DOING IT FOR DANIEL
HOW BRUCE AND DENISE MORCOMBE NOT ONLY ENDURED EVERY PARENT’S WORST NIGHTMARE, BUT THEN TURNED THEIR AGONY INTO ADVOCACY
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 dayfordaniel.com.au.