Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - By LANA NOWAKOWSKI

How Bruce and Denise Mor­combe chan­nelled their grief over their young son’s mur­der into help­ing Aussie kids stay safe.

It’s been a long jour­ney through hell and back for Bruce and Denise Mor­combe.

Their 13-year-old son Daniel dis­ap­peared from a bus stop on the Sun­shine Coast on De­cem­ber 7, 2003. For years, mil­lions of Aus­tralians held their breath and held out hope. “Daniel be­came Aus­tralia’s son,” says Denise. “There were so many good peo­ple out there. They didn’t know us or Daniel, but they wanted to help and they wanted an an­swer as much as we did.”

In Jan­uary 2005, Bruce, Denise and Daniel’s two broth­ers had just en­dured their sec­ond Christ­mas without Daniel. De­spite an ex­ten­sive po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, there were still no firm leads. Driv­ing past the bus stop where Daniel was last seen, Denise said to Bruce, “Let’s make sure this never hap­pens to an­other child or fam­ily.”

“It would’ve been eas­ier to sit in a chair in a dark place and do noth­ing, but that’s not us,” says Bruce. “Yes­ter­day is locked in, but to­mor­row is open and you want it to be bet­ter than yes­ter­day.”

They launched an an­nual aware­ness day and a safety-ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, work­ing 18-hour days to help vic­tims of crime and the fam­i­lies of miss­ing chil­dren. They had lost a loved one and found a call­ing. Daniel’s legacy would be the Daniel Mor­combe Foun­da­tion, a charity to pro­tect other chil­dren.

IN APRIL 2011, po­lice launched one of the most com­plex and elab­o­rate sting op­er­a­tions ever con­ducted in Aus­tralia.

Brett Cowan – a vi­o­lent, op­por­tunis­tic and twice-con­victed sex of­fender against chil­dren – had just fin­ished giv­ing ev­i­dence at a coro­nial in­quest. The coro­ner had de­scribed it as “al­most beyond doubt” that Daniel was stand­ing on the side of the road when Cowan drove past the bus stop on the day he dis­ap­peared. Cowan claimed he did not see Daniel and had noth­ing to do with the dis­ap­pear­ance.

An un­der­cover of­fi­cer be­friended Cowan and in­tro­duced him to what ap­peared to be a highly or­gan­ised crim­i­nal gang with jobs, money and mate­ship on of­fer to those who showed loy­alty, re­spect and hon­esty. In Au­gust 2011, the “big boss” called on Cowan to come clean about his past.

Cowan con­fessed to hav­ing ab­ducted and killed Daniel, and took un­der­cover of­fi­cers to the site where Daniel’s re­mains and cloth­ing would later be

re­trieved by po­lice. Yet de­spite this break­through, foren­sic and le­gal re­quire­ments stood in the way of Daniel be­ing laid to rest for more than a year.

At the time of the funeral in De­cem­ber 2012, Daniel’s story had hung heav­ily in the na­tional con­scious­ness for nine years. The fam­ily al­lowed the event to be broad­cast live around Aus­tralia. “We felt we owed it to the pub­lic for its sup­port over the years,” says Bruce. “The funeral was a huge step for­ward, and not just for the fam­ily. We, along with many oth­ers, felt a lot bet­ter than we did the day be­fore.”

In March 2014, Cowan was con­victed of Daniel’s mur­der and sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment with a min­i­mum term of 20 years. “We will never for­give Cowan,” af­firms Bruce. “We as a fam­ily turned our backs on him the day he was con­victed, as an il­lus­tra­tion that he was for­got­ten and we never wanted to see him again.”

Cowan’s Supreme Court ap­peal was dis­missed in May 2015. He then ap­plied to ap­peal to the coun­try’s high­est court. At 9.30am on March 11 this year, the hear­ing be­gan be­fore three High Court judges sit­ting in Bris­bane. At 10.25am the court ad­journed – and just 12 min­utes later, the ap­pli­ca­tion was re­fused. Cowan had fi­nally run out of av­enues to ap­peal. The worst part of the Mor­combes’ jour­ney was now be­hind them.

Still, there was no clo­sure. The Mor­combes don’t use that word. “The English lan­guage hasn’t got the right word,” says Bruce. “We didn’t have any an­swers for eight years. Now we know he isn’t com­ing home and it’s very fi­nal. There’s still a void.”

How­ever, Bruce and Denise say they have fi­nally ar­rived at a pretty good place. Agony has soft­ened to sor­row, and the ad­vo­cacy is in full swing.

OVER THE PAST five years, Bruce and Denise have worked tire­lessly to present their child-safety talk to more than 250,000 school­child­ren around Aus­tralia. That’s one child in ev­ery 15. For those who they haven’t reached in per­son yet, there is the Daniel Mor­combe Child Safety Cur­ricu­lum, de­vel­oped by a work­ing group in­clud­ing the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing, the Queens­land Po­lice Ser­vice and the Daniel Mor­combe Foun­da­tion, with three key words: recog­nise, re­act and re­port.

One year, Bruce and Denise spoke to chil­dren at 120 schools, be­fore driv­ing 20,000 kilo­me­tres around Aus­tralia pro­mot­ing the foun­da­tion’s an­nual aware­ness event, Day for Daniel. At times, they’ve chalked up 15 school pre­sen­ta­tions a week. “We’d each have three suit­cases on the floor,” says Denise. “One we’d just dropped, one from the week be­fore and one ready for the week after. One night, Bruce didn’t know where the bath­room was. You’d for­get where you were.”

Bruce says that other than an oc­ca­sional hol­i­day, they will con­tinue their work. “We’re mak­ing a dif­fer­ence,” he tells Stel­lar. “It’s a magic place to be in, where we know that a po­lice of­fi­cer, a teacher, a school prin­ci­pal or par­ent can say ex­actly the same mes­sage, but we come with a real story about Daniel the schoolkid. The eyes and ears are truly fo­cused on what we’re say­ing.”

The day be­fore Day for Daniel each year, Bruce and Denise present their safety talk to the stu­dents at Moun­tain Creek State School, Daniel’s for­mer school. “It’s al­ways an emo­tional jour­ney to go back to the school we’re very fa­mil­iar with and see the kids in the school uni­form that Daniel wore all those years ago,” says Bruce.

When their alarm goes off at 4am on Fri­day, Oc­to­ber 28, Bruce and Denise will rise for the big­gest and best Day for Daniel yet. It’s their favourite day in the cal­en­dar. “It’s the one we wait for all year,” says Denise. “There’s so much adren­a­line that you don’t get tired.”

Last year, more than a mil­lion peo­ple across Aus­tralia par­tic­i­pated in the Day for Daniel, and this year the

“We’re walk­ing Daniel home. It’s a jour­ney he was un­able to fin­ish him­self ”

num­ber is ex­pected to be even higher. “Over the 12 years, it has con­tin­u­ally grown,” says Bruce. “I don’t think its im­por­tance is lost on any­body.”

This year, as they have done ev­ery year since 2005, Bruce and Denise will join their lo­cal com­mu­nity for the Walk for Daniel, start­ing near the ab­duc­tion site and fin­ish­ing at Palm­woods near the for­mer fam­ily home. “We feel that we’re walk­ing Daniel home,” says Bruce. “It’s a jour­ney he was un­able to com­plete him­self.”

This will be the first time they can walk Daniel home in the knowl­edge that jus­tice has been firmly se­cured for him. And this year, they won’t just be walk­ing as Daniel’s mum and dad, but as new grand­par­ents. Anna, the wife of Daniel’s twin brother, Bradley, gave birth to Win­ston Daniel Ge­orge Mor­combe in July.

“We’re the same as any other grand­par­ents. It’s a happy time,” says Bruce. “Win­ston is just beau­ti­ful,” adds Denise. “He’s per­fect. We’re very lucky and so happy. We needed some­thing nice to look for­ward to and we’ve got that. Now we need a few more,” she says with a laugh.

They’re conscious that Win­ston is only a few years away from play­ing with ipads. “We now have the next gen­er­a­tion to ed­u­cate about phys­i­cal and on­line safety,” says Bruce. “We know the work we do will im­pact his life – it’s be­come even more per­sonal.”

One day, Win­ston will ask about Daniel. “We’re only his grand­par­ents,” says Bruce. “At the ap­pro­pri­ate time, it’ll be up to Bradley and Anna to talk about the un­cle Win­ston will never know.”

Bruce and Denise have a cup­board of scrap­books con­tain­ing ev­ery news­pa­per ar­ti­cle they’ve read about Daniel. If Win­ston wants to see them, they will let him, says Bruce. “We don’t have any se­crets.”

DEAL­ING WITH DIF­FI­CULT top­ics has be­come the norm for Bruce and Denise. They spend time and money sup­port­ing vic­tims of crime and fam­i­lies in dis­tress, par­tic­u­larly when a child is in­volved.

The foun­da­tion pays a vast range of ex­penses for young vic­tims of crime: coun­selling, med­i­cal ex­penses, school fees and com­put­ers. There’s also the un­con­ven­tional. “We gave a mo­tor­bike to a boy who had been abused,” says Denise. With the foun­da­tion’s bless­ing, he later sold the bike to pay for fly­ing lessons. “Now he’s a pi­lot.” Then there’s the un­think­able.

“Per­haps a child has been abused on the fam­ily couch,” says Bruce. “While that child may be re­ceiv­ing coun­selling and get­ting into a bet­ter place men­tally, fi­nances don’t al­low the couch to be re­moved. It’s a stum­bling block where the mind is get­ting stronger but the child doesn’t want to sit on the couch.”

Some­times it’s a full bed­room over­haul. “That re­quires paint­ing and py­ja­mas and a chest of draw­ers and all the fur­nish­ings to make the room fresh,” ex­plains Bruce.

When sup­port­ing the fam­i­lies of miss­ing peo­ple, Bruce and Denise urge them not to give up. “We know what it feels like when you don’t have your child,” says Denise. “We tell them to keep search­ing. I used to be the most im­pa­tient per­son, but now if you must wait for some­thing for a cou­ple of years, that’s what you do.”

Make your loved one proud, they tell fam­i­lies who have re­ceived the worst news. “You can never change what’s hap­pened,” says Bruce. “You have to ac­cept the space you’re in, but you do have the op­por­tu­nity to take a step for­ward.”

Griev­ing par­ents often iden­tify them­selves. “Peo­ple couldn’t ap­pre­ci­ate how many times a con­ver­sa­tion goes, ‘Keep up the good work,’ and then some­one says, ‘I lost a child,’” says Bruce. “Life’s jour­ney is not easy for an in­cred­i­ble num­ber of peo­ple.”

There are re­minders of Daniel al­most ev­ery­where his par­ents look. “The foun­da­tion’s logo in­cor­po­rates his im­age and there are pic­tures of him in pretty much ev­ery room of the house, so we’re never far from the face that never grows old,” says Bruce.

“I walk into the of­fice and see all the things go­ing on, and I think the rea­son we’re here is be­cause our son isn’t,” says Denise. “No mat­ter what hap­pens with the foun­da­tion, how many schools we go to or how many grand­kids we have, we’re never go­ing to have Daniel.”

“A sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple, I’m talk­ing in the mil­lions, back us up,” says Bruce. “It helps us cope. The pub­lic con­tin­ues to say to us, ‘Don’t give up, you’re on the right track, we need you to keep go­ing.’ They throw that chal­lenge at us, and we lis­ten.” This year’s Day for Daniel is Fri­day, Oc­to­ber 28; visit day­for­

FIGHT­ING ON Bruce and Denise Mor­combe have be­come tire­less child-safety cam­paign­ers since los­ing son Daniel (inset).

MOV­ING TRIB­UTE The an­nual Walk for Daniel event at­tracted more than a mil­lion peo­ple across Aus­tralia last year.

PRE­CIOUS MO­MENTS (from top) Dance for Daniel in Bris­bane this year; twin broth­ers Bradley and Daniel on their 10th birth­day; new grand­son Win­ston.

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