that some children who were diagnosed as SIDS in the past were actually murdered, and families where there were multiple infant deaths attributed to SIDS were actually the victims of serial killings … There are no verified or substantiated cases of four SIDS deaths in one family.”
She wrote that a diagnosis of “homicidal suffocation” was made from evaluating not just the medical findings at autopsy but the circumstances surrounding the fatal events.
In the Matthey case, these included the fact that all four children were with their mother at the time of death, the absence of risk factors for SIDS in some of the children, and a history of possible unwanted pregnancy, as well as autopsy findings such as pulmonary hemorrhage in three of the children and blood in the nose or mouth. “In this case, there is no known entity that is consistent with the facts present to explain these deaths except the homicidal act of another person.”
Beal, for her part, said it would be “very, very unlikely” for even three children in one family to die of SIDS. It was as likely as three children from one family dying in three separate car accidents. “I did see (such a case) once, and I missed it; I was young and innocent, and I didn’t believe mothers killed their children.” Beal said the main cause of SIDS was babies being put to sleep on their stomachs. If a child was found dead on his or her back, as Chloe was, it was questionable that it was SIDS.
With the Matthey family, there was also a history of the children experiencing “ALTEs” – apparent life-threatening episodes in which they stopped breathing or were found unconscious. “ALTES are not a predictor for SIDS; they’re a predictor for (homicide),” Beal said.
But the man who is Melbourne’s head of forensic investigation, Professor Cordner, argued that it was wrong on the pathology evidence to conclude that any of the Matthey children were killed. For example, pulmonary hemorrhage “is a marker of pulmonary congestion, itself a very nonspecific finding common in deaths from many causes”.
Cordner said there was no merit in forcing certainty where uncertainty exists: “It is not for a pathologist to conclude that a number of infant or childhood deaths, with no significant pathological findings at all, are homicides on the basis of controversial circumstantial grounds.”
Over and over again, the defence lawyers returned to this point, arguing that the case should not be assessed on suspicion or even probabilities but on hard facts – and that the hard facts left open the possibility of unknown disorders. Defence counsel Ian Hill challenged Beal and Ophoven with the British case of Angela Canning. Canning lost a daughter and two sons and always maintained that they died of natural causes.
Her 2002 conviction for killing two of her babies has now been overturned as “unsafe”.
In his final submission, Hill said: “The Crown can stand up and say as many times as they wish, ‘Well, you can kill a child without leaving any injury.’ But that’s not going to advance a skerrick or one iota of proof.
You can’t base a case … on suspicion or baseless innuendo … There’s no evidence of human intervention.”
But prosecutor Susan Pullen said it would be possible for a jury, properly instructed, to reach a guilty verdict. A jury could consider the rarity of SIDS and the unlikelihood of it recurring in one family.
The prosecution also relied on the alleged injuries to Shania and other autopsy findings, as well as the children’s apparent lifethreatening episodes: “It would be an affront to commonsense not to be able to consider these events.”
The argument that “in the future we might find something” to explain the deaths as natural causes was a fanciful, debating-point possibility, not a reasonable one, Pullen said. “The jury would have before them evidence of the extensive testing on the children during their lifetime or after their death.”
ON THURSDAY, a subdued Carol Matthey appeared in court to hear magistrate Duncan Reynold’s decision. Dressed in black jeans and a navy roll-neck jumper, she sat quietly.
Her face was impassive as the magistrate announced his decision: she was committed for trial in the Supreme Court on four charges of murder.
Accepting that Matthey’s bail should continue, Reynolds said: “I don’t think it’s a type of case that can be really appropriately categorised as aweak or strong case. All I can say is that it’s not a straightforward case.”
Asked to give her plea, Carol Matthey stood with her hands clasped in front of her said, “Not guilty”.
Shania Jayne
Died at three years and four months in the family home on April 9, 2003
“The external examination, internal examination and specialists tests ¿ have failed to reveal an unequivocal cause of death.” — Dr David Ranson, forensic pathologist who did the autopsy on Shania.
“Attempted suffocation may cause bleeding in the nose, mouth, with aspiration (of blood) into the airway and swallowing of blood into the stomach.
In the case of Shania there is evidence of pre-mortem hemorrhage that was swallowed into the stomach …” — Dr Janice Ophoven.
Joshua Damien
Died at three months in supermarket car park, July 10, 2002
“Cause of death: klebsiella septicaemia … The post-mortem examination of Joshua Matthey demonstrated no injuries.” — Dr Michael Burke, forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Joshua.
“In my opinion, the clinical situation did not fit klebsiella sepsis as being the cause of death.” — Dr Kym Anderson, Joshua’s pediatrician since birth
Jacob John Vincent
Died at seven months in the family home on December 8, 1998
“Cause of Death: sudden infant death syndrome.” — Dr Peter Campbell, pediatric forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Jacob.
“He was lying supine (on his back). Jacob was also outside the SIDS age group, and babies that age can turn their heads very well.” — Dr Janice Ophoven, American pediatric forensic pathologist and medical examiner.
Chloe Isabel
Died at nine weeks in the family home on November 27, 2000
“This child appears to have died from the sudden infant death syndrome … While a second child in a family can die of SIDS by chance, recurrence raises the possibility of an inherited or genetic condition … In Chloe’s case there is no evidence of (non-accidental injury).” — Dr Peter Campbell, pediatric forensic pathologist who did Chloe’s autopsy.
“The factor that increases the likelihood of filicide (killing by a parent) in this infant
is the finding of the child (on her back). In my experience, filicide is 10 times more
common if the infant is found supine than if the infant is found prone.” — Dr Susan Beal, pediatrician and SIDS expert.

First published in The Age.

Deaths in the family

A mother is accused of murdering her four children. But Karen Kissane discovers the case has the experts divided.
IT WAS supposed to be a routine operation, but little Joshua Matthey, only six weeks old, had a reaction that was not routine. A nurse noticed he was in trouble: he was grimacing and extremely pale, his back was arched, and his hands and feet were clenched. His body was so rigid that she could not turn his neck from side to side. And his breathing was “minimal”.
Joshua was resuscitated and put on ventilation for the next 60 hours. The neonatal physician in charge of his care, Dr Peter McDougall, this week told the Melbourne Magistrates Court that he thought Joshua’s behaviour suggested he had been in severe pain, and that his breathing difficulties had been the result of morphine that had been given to relieve that pain.
There was no basis, he said firmly, for another doctor’s later theory: that Joshua might have been poisoned with strychnine while he was in hospital. Strychnine poisoning would have produced more symptoms, and would have been impossible to administer at that time as Joshua had a naso-gastric tube and was not able to suck or take in anything orally.
McDougall is the director of neonatology at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The strychnine theory he was rejecting had been put forward by a senior surgeon at the same hospital. The surgeon, who is yet to give evidence, had supervised the operation to correct a digestive problem in Joshua in May 2002.
This division in medical opinion over Joshua is only one of many hotly argued scientific issues in a complex criminal case involving his young mother. Carol Louise Matthey, 26, of Geelong, sat in court this week facing charges that she killed not only Joshua but three more of her small children. She is on bail and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
There was a history of medical mysteries in the Matthey family. Matthey had collapses for which no cause could be found, and two of her children had crises involving breathing difficulties and unconsciousness. Does the answer to the deaths of the Matthey children lie in the frontiers of knowledge about genetic science, as her defence lawyers insist, or in a mother’s mind?
Matthey lost four children in five years. Seven-month-old Jacob died in 1998 and was found by a coroner to have been a cot death. Chloe, aged nine weeks, died in November 2000 and was also found to be a cot death. Joshua survived his respiratory arrest at the Royal Children’s but died six weeks later after he stopped breathing while in a supermarket car park. He had an ear infection at the time, and a coroner later ruled that he had died of a rare infection, klebsiella septicaemia.
The last death was that of 31/2-year-old Shania. Her mother had previously told a doctor that Shania had episodes in which her breathing stopped until she turned blue. The night before she died, according to her mother, Shania fell off a coffee table in the lounge room while pretending to ride her Barbie’s horse. She died in the early hours of the next day, April 9, 2003. An autopsy found no cause of death.
Matthey is a solidly built woman with storybook rosy cheeks. In court this week she dressed plainly – workboots, pants, shirt and jumper – and wore her straight dark hair pulled back. Most days she was accompanied by a male relative, and they murmured occasionally to each other as the evidence moved back and forth in a committal hearing that was strongly contested.
This week’s evidence painted only a sketchy picture of Matthey. The court was told that her sister had told police that “even as a child, (Matthey) never really showed her emotions, so she wasn’t outwardly very emotional as an adult”.
Geelong GP Cindy-Lou Nelson, who accepted the Matthey family into her clinic after their first two children died, said that she could not remember Matthey showing emotion. She had recorded in her notes that Matthey was “quite reserved, and presented as a sad and lonely woman who was probably quite shy . . . Isolated, no supports, not interested in doing anything to help herself”.
Another doctor at the clinic recorded that Matthey had been tearful and had trouble sleeping. She was on anti-depressants and was being counselled in a program for bereaved parents.
When pregnant with Joshua, Matthey came to the clinic worried when she could not feel him moving. Nelson agreed with defence counsel Gerard Mullaly that Matthey was appropriately concerned for the safety of her pregnancy, and that she had always had a valid reason for attending the clinic.
Doctors were not always able to help her. In July 1998, Dr Jaycen Cruikshank told the court, Matthey had had several spells of fainting from which it was difficult to rouse her. The first doctor to see her in Geelong Hospital’s accident and emergency department had wondered whether a heart problem, or a “conversion disorder” – a psychiatric condition in which a patient develops physical symptoms that have no physical cause – might be among the potential diagnoses. Cruikshank concluded it was most likely that Matthey had had brain seizures.
In a statement to police, he said it was worth asking whether, given that the cause of her collapses was uncertain, there could be a genetic disorder in the family that linked her faintings and her children’s deaths.
Dr Andrew Davis, a pediatric cardiologist, told the court how such disorders can work. He said a genetic abnormality can cause conditions such as Brugada syndrome, which was discovered only in 1992. “If you have it, you are prone to abnormal dangerous heart rhythms that cause sudden death, especially in your sleep.”
The Matthey parents had tested negative, but only 25 per cent of people with the syndrome have a genetic abnormality, making it difficult to detect, he said. And there were doubtless other such disorders that had yet to be discovered, he agreed under cross-examination.
Asked Mullaly: “We now can explain some sudden deaths in infants that we couldn’t before? . . . We are learning more about sudden death, but there is much more we can’t explain?”
“Yes,” said Davis.
Dr Susan Beal, an Adelaide pediatrician and expert on sudden infant death syndrome, allowed for fewer uncertainties in her assessment of the Matthey children’s deaths.
She told senior defence counsel Ian Hill, QC, that a study by other researchers claiming that even three infant deaths in the same family might be from natural causes “was extremely flawed and was refuted in The Lancet by very good people”.
She said it would be “very, very unlikely” for three children in one family to die of SIDS. “I did see it once, and I missed it; I was young and innocent, and I didn’t believe mothers killed their children.”
BEAL said the main cause of SIDS was babies being put to sleep on their stomachs. If a child was found dead on his or her back, it was questionable that it was SIDS.
“The incidence is one in 10,000, in my experience, and I would always be suspicious that something else had gone on in that family.”
Beal reviewed the Matthey children’s files in a report to police. She concluded that Jacob and Chloe’s deaths could be either SIDS or “filicide” (killing by a parent); that Joshua’s death was most likely filicide; and that Shania died of “some totally unknown disorder” or filicide.
“In more than 30 years of experience, I know of three other families who have had four or more children die suddenly and unexpectedly,” she wrote.
“In all three families, some of the deaths were stated to be due to SIDS, and others have been attributed to infections. In all these families it was later proved that the children were all murdered . . . In the Matthey family . . . I believe all the evidence points to all children having been killed by non-accidental suffocation.” Hill challenged her vigorously on this. What evidence was there that any of the children had suffered physical injury, he demanded to know?
Beal said that in cases of suffocation, she would not necessarily expect to find signs of physical injury. “The autopsy is absolutely unable to distinguish between induced suffocation and SIDS,” she said.
Her conclusion that the deaths were suspicious was based on several “pointers”, including that:
· Jacob was outside the normal age for SIDS;
· Chloe had been found on her back, and Beal believes babies on their backs, whose faces are not covered by bedclothes, do not die of SIDS;
· The family had a history of children experiencing “ALTEs” – apparent life-threatening incidents where they stopped breathing or were found unconscious. “ALTES are not a predictor for SIDS; they’re a predictor for filicide,” Beal said.
Hill asked: “You take an event and put the worst possible spin on it?”
Beal: “I put the most likely spin on it.”
Hill then referred to British cases in which the evidence of a prominent pediatrician, Sir Roy Meadows, was later found to have helped wrongfully convict of murder mothers who had lost two or more children to cot death.
Hill asked Beal: “At the end, you are left with an approach similar to that of Sir Roy Meadows, looking at the statistical improbability of events happening in one particular family, because you have no medical evidence?”
Beal said tartly: “What do you mean? I have just outlined it to you!”
Most of the hearing this week was taken up with doctors and ambulance officers who had dealt with the Matthey family.
The court heard a recording of a call Matthey made asking for an ambulance. She reported that Shania had fallen off a coffee table, begun to scream, suddenly held her breath and passed out. The child was purple and not breathing, she told the operator.
In the call, Matthey sounded tearful and distressed. At one point she told the operator that she knew CPR. She dropped the phone, and a few moments later, a small child coughed and wailed.
When ambulance officers arrived, they found Shania upset and clinging to her mother but showing no signs of ill health.
Shania, who had a history of asthma, died early the next morning. Her mother said she found her not breathing in bed.
As she listened to the emergency-call recording in court, Matthey cried, quietly.
The hearing continues with prosecutor Susan Pullen, SC, before magistrate Duncan Reynolds.

First published in The Age.

Children and trauma: chocolates, hugs and tears


The principal of Winchelsea Primary School mothered a whole town as it tried to cope with the drowning of three boys in a local dam.

JUDI Fallon still remembers too vividly the funeral of a small child that she once attended. “He was a two-year-old. His father walked down the aisle of the church, carrying this little white box. I will never forget it, even though it would have to have been 30 years ago.”
So she knew how to respond when it was suggested that the children at Winchelsea Primary School act as a guard of honour for the coffins of the three Farquharson boys. “I said, ‘We can’t do that, because I can’t expose little tackers to being near little white coffins.’ You’ve got to be thinking of those sorts of things. So we put the coffins into the hearses; the children were lined up in front of the hearses and the hearses drove through. There was a distance between the cars and the children, and the children knew what was in the coffins but it was the hearses they saw.”
Children and death are a grievous mix, a mix that Fallon, the principal of Winchelsea Primary School, has learned far too much about it in the past two weeks. Two of her pupils, brothers Jai Farquharson, 9, and Tyler, 7, died along with their two-year-old brother, Bailey, on Father’s Day when the car their father was driving veered off the road and into a dam. Their father, Robert, escaped but all three boys drowned in the car.
Fallon geared up for emergency measures from the moment she got the call from a parent telling her of the tragedy at 11.10 that Sunday night. Winchelsea is a small town of only 1200 people and 190 of those are children at Fallon’s school. In a rural community, she says, “the school is the town and the town is the school”. The children are also closer to each other than city children; those of the same age have often gone to the same kindergarten and been with the same classmates every year at school.
Fallon is a small, determined and practical woman. She talks quickly in this interview, the story pouring out of her. It is hard to know whether the speedy delivery is her normal mode or the result of the enormous tension she has been under for the past fortnight. She is clearly a warm and open woman; during this interview a small child knocks at her closed door to show her a painting he did in art class. Later, in the playground, a little girl runs over to show Fallon the new Band-Aid on her finger. Both are utterly confident of their welcome.
Fallon has been at the school for only 41/2 years but has embedded herself deeply into the local community, her networks extending to all kinds of groups, from the Lions Club to the local police. She knew the shock and grief would be enormous.
She also knew that there were few protocols to guide her; in the next two weeks, she would rely almost entirely on her instincts. She undertook many roles: informal counsellor, funeral planner, media liaison officer. Fallon became the woman who mothered a small town through its loss.
That first night, she telephoned an Education Department manager and told him she would need grief counsellors at her school first-thing in the morning. She did not ring her staff: “They needed a good night’s sleep.” She lay awake all night, thinking of all the people who might be hit by repercussions: teachers, parents, bus drivers, lollipop ladies. Then she got up at 5.30am to face the hardest day of her working life.
At 6.30am she began phoning her 15 teachers to tell each of them personally; over and over she recited the news. When the staff arrived at 8am the grief counsellors were waiting for them. Fallon told the weeping teachers about trauma and handed them pamphlets of symptoms that they or the children might suffer. Shock is not just an emotion; it has a physical effect on the body. Fallon sent her secretary up the road to buy chocolates and jellybeans for staff and students. “When shock hits, you get chemicals in your system and sugar is an excellent way of coping with them. Sweet drinks, sweet food.” She laughs bleakly. “We absolutely bought out their confectionery department, I think.”
Fallon herself was having trouble believing the news: “It’s like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ It took me a long while to accept that there were three little boys lost. I mean, I’m a mother. I can’t imagine imagine losing one of my children, let alone having your whole family wiped out. You ask yourself why. You ask yourself how. But I just go into what I call work mode. You’ve got a job to do. And if you fall apart, who’s going to lead?”
She had students bring the school flag down to half-mast. Then she took the morning assembly in front of 190 children and more than 50 adults. She explained that she had sad news and told them the facts as briefly as possible. She told parents that counsellors were available for them and for the children. “The counsellors were fantastic,” she says. “The children were allowed to come in and out of the library whenever they chose. Everyone was told that they were allowed to do a drawing or a picture or a story. The thing is to get children’s emotions out. Children actually cope better than adults. Adults don’t want to talk about it, but children ask the hard questions.
“We got the community policing squad in first-thing Monday and we sat the grade five and six kids (Jai’s class) down to explain how an investigation might go, hypothetically. Because the kids were asking, ‘Why did the car go down? How long did it take the car to go down? How long would it have taken before the boys died?’ They ask those horrible hard questions, and that’s what you’ve got to give them the answers to.”
Younger children were also imagining the children’s deaths but were satisfied with much simpler responses, often the ones they made up for themselves. Fallon spent a lot of the week on yard duty to keep the media at bay, for fear a distraught child would be further traumatised by being photographed. “I was down in the sandpit with the little ones and one of them said to me, ‘I know, Mrs Fallon, how Tyler died. He didn’t have his seatbelt on.’
“And I said ‘Oh, I think he might have had his seatbelt on. He probably released it to try and get out.’ But ‘Oh no, if you don’t have your seatbelt on you die.’ To him, that was the explanation.
“And another one asked me, ‘Do you think he would have drunk much water?’ And I said, ‘Let’s hope he kept his mouth closed.’ And the child said, ‘Oh yeah, that would have been sensible.’ To her, that was fine. To me, it was . . .” And she makes a strangled sound, as if no word can express the ghastliness. “They think those things. They have visions in their heads. Once we told them it was normal to have visions like that, normal to ask questions, normal to have trouble going to sleep or bad dreams, they got through that and moved on.”
It was suggested that the school should suspend specialist programs such as religious education. Fallon resisted. “I wanted to get the school quickly back to routine. That was just gut instinct too.” She peals with laughter: “It works for me! It also does work for children when they’re upset.”
As well as hovering over her students and staff – Fallon was particularly worried about Tyler’s teacher, a caring woman who had taught him in both prep and grade one, and Jai’s friends, who were old enough to understand the finality of death – Fallon phoned the grieving family every day.
“Mum was still in hospital (sedated for shock) and Dad was an absolute wreck. It took a few days to work out what their wishes were, how they wanted to do things. They were at a loss. And the coroner hadn’t released the bodies, we had to work our way through that. And then a couple of days later Robbie (Farquharson) was taken in for questioning; I had to deal with the homicide squad as well.”
Questions remain about the accident, which left no skidmarks on the road. The car was found with its lights and engine turned off. “My aim was to make sure that everyone was aware that the two parents were supporting each other,” she says firmly. “And the kids need to feel that too . . . This sort of thing can bring a town together. It can also destroy a town. At the moment, here, it’s brought them together.”
There was a torrent of communication in the wake of the tragedy. Fallon received more than 200 emails of support from other principals, and established a sympathetic correspondence with the principal of the Balwyn school that lost two boys to a stabbing just days after the Winchelsea tragedy, and to the Sunshine special school principal who lost a student in a house fire. She phoned her staff every night to see how they were travelling (“Because it’s when you get home that you reflect”).
And she fielded 50 or 60 media calls a day. “There must be a newspaper somewhere or a small radio station up in Upper Quambatook or wherever that hasn’t rung me, but I guarantee everyone else has. And that was something I hadn’t planned for at all.”
Fallon had been asked by two older members of the community to handle the media, a task she took on “to protect Cindy in hospital and Robbie at home . . . So I’ve learned a little bit about the media now. They’re doing their job, that’s all they’re doing. If you give them the little grabs that they need they are happy, and that keeps them off your back and everyone else’s.”
Fallon seems to have a native shrewdness that stood her in good stead in this regard. The grandfatherly man who edits the local paper was given hot tea and warm advice when he came around after the funeral almost too upset to write his report of it.
But when a bigwig from Channel Seven rang, Fallon bartered with him: she would give him an interview if he would put in a request for her to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy. He agreed, and Essendon footballers – the Farquharson boys’ team – will come to the school next term to help with its memorial garden and to speak to the children on how to handle adversity.
And how does Fallon get through adversity? She schedules. She held her own grief at bay until Thursday morning, the day after the Farquharson boys’ funeral; she cried for the first time when her staff gave her flowers and a card to thank her for her strength and support. But then she rallied again and is holding off until this weekend, the start of the school holidays.
“I’m not quite sure when it will, but it will hit,” she admits. “It’s like you will stub your toe and all of a sudden the world will end and you will think, ‘But this was just a stubbed toe!’
“And it will have nothing to do with the stubbed toe, just with what you have bottled up and not let go. But I have a gorgeous family and two wonderful daughters, and they will look after me.”
· Born in Melbourne
· Degree in marketing, Monash Caulfield, followed by career in advertising/marketing
1975 and 1979
· Birth of daughters
· Returns to university to train as a teacher
· First teaching job, at Traralgon Primary School
· First principal’s job, at Hamilton Primary School
· Principal of Winchelsea Primary School

First published in The Age.

Accidental heroes

When tragedies happen, it’s the heroes we cling to. But what makes a hero? Karen Kissane reports.

Everybody loves a hero – except, for a time, the hero himself. Two months ago, after Cranbourne resident John Leusenkamp helped rescue children from a burning car, he started getting calls.
“You have people ringing up and straight away going, `Hero hero hero!’ on the phone, and I’m thinking, `Who are you? F. . . off!’
“A bit later on, it sounds all right; people appreciate what you’ve done. But in the beginning you don’t even want to know about that side of it because you’re pretty depressed straight after it, with what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. I was face to face with what went on in that car; what you see on Hollywood movies with cars exploding and people burning, that’s nothing.”

He is still struggling with flashbacks of the children’s suffering – one of the boys, nine-year-old Chad Clay, later died from his burns – and with trying to make sense of such random destruction. “Why does it have to happen to children? They haven’t even had a life yet.”

Leusenkamp, a carpet tiler, is a hero in the classic Australian mode: an ordinary bloke suddenly confronted with extraordinary circumstances who hurls himself into protecting others. The Bali blast saw many of them, including some who might never be named because they died as strangers trying to rescue other strangers. This week’s shooting at Monash University, in which lecturers and a student tackled a heavily armed gunman, added three more to the list of local heroes.

Why do some people leap into heroic action while others freeze or flee? What is it like for them afterwards? Does becoming a hero, like winning the lottery, have as much capacity to ruin a life as it does to enrich it? And why does the rest of the world, as personified by Leusenkamp’s unwanted callers, have such a need to fasten on to them?

Dr Bob Montgomery, a Queensland clinical psychologist who counsels trauma victims and who has co-authored a book on coping with crisis, says many heroes have something in common: training. In an emergency, most people have the normal human response of emotional freezing; their thinking narrows and they become focused only on escape.

“They will do things to survive that they are ashamed of later,” he says. “A man caught in a football crush in Britain panicked. He clambered on top of everyone else and walked over their heads. Later, he felt immensely guilty . . . but he escaped while others were killed.”

The few who do heroic, constructive things “often are people who have had special training: off-duty firemen or policemen, ambulance officers”, he says.

What about the human bucket brigade in Bali, the group of young men who lined up to help others clamber over a fence to escape the Sari Club fire? One would have taken the lead and the others would have followed, he suggests.

“You only need a small number of people to set the pace, and that will come from someone with training or from someone who’s just a remarkably robust individual.”

It’s not hard to find examples to prove his rule. Lee Gordon-Brown, the lecturer who tackled the Monash gunman despite having been shot himself, was a former airforce engineer, and the student who went to his aid, Alistair Boast, was a kung fu expert.

Senior Constable Stuart White recently received a bravery award for hauling a would-be suicide out of the path of an on-coming train with only seconds to spare. He says he had been trained in how to tackle people and had experience of racing down train tracks. “I knew the stones were more solidly packed in the middle and loose on the side, and that if you’re on the loose stuff you’ll roll an ankle and go off.”

But there are also many heroes such as Leusenkamp who have had no preparation for their moment of truth. Katie Steadman was a 17-year-old Queensland high school student when she helped save her two nephews from a fire and raced back into the burning house to try to rescue her two-year-old niece, Mikayla. She was beaten back by the heat and later nearly died from her injuries, which included full-thickness burns to 70 per cent of her body and the loss of her lower left leg.

She is now a chirpy 19-year-old, with a spare waterproof prosthetic leg so she can water-ski. Despite her scarring, Steadman has no regrets about her rescue attempt, other than the big one: that Mikayla still died.

She is as modest as all the others interviewed for this story. Her mantra, like theirs, is “I don’t see myself as a hero. I feel I did something that any person would do.” But she acknowledges she has “talked to people who say that they would never have been able to put their life on the line like that”.

Altruism is a mystery to Darwinians, says Dr Karen Jones, lecturer in philosophy at Melbourne University. “There’s a puzzle about how altruism evolved because it looks like it might not enhance your own fitness to do altruistic acts.”

She says research suggests that altruism is a complex interaction between the person and the situation. Social psychologists once set up an experiment in which seminarians (trainees for the priesthood) were invited to Princeton University to lecture on the tale of the Good Samaritan. The need for good deeds should have been at the forefront of their minds.

On the way, they passed a staged situation in which a distressed person looked to be in need of help. But whether they stopped of help. But whether they stopped depended simply on whether or not they had been told they were running late for their lecture.

Australia is ambivalent about its heroes. People feel moved and proud to hear of them. Heroes are also comforting social tranquillisers; reassurance of good in the midst of evil and of the possibility of triumph, or at least integrity, in the face of catastrophe.

But according to Graeme Davison, professor of Australian history at Monash University, Australia also has a strongly democratic, anti-heroic streak. “Forty years ago, we used to rejoice in the fact that we had few heroes and the ones we did have were people like Ned Kelly or `types’, such as the Anzac . . . It’s a big sin in Australia to take yourself too seriously or place yourself on a pedestal.”

Heroes will wryly agree. Ask them how their friends and colleagues responded and it is always a tale of chiacking. When Inspector Peter Dinan and another officer rescued 11 people from a fire in 1980, their colleagues said: “The lengths some people will go to get noticed.” Stuart White was told: “There’s a thin line between bravery and stupidity.”
Perhaps it is that cutting down to size that leads to many heroes downplaying their achievement and the fulfilment it must bring them. But 20 years after his rescue effort, Dinan still cherishes the memory. “It’s an absolute privilege to have saved someone. There’s definitely three people still alive simply because we stopped to investigate (smoke). I’ll always remember it. I could imagine a brain surgeon would feel the same thing taking a tumour out of someone’s head. It’s terrific.”

Below the public teasing runs an undercurrent of admiration and, in the face of a tragedy as large as the Bali bombings, it becomes open and generous. Montgomery says: “Society wants heroes partly because we want someone we can admire and identify with, who sets a good example and gives us hope that if anything really dreadful happened there might be someone to help me, or I might be able to help someone myself”.

Heroes are particularly important as a reassurance of goodness when the emergency has involved deliberate harm, says Dr Beverley Raphael. She is the director of the NSW Centre for Mental Health and, as a pyschiatrist, has been called in to help after many disasters, including the Granville train wreck, Cyclone Tracey, the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the Newcastle earthquake. “Bali was different to a natural disaster; all of us are having trouble coming to terms with the horror of people’s malevolence, and that’s a whole stressor in itself,” she says.

There are cultures in which the great heroes of the nation are warriors, honoured for their triumphs on the battlefield. Australia is not one of them. After World War I, Albert Jacka received a Victoria Cross for the way he had taken on and killed the enemy in combat. Today few people know of him. Our household names are not fighters but saviours: Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli, army surgeon Weary Dunlop on the Burma Railway.

Davison says the adulation of such men is sometimes an attempt to redress some kind of social imbalance. With the death of Weary Dunlop in 1993, Davison says many older people expressed concern that he was the last great Australian hero, and that young people would feel the lack. “They were looking towards heroes as providing of kind of moral centre for a society which seemed to be badly in need of it.”

He says this decade, heroes might be providing balance for the economic rationalist emphasis on individualism and personal success: “The hero is, above all, someone who does things for others rather than for himself. (The public’s response) might be partly born out of a sense of a need for community solidarity.”
The hero of myth, according to writer Joseph Campbell, was someone who was removed from ordinary life, had fabulous adventures and returned to ordinary life transformed, aware of the eternal truths and able to offer boons to others. Research suggests that the same can be true of real-life heroes, but that their odyssey might need to include a stop at a therapist’s.

Heroes are probably just as likely as anyone else to suffer post-traumatic stress, Raphael says. “People who have been able to be active often feel stronger afterwards, but they’re also often torn by feelings of `Why did I survive when others didn’t?’ ”
And, just like any victim of horror, they can develop post-trauma symptoms: reliving the event through nightmares and flashbacks; emotional numbing; and hyper-arousal, which leads to irritability, poor concentration and sleep problems.

Leusenkamp has found that becoming a hero “messes with your head, especially because there’s children involved. You have trouble sleeping. I still go into my own little world with thoughts and that. It’s hard to get motivated, concentrate on anything. I’ve shied off my mates. I just can’t seem to get back into my routine.”

And even heroes sometimes reproach themselves for not having done enough. Raphael says that, in a crisis, a person’s perception of time is distorted and reality unfolds in slow motion, leaving the person wondering if there had been time to do more.Katie Steadman agrees: “Although I was in the house for only about five seconds, my mind slowed down that whole process like I was there for 10 minutes.”

What was left undone might haunt some of the Bali victims, who told of walking past injured people begging for help because they were searching for their mates or loved ones. “They dissociated from those victims while they looked for people they felt a closer bond for. In a way, that’s what health professionals do every day when they deal with suffering,” Montgomery says.

As for the eternal truths, heroes, like other people who have faced sudden death and disaster, often emerge determined to spend more time with their family. Raphael’s research has found that many examine whether they are happy with their work, and some search for ways to make the world a better place.

Sometimes their hero status can be a heavy burden: “They have got to live up to this image, and their ordinary feelings of weakness and grief and horror and fear are hard for them to deal with. It’s stamped on them forever; it’s expected that they will keep on doing it when at other times they might actually be feeling fearful or depressed.”

It has helped Leusenkamp that he has made friends with the family he helped to save: “I get to see the kids a bit. I never knew them before that (car fire), so I only had one vision of what they were like, and seeing them sort of takes that memory away.”

Steadman has had to give up her dream of joining the police force – she is now a hero and a dental assistant – and the experience has changed her life in other ways, too. “I live for the day; I don’t look too far ahead.” She has also taken up again with her old boyfriend, who supported her strongly during her months of recovery. “Before, like any young teenage girl, I used to think, `I can get this guy, that guy’. Now I look inside people and not at personal appearances,” she says. She did have nightmares, but they stopped when she went home after three months in hospital. At home, she says, she doesn’t have to be a hero.

Karen Kissane is an Age senior writer.

Brave words

It feels good that I was responsible from stopping this guy from doing what he intended to do.

– Sandro de Maria (above), on helping to disarm convicted killer Peter Knight, who shot dead a security guard at an East Melbourne abortion clinic.

I know we’re all going to die.

Three of us are going to do something about it. Love you, honey.

– Thomas Burnett (above), on the phone to his wife, Deena, before he and others forced flight 93 to crash in rural Pennsylvania rather than the White House on September 11, 2001.

First published in The Age.

Gaming: almost the end of a life

When Bill Connellan’s sister Elizabeth visited him in jail in January he seemed “a bit like Toad of Toad Hall”.

Like Toad, Connellan had gone on a wild escapade. Only it wasn’t his friends he took for a ride, but the country’s largest bank.

Connellan, a loans officer with the National Australia Bank, cooked the books on his day job to feed his after-hours habit, a pokies addiction. Using breathtakingly simple scams, he extracted more than $1 million from his employer in less than two years.

Visiting her brother in jail just after his arrest, Elizabeth Fitzgerald found him “still very much in the performance and completely away with the fairies . . . He was very anxious to share the drama of being in jail”.

People such as Connellan, who was sentenced last week to five years’ jail, and Deidre Frederickson, a law clerk who stole $450,000 to feed her pokies habit, have highlighted the human cost of gambling.

Yesterday Frederickson was sentenced to five years in prison, with a minimum sentence of 30 months. At the same time, an extraordinary panel of people, including State Government ministers, the Reverend Tim Costello and industry figures such as Ross Wilson, the outgoing head of Tabcorp, met to discuss problem gambling.

Connellan, 44, is the youngest of six children, and his five elder brothers and sisters are all achievers. He had always tried to chase after their success, said his lawyer, Jack Rush. He used to big-note to his wife, Maddie, about his long absences from home, claiming he was doing important deals with clients.

He acted like an unfaithful husband, Mr Rush said, making up stories to cover his secret activities. He would claim he had been held up at rehearsals of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera society he loved, or that his car had broken down. With a flourish of life imitating farce, he once got out of trouble by telling his wife he had run over a pedestrian.

Mr Rush said: “It got to a stage where (he was gambling) six, seven days a week, on average four hours minimum a day, ranging up to 12 to 14 hours a day. It wasn’t infrequent that he would be going home at 7 o’clock in the morning, showering and then going to work, with the explanation that he had been with clients doing deals all night.”

Many of his “clients” were creatures of his own imagination. Connellan pleaded guilty to one charge of false accounting and five counts of obtaining a financial advantage by deception. Behind these counts lay two credit cards in a false name, 54 false bank loans and 40 false bank accounts. Connellan averaged a new loan every fortnight.

He was systematic. In April, 1999, he set up the first false bank account in the name of Robert John Quick. He had seen the name in a newspaper and chose it because they shared the same date of birth. He used the bank documents and cards from that account as identification to get a birth certificate in the same name. Then he used the birth certificate to rent a post office box that he used as the address for many of his fictitious clients.

He entered false loan applications into the bank’s “Autolock” system, knowing what assets and liabilities would be required to get an automatic approval from the computer. He was also meant to create a file for each loan and send it for checking to the lending services division. He did not.

As he drew on each loan, he sent some of the money to the Quick account for his own use. He would divert the rest to a false bank account in the same name as the false loan account and set up direct debits to make payments on the loan. He ultimately obtained $1,199,800, of which $244,563 went into repayments.

Withdrawals went straight from one machine to another. Connellan took money from automatic teller machines at gaming hotels and fed it instantly into the venues’ poker machines.

He bought himself nothing. His suits were his older brothers’ hand-me-downs. “This man was living in a rented house in Camberwell Road, the car that he owned was a 1984 Sigma, and he did not own any other type of real estate,” Mr Rush said. “The persons who have gained from Mr Connellan’s criminality have been the (gambling) establishments and, ultimately, the government.”

Connellan was caught only because a woman whose name he had taken from the phone book persistently complained to the bank when it sent her statements about a loan she had not taken out.

“Cases such as these before the courts, sadly, are becoming not uncommon,” Mr Rush said. “Twenty years ago, without the access of computers and without the access of, I suppose, carte blanche responsibility, with far more checks and balances, if one saw a bank employee stealing $30,000 that was considered to be a monumental amount of money. But . . . this matter went on for a protracted period of time.”

Putting Connellan in a bank was like putting a kid in a candy store. His gambling problems went back to his late teens, when he got caught up with illegal pokies in the Carlton area. He had two convictions for stealing from employers and one for having taken social security benefits while he was working. In 1996 he went into voluntary bankruptcy with debts of $40,000.

As with Toad, those who loved him had tried to save him from himself. Over the years there had been family meetings and family loans, his sister told the court.

This time they acknowledged defeat. Mr Rush said Connellan had not applied for bail because his family knew he would be jailed.

“How does a person get over such an addiction?” Judge James Duggan asked Ian Joblin, a forensic psychologist reporting on Connellan.

“Probably being where he is, unfortunately, your honour,” Mr Joblin replied. “He was deceiving his wife, he was deceiving his employer . . . there was no possible way leading up to the time of his arrest that this man was going to stop of his own resources. It could not happen. He had no conscience.”

But incarceration would not solve his emotional problems, he said. “The whole issue of why one needs to gamble in order to find stimulation and excitation in life, those are the issues that need to be addressed.”

He said Connellan would need coercive conditions placed on his release and should be supervised by the Parole Board for an unusually long time.

Connellan had come down from the artificial high that followed his arrest, his sister said. “I think it was a sort of defence mechanism . . . In the time he has been at the Port Phillip Prison he is a much more sober, more focused man who is, I think, seeing the fact that at 44, `What have you got to show for it? And if you don’t change, your life is virtually over.’ ”


The former Geelong mayor gambled away $8 million belonging to clients of his accounting firm. Mr De Stefano, 53, gambled mainly at Crown Casino. He will face charges in the Supreme Court in September over the missing money.

The 32-year-old was employed as the AFL’s membership manager when she began siphoning money from the league in a scam that netted her $374,000. Over nine months Henderson wrote 20 suspect cheques that were used for gambling or to pay back “loan sharks” at Crown Casino. Sentenced to 18 months’ jail.

Described in the County Court as a “pathological gambler”, Roden stole $1.3 million from his employer. Roden was employed as a financial controller by a family import business in 1996 but after seven months he began forging his boss’s signature on cheques made payable to himself. He was sentenced to 27 months’ jail.

An addicted gambler who threatened to set off a bomb outside Crown Casino on May 13, 1998. He sold his wife’s car and his new utility and gambled the money away at Crown. He pleaded guilty to the bomb incident and received an 18-month community-based order. He was ordered to do 200 hours of community work.

Played the pokies at the Ferntree Gully Hotel while her 19-month-old son Brian was dying in a scorching locked car on a hot day in a case that shocked the nation. Yu, 41, was sentenced in 2001 to four years’ jail for the manslaughter of her son but in an unusual move she was paroled almost immediately for a psychiatric assessment.

First published in The Age.

Feeling good, or bad, in a cloud of anxiety

Psychologist Michael Kyrios has just seen his first patient with an anthrax phobia. “It’s someone who has obsessive-compulsive disorder and a lot of fears about contamination,” he says. “I was waiting for it.

“When AIDS became a big thing, a lot of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder would appear with AIDS-related phobias. They feared that they might catch it, or that they might be responsible for making someone else ill.”

The result in both cases is the same: patients obsess about safety with compulsive hand washing, repetitive checking or total avoidance of situations seen as risky. A Sydney GP reports that one patient blithely claimed she had no fear of anthrax because she was washing her hands 20 times a day. Australia is thousands of kilometres from the “Ground Zero” of the New York World Trade Centre attack, and all its anthrax scares have so far proved to be hoaxes. But the level of anxiety in the community has risen from the background hum of white noise to something louder and more insistent since September 11. We have been enveloped not in a cloud of bacteria but a cloud of emotion.

Doctors, psychologists and telephone counsellors say many people who were already struggling to cope have sought help because the news about terrorism pushed them into anxiety or depression. People are ringing Lifeline with sudden fears of tall buildings or enclosed spaces; Kids Helpline had a 400 per cent increase in calls following the twin towers attack; GPs report an average of five patients a day asking – mostly jokingly, they think
– about the risks of anthrax. Sales of emergency gear and gas masks have rocketed. Both the professionals and the retailers agree there have been twin peaks of the anxiety: the first few days after the towers crashed, followed by the days after Prime Minister John Howard’s announcement that Australia would send troops overseas for the war against terror.

But increased fearfulness is not the full story. There are at least two other elements in the nation’s emotional response to international terror, according to a wellbeing survey of 2000 Australians that asked them about their reactions to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. It found people were deeply saddened by the destruction and death, but that they had also become more satisfied with their own lives and with life in Australia generally.

Researcher Richard Eckersley helped produce Australian Unity’s National Wellbeing Index, released this week. He says disasters and the saturation media coverage given to them can lead to more psychological disturbance “but also to a national rallying and a greater sense of community and comradeship”.

He speculates that Australians feel better about themselves because the attacks have jolted people “out of the rut of everyday life – making them more aware of what they have and the preciousness of life”.

Ninety per cent of people surveyed said they had been saddened and 25per cent rated their sadness at 10 on a scale of one to 10: “That’s equivalent to the loss of a child or a partner, not usually something as general as this. It does suggest that quite a few people were very, very worried or distressed by what happened. And yet at the broad popular level, there has been this lift in satisfaction levels.”

The national wellbeing index rose 3.3 percentage points to 60.4 per cent and the personal wellbeing index rose 1.2 points to 74.7 per cent. The research echoes similar US findings: Americans are reporting higher rates of depression, insomnia and difficulty with concentration, along with higher satisfaction with their own lives and with their nation.

This is not as contradictory as it seems: “It makes sense in that people are responding to different questions. You can be saddened by the event, which is an emotional response, but still judge yourself to be slightly more satisfied with your own life, which is a cognitive evaluation.”

Dr Kyrios suggests Australians’ increased satisfaction might be a “post-hoc rationalisation”: “We need (to think) this in order to cope with that; we need to find meaning in order to cope with these horrible things happening around us.” It had been many years since the Me Generation questioned life: “This is something that wars tend to do, trigger a resurgence in the search for meaningful values.”

They also help detonate a resurgence of symptoms in people who have already suffered emotional trauma. Dr Bill Pring, psychiatry representative for the Australian Medical Association, says: “The terrorist event in the US has been a partial cause of a relapse or an actual episode of illness in some people.”
He says those at risk include people who have experienced warfare first-hand, such as soldiers and civilians who remember the World War II bombing of Europe, and anyone with lingering after-effects of peacetime traumas such as car accidents or domestic violence.

Many war veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress have become even more stressed, confirms psychologist David Forbes of the Australian Centre for Post-Traumatic Mental Health. “They’ve had more frequent nightmares and increased vigilance; they’re more conscious when they’re out of maintaining awareness about who is around them and what activities are happening around them, watching out for anyone that might look suspicious or have an intention to carry out harm. They wouldn’t want anyone standing behind them.”

Even children are not immune. The professional consensus is that children will take their cue from the responses of the adults around them. They did, says Kids Helpline’s Felicity Sloman. Callers in the week after the attack were worried because their parents had become so distressed – “If my parents need to be worried, then I need to be worried.” Calls are now back to normal levels, and anthrax is not a theme.

But most of the callers to Kids Helpline are teenagers. Primary school students are still anxious, according to Professor Erica Frydenberg, a psychologist in the faculty of education at Melbourne University. She says a class of teachers this week told her children are scared because they misunderstand. “They’re transferring the knowledge about what happened overseas to the possibility of it happening here. They think they are personally endangered.” Dr Kyrios adds: “Anything happening on TV could be happening outside as far as children are concerned.”

He says the ordinary person’s helplessness in the face of world events is freeing for some people; they just get on with their lives, realising there is little they can do. But others are comforted by taking action, however illogical, to protect against what they feel are their risk factors.

Alen Saynte is manager of Mitchell King disposals in Sydney, where gas mask sales have rocketed from two a month to 400. Customers have told him, “It’s OK for me, but my husband works in the city,” or “My husband works for an American company”.

The loss of trust in the environment makes people cling to the familiar. The tourism industry reports that more Victorians are booking holidays close to home. But the urge to circle the wagons has its downside. Ray Fritz, manager of Lifeline, says callers have been preoccupied not just with anxiety about the safety of themselves and their loved ones but with concerns about the future of community. The walls between in-groups and out-groups have been reinforced by fear.

“People who are on the edges of society – people who are homeless, who have some sort of disability or a mental illness or carers for those sorts of people – they’re expressing concerns that their links in the community are disappearing,” Mr Fritz says. “There seems to be a sense that people are caring less about those people who are on the edge and focusing more on the mainstream. One response of people who are fearful is to affiliate with those people they know best, so people who have trouble connecting anyway find it even more difficult.”

The political focus on “boats and borders” has made asylum seekers a clear “out” group, he says, and Lifeline workers have had to try to encourage some callers to be more tolerant. There has also been a rise in the number of employers requesting help with counselling staff who have been racially abused in the workplace, he says.

If politicians had wanted to link asylum seekers with terrorism, “(They) have succeeded. The issues are interlinked in people’s minds.”
Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

First published in The Age.

Who’s afraid of Harry Potter? Not me

IT’S time to stand up and be counted in defence of Harry Potter, boy wizard, publishing phenomenon, and magnet for the ire of Adults Who Know Better.

Harry is not a caricature. His stories are not plagiaristic pastiches unworthy to be deemed classics of children’s literature. And his exploits are not going to inspire kids into absconding at midnight to slaughter goats on altars to Beelzebub.

The Harry Potter books, by Scottish author Joanna Rowling, have taken off like a bushfire in a drought. Her warm, funny stories of an orphan who goes off to boarding school to study wizardry are being devoured by millions of eight to 14-year-olds.

In England, editions with adult black-and-white covers have been printed for the many fathers seen furtively reading the series on the train. Rowling’s earnings this year are estimated to reach more than $200million.

Her success has made fools of children’s publishers. Their accepted wisdom was that TV-watching kids would not have the attention span to read books as long as Rowling’s (more than 400 pages). She was rejected by nine publishers but, once in print, won immediate success – with children, that is.

The adult world is divided. Literati say the world of her books is thin, its imagery derivative and its structure flawed. Religious fundamentalists in America are trying to have the books banned from schools because the wizardry is “satanic”, and last month they were banned by the principal of a British primary school.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are about as satanic as the Brady Bunch on broomsticks. Parents can trust Rowling’s work: her values are friendship and kindness, honesty and courage.

Rowling fully deserves children’s affection. She writes a cracking yarn and has an intuitive understanding of a child’s emotional world. Children love her stories not just because they entertain but because they do what people have always needed stories to do: play out symbolically the psychic dramas of human development and the moral dilemmas of life’s big questions. On this level the Harry Potter books have great integrity.

Poor narrative structure? Harry is very much the archetypal hero described by Joseph Campbell in his analysis of universal mythic themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous foes are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Like Campbell’s heroes, Harry crosses a magical threshold into the other world (in his case, Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross Station), receives all kinds of unexpected supernatural aid and is transformed by his experience of victory over evil.

True, Rowling has picked like a magpie through the treasury of children’s stories. Her Every Flavor Beans, which offer all sorts of surprises to the taste buds, echo products from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Ursula Le Guin wrote about a magic school in Wizard of Earthsea; Rowling’s giant spider Aragog might have descended from Tolkien’s Shelob, and her flying car – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, surely?

But in literature, little is truly original. Most stories are derivative in some way. Rowling has been criticised for copying Roald Dahl in her sketching of Harry as an orphan child abused by nasty relatives, but Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach mimicked an even earlier abused-orphan story, Cinderella.

James Joyce drew on the myth of Ulysses to produce his modern classic of the same name, and academics build whole careers detecting the allusions buried in it. Kids could play a similar game with the post-modern parodies in Harry Potter books. When they grow up and study media they’ll be told it’s called intertextuality.

And Rowling does it so wittily; the monstrous slavering three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer’s stone is based on Cerberus, but it’s Rowling’s deft touch to name it Fluffy. As for those Every Flavor Beans – any misappropriation involved is redeemed by this comical passage about the wise old wizard Dumbledore, Harry’s principal at Hogwarts:

“`I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them. But I think I’d be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?” He smiled and popped the golden brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, “Alas! Ear wax!”

The question of where Rowling obtained individual nuggets of material is secondary; what matters is the wholeness and emotional truth of her stories. Here she excels.

Harry the orphan symbolises every child’s deepest fear: having to navigate a dark and dangerous world without parents. He is working out who he is and how he will face his fate. He learns that pleasantness is sometimes a veneer for evil and that unsympathetic characters can prove surprisingly staunch and upright.

From his mentor, Dumbledore, he hears universal wisdoms. On the dark lord Voldemort, known as You Know Who: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Harry learns that his remarkable powers are due to the fact that he has something of the dreaded Voldemort within himself; a metaphor for original sin, and the way our strengths are also our weaknesses.

And Dumbledore helps Harry keep alive his sense of the parents he lost. He tells Harry it was only his mother’s love that protected him from Voldemort’s attack when he was a baby: “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved you is gone, will give you some protection forever.”

Rowling is welcome into my children’s psyches any time.

The next book is due in June. See you on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.

First published in The Age.

When children kill

WHEN is a child not a child? Take the 13-year-old boy who stood on a bridge over the Eastern Freeway dropping rocks on to cars. The last rock, all 1.8 kilograms of it, struck the chest of a motorist with the force of sledgehammer. It ruptured his heart and killed him.
In America, that kind of offence loses a child his special status in law. “Adult crime, adult time,” is the catch-cry, and more than 40 states now automatically transfer juveniles charged with certain violent offences to the adult system, where they face life sentences.

In Victoria, children aged between 10 and 14 are automatically transferred to the Supreme Court when charged with murder or manslaughter. Juries make what they can of exchanges such as this one between police and the young rock-thrower, up for manslaughter:

“Whereabouts did you get the rocks from?”

“That little place where we were playing tiggy on our bikes.”

Adult crime, childish pastime. Should the boy be held responsible for the death he caused? What is the boundary of the age of innocence – or is the very concept an adult fantasy?

The question is becoming more urgent with cases such as that of Corey Davis, the six-year-old with an intellectual disability who drowned after a 10-year-old boy shoved him into a creek. The case triggered calls for Australian children to be held more culpable for their crimes.

The 10-year-old became the second-youngest child in Australia to be charged with a killing. He is even younger if judged by his mental age, which was said to be around seven. New South Wales police decided to charge the boy with manslaughter after he told them: “Yeah. I pushed him. So what?”

Last May, the NSW senior children’s magistrate, Stephen Scarlett, ruled that the case should not go to the Supreme Court because a conviction was unlikely, given the evidence provided by child witnesses. A jury would probably see Corey’s death as “an act of bullying that went horribly wrong”. The NSW Department of Public Prosecutions overruled Scarlett’s recommendation and decided the boy should stand trial.

Although he believed the boy should not face an adult hearing, Scarlett had questioned whether today’s children are too protected from culpability.

In NSW and Victoria, the law presumes that children older than 10 but younger than 14 are incapable of forming an intention to commit a crime. This is known as the doli incapax presumption. It can be overturned, or rebutted, in an individual case only if the prosecution manages to prove the child did understand the significance of his or her actions. The presumption developed in 18th-century English law to prevent the hanging or transportation of children.

Scarlett called for the doli incapax cut-off to be lowered to the 12th birthday. “Can it really be argued that a child of 13 does not understand that it is wrong to steal from a shop, or to attack someone with a knife or a gun? Does any child in high school not have an idea of the rules by which modern Australian society runs?”

Technology had made doli incapax dated, he argued. “It seems obvious that children in the final stages of the 20th century are better educated and more sophisticated than their counterparts 200 years ago. A child in Australia has access to television, radio and the Internet, and has a far greater understanding of the world than a 12-year-old in rural Britain in 1769.”

But children are not like computers; input does not necessarily translate into appropriate output. They must be taught how to process the information they receive. And for how long should they be buffered from adult consequences because of other aspects of their childish natures?

One of the two British boys who battered to death toddler James Bulger in 1993 was surprised when police told him they could prove he was at the scene. The boy did not understand that they were referring to forensic evidence. He asked them whether they had the power to bring James back to life and question him.

The director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, Louis Schetzer, says: “I hardly think exposure to police shows on commercial television is necessarily an instrument by which children can be assumed to have a greater level of responsibility and knowledge of the context of their responsibilities and rights in the criminal justice system.

“Effectively, the principle of doli incapax allows that a young person has developing capacities and that there is no standardised model you could hold inflexibly to all 12 or 13-year-olds.”

He argues that children should not even be transferred to an adult court if they are under 14.

British lawmakers have leant more towards Scarlett’s view. They reversed the burden of proof regarding doli incapax, putting the onus on the defence to prove the child did not form the intent to commit the crime, following the Bulger murder. Two-year-old James was abducted from a shopping centre and killed by two 10-year-old boys.

Since then, in Norway, three boys aged six battered a five-year-old girl and left her to die; in France, three boys, one aged only 10, kicked a tramp to death; and in the US, two boys aged 10 and 11 dropped a five-year-old 14 storeys to his death for
refusing to hand over his lollies.

Public outrage at such atrocities has fuelled a push to find young people more culpable for their offending, says Terry Bartholomew, a lecturer in forensic psychology at Deakin University. “When society perceives a youth crime wave, the response is always to increase the state’s punitiveness. The majority of American states now transfer children who have committed homicide-related offences to the adult system. A private member’s bill in Queensland was recently submitted to try to reverse the presumption of doli incapax.”

Bartholomew has studied the 18 cases of juveniles charged with homicide-related offences in Victoria since 1990. They do not include this year’s three: a 15-year-old boy charged with killing a grandmother in her back yard; and two sisters, 13 and 15, charged with fatally stabbing a friend’s mother.

Bartholomew says the typical case involves a teenage boy disturbed during a burglary who panics and grabs a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife to fight his way out, with deadly consequences for the person confronting him.

He believes there are difficulties with transferring children to adult courts and sees contradictions in the way courts try to determine criminal responsibility by examining the offender’s background. “If Johnny comes from a good home, should he have known better? Is he more likely to be culpable than Jimmy, who comes from a broken home? … And where do you find a jury of their peers? The local high school?”

The manager of policy with Victoria’s office of public prosecutions, Bruce Gardner, says the age of qualification for jury duty has always been higher than the age of qualification for being an accused. He says the office assesses each juvenile case on its merits, and some do not proceed because it is assumed that doli incapax would apply.

A case would go to the Supreme Court only if it were thought appropriate because of the seriousness of the offence and the capacity of the child. “If it’s a serious case, they might get a technically more detailed and correct hearing in the Supreme Court than the Children’s Court. It might be more likely that they would be acquitted.”

Individual stages of intellectual and emotional development are not the only complex issues. Children now reach puberty earlier than in previous generations; they are taller and heavier as well as sexually developed at a younger age.

The barrister and psychologist Professor Don Thomson, of Charles Sturt University in NSW, says: “This issue looms large where you’ve got sex offences by 13-year-olds; because they’re sexually mature, when they commit rape or other sexual molestation, should you therefore invoke adult law?”

In Perth, 14-year-olds were among a group of six youths who recently appeared before the Children’s Court charged with pack rape.

Thomson says the trend is to treat juveniles more harshly and that this reflects a more punitive society. His research into views on sentencing has found that, while everyone surveyed said rehabilitation should be the main aim of the justice system, when asked to judge imaginary scenarios they wanted punishment to be severe.

“What people say and what they do are different,” Thomson says. “People focus on the consequences of the offence. They are not interested in mitigating factors, in looking at intent or whether a person shows remorse.

“This was reflected in the Lawrence Government in WA trying to introduce the most draconian laws in the British Commonwealth: curfews and making the penalties for juveniles more severe than for adults. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, it’s reflected with three strikes and you’re in (jail), no matter what. And it’s reflected by the push for truth in sentencing.”

Thomson says research suggests that children must be at least 12 to have a proper understanding of consequences, but he believes many 14-year-olds have not developed this capacity. “That’s part of the reason why the age of adulthood is 18. We don’t allow children to enter into contracts because they don’t have a full appreciation of the consequences; we don’t allow them to marry, because they don’t appreciate the implications of that either.”

They also take a long time to develop control of their irrational impulses. “You can take children down to a road-safety place and they do all the road rules right. You send them off on their bicycles in the street and they violate everything they know. It’s the inability to integrate what they’ve learnt and apply it in a live system.”

The lawyer for the young rock-thrower appealed to that principle. He told the jury that “reasonable” teenagers – the imaginary yardstick by which the accused boy was to be judged – were capable of recklessness quite incomprehensible to adults; that “constantly you hear 13 and 14-year-olds who are quite reasonable asked this question by their parents: `How could you be so stupid?”‘ The rock-thrower and his friend (who had shared the activity with him but not the fatal throw) were acquitted.

But ambivalence remains about the appropriate response to children whose actions have monstrous consequences for others. In the Corey Davis case, the original magistrate thought charges should not be pursued, the public prosecutor thought they should, and the jury last week concluded that they could not convict the boy.

Internationally, there is neither consensus nor consistency. In Britain, James Bulger’s killers faced waves of punitive rage over their horrific crime. Their initial sentence was increased from eight years to 10. Then the Home Secretary intervened and tried to make it 15 (the House of Lords overruled him).

The boys were recently deemed by the European Commission of Human Rights to have been unfairly treated during their original trial. In a major turnaround, there are now calls to free them, the most notable coming from Britain’s chief inspector of prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Michigan boy last month became the youngest American to be convicted of an adult charge of murder. Nathaniel Abraham now faces the possibility of life in jail. When he shot his victim, he was 11. He, too, has below-average intelligence but the jury decided he knew the gun was dangerous.

The mother of the slain man had no doubt about the verdict. “Justice has been served,” she said. But Nathaniel’s lawyer had no doubt about the verdict either. “He doesn’t understand it,” he said. “He literally never has.”

First published in The Age.