Real life: “I was 11 when Dad ab­ducted me”

Aus­tralia has one of the high­est per capita child ab­duc­tion rates in the world. As many as 15 chil­dren are snatched by one or other of their par­ents each week, but as cam­paigner Amanda Sil­lars tells Bev­er­ley Had­graft, few con­sider the emo­tional and psy­cho

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

AMANDA SIL­LARS WAS 11 and watch­ing early morn­ing cartoons when there was a knock at the door. As she un­did the se­cu­rity latch, it burst open, big hands grabbed her hard and Amanda was thrown into the back of a car. “Go! Go! Go!” a voice yelled.

It was Amanda’s fa­ther, rip­ping her away from her mother and a lov­ing fam­ily and com­mu­nity in Perth to abduct her and van­ish over­seas.

Her mum, still asleep in bed, had barely rubbed the sleep from her eyes and be­gun to won­der what the com­mo­tion was about be­fore her lit­tle girl was gone, speed­ing across the city to an un­known des­ti­na­tion and fu­ture, still dressed in py­ja­mas.

It would take seven emo­tion­ally scar­ring years be­fore mother and daughter were even­tu­ally re­united.

To­day, Amanda, 43, is a ma­ture woman with a life and chil­dren of her own. She lives on four hectares just out­side Bris­bane. Her gar­dens are filled with fruit trees, horses graze in the pad­docks, a black­board on the wall bears one word: Love.

That word rep­re­sents so much in Amanda Sil­lars’ life – it’s the pil­lar that most of us found our lives upon, the rock that gives us com­fort in times of trou­ble and con­fi­dence in de­spair.

Equally, for Amanda, that sin­gle word also rep­re­sents all that hap­pens when parental love, what­ever its form, sud­denly van­ishes from a young life.

“It was on the house when I moved in and I’ve kept it there be­cause it en­cap­su­lates why I’m here,” she says. “We all need love and we all need love from the peo­ple who love us. That love shapes who we are and who we be­come as hu­man be­ings. That’s what hap­pens be­tween par­ents and chil­dren. But it also rep­re­sents what goes miss­ing in a child’s life when that love dis­ap­pears for what­ever rea­son.”

The con­se­quences for chil­dren caught in the mid­dle of often bit­ter, but all too com­mon, cus­tody bat­tles can be dire in­deed. The emo­tional im­pact of sep­a­ra­tion from one par­ent or the other – usu­ally after months or even years of ac­ri­mo­nious dis­pute be­tween par­ties – can be deep and long-last­ing, es­pe­cially if one par­ent, in des­per­a­tion or an act of re­venge, abducts the child.

One only has to look as far as the Sally Faulkner story that went so dis­as­trously wrong for the Nine Net­work’s 60 Min­utes team in re­cent months to see how chil­dren often be­come the silent vic­tims.

Yet those chil­dren are far from alone. Each week in Aus­tralia, two

chil­dren are ab­ducted and taken over­seas by one of their par­ents. That statis­tic is fright­en­ing enough, but in­side Aus­tralia’s bor­ders, the rates of parental ab­duc­tion are at epi­demic pro­por­tions, with an ad­di­tional 650 ab­duc­tions per year. In to­tal, 15 chil­dren are ab­ducted each week. “Ab­duc­tion isn’t a cus­tody is­sue,” says Amanda Sil­lars. “It’s psy­cho­log­i­cal child abuse.”

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AMANDA’S HOME IS idyl­lic, a far cry from the hor­rors of her child­hood that saw her ma­nip­u­lated by her dad, cut off from her mum and left to bat­tle de­pres­sion, ob­ses­sive be­hav­iours, eat­ing disor­ders and an in­abil­ity to form re­la­tion­ships. Other chil­dren like her, she says, have numbed their an­guish with drink, drugs and most tragic of all, sui­cide.

To­day, Amanda runs a sup­port group pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion about the heart­break that is parental ab­duc­tion and its psy­cho­log­i­cal sis­ter, parental alien­ation.

Ab­duc­tion, says Amanda, is the most ex­treme form of alien­ation, but it can also ex­tend to chil­dren who come to be­lieve a par­ent is too dan­ger­ous or in­ept to take care of them – chil­dren who may even live in the same town as their par­ent yet refuse to have any­thing to do with them.

Amanda’s own night­mare be­gan about a year after her par­ents’ di­vorce. She was close to her mum, Nola, and the pair loved jok­ing around, draw­ing or mak­ing things to­gether. Nola had never said a bad word about her ex-hus­band, Ian, so Amanda was bewil­dered when he snatched her away.

“He took me straight to a shop­ping cen­tre,” she re­calls. “He bought me new clothes – a pink jumper and a cream sparkly shirt – so I went from feel­ing scared to feel­ing spoiled.”

They ini­tially flew to Syd­ney and Amanda asked if her mum was okay and if she could see or speak to her. “I could see that didn’t please Dad. He kept re­peat­ing very neg­a­tive things about Mum and be­cause chil­dren trust their par­ents, I be­lieved him.”

Be­fore long, she was telling oth­ers what her fa­ther had told her, “Mum didn’t look after me. She was a bad per­son.” In­side, though, she was hurt­ing so badly she’d slice her lit­tle legs with the edge of a metal ruler un­til they bled.

Seven months later, whisked off to live in Amer­ica, it be­came ob­vi­ous it wasn’t parental love that had driven her dad to take Amanda away. He’d dis­ap­pear for en­tire week­ends leav­ing her alone with her brother, Mark (who’d been lured to his dad’s a year ear­lier).

If she asked if they could go home to see Mum for Christ­mas, she was

“Ab­duc­tion isn’t a cus­tody is­sue. It’s psy­cho­log­i­cal child abuse.”

told she had a new life and boyfriend now. If she asked to put up a photo of her mum, her dad crossly pointed out they had their own fam­ily pho­tos. If she said she missed other fam­ily mem­bers, he would be­come ex­as­per­ated and make her feel un­grate­ful. “Look where we live!” he would say. “This is Cal­i­for­nia!”

“When I heard noth­ing from Mum, it con­firmed again what Dad told me. She wasn’t a good mum,” Amanda says. “I didn’t re­alise she was hir­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors to find us.”

Her eyes well-up as she re­counts the one all-too-short mo­ment, aged 13, that she did hear Nola’s voice. She can even still re­call the phone num­ber she an­nounced as she picked up the re­ceiver: “Hello, 9-0-2 triple 9.”

“Hello? Is that Mandy?” her mum asked. “I couldn’t speak,” Amanda says. “I heard her cry­ing and didn’t know how to deal with it, so I put the phone down.”

For the next five years, Amanda went into sur­vival mode, study­ing and ex­er­cis­ing ob­ses­sively. “I felt I’d lost my­self. It was hard for me to even think for my­self, Dad was so full-on. I felt I had no iden­tity at all.”

She shakes her head. “I still don’t know if he thought he was the bet­ter par­ent or whether he sim­ply wanted to de­stroy Mum, but par­ents who take chil­dren away [with­out rea­son] have se­ri­ous men­tal health is­sues. They don’t think about the im­pact they’re hav­ing on those chil­dren at all.”

Amanda was 18 when her dad an­nounced they were re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia. Ex­cited, she di­alled her mum’s phone num­ber and they ar­ranged to meet.

On tele­vi­sion, such re­unions are the stuff of tears and ten­der em­braces. Real life is less sim­ple. “It felt very awk­ward,” Amanda says.

She had been a lit­tle girl, barely reach­ing her mother’s shoul­der the last time they’d been to­gether.

Now her mum was the lit­tle one.

She seemed to have shrunk and her dry hair and flushed com­plex­ion sug­gested she had been drown­ing a lot of sor­rows in al­co­hol.

“We went to a café. I didn’t know what to say, so I bom­barded her with ques­tions: I asked her why she never came to visit me, why she never con­tacted me. I told her I re­ally needed her. She just sat there very quiet. I didn’t know what she’d been through. All she said was, ‘You’re just like your fa­ther.’”

After about 30 min­utes, Nola ex­plained she had to be at a court ap­point­ment. As she hugged her daughter good­bye, she snapped off a rose and handed it to her. “It was such a huge mo­ment,” Amanda cries. “All the way home, I thought how much I wanted our old bond and af­fec­tion back.”

Amanda tried to ring her mum the next day to or­gan­ise an­other meet­ing. There was no re­ply. Three weeks later, the num­ber was dis­con­nected. “I felt she didn’t want me. I had come back and all I did was bom­bard her with ac­cusatory ques­tions,” Amanda says.

Then about a year later, in Septem­ber 1993, she got a phone call. Nola had com­mit­ted sui­cide. It was the day after her 47th birth­day. She hadn’t just lost her chil­dren, Amanda dis­cov­ered, her hus­band had left her and was be­ing chased by cred­i­tors, so she’d lost her rep­u­ta­tion and busi­ness as well.

Amanda had one try at dis­cussing what hap­pened with her dad. “He just said, ‘Oh, well. I’d bet­ter be go­ing now.’ He had no em­pa­thy at all.”

Three months later, he also died. Amanda ad­mits that she al­most felt re­lieved.

Iron­i­cally, Amanda has en­dured parental alien­ation with her own chil­dren – an in­ter-gen­er­a­tional trait she says is sur­pris­ingly com­mon. “Peo­ple often choose a part­ner sim­i­lar to their role model and Dad was my role model,” she says.

She and her part­ner were to­gether for six years and had a son and daughter. After split­ting up, they ini­tially co­par­ented un­til, Amanda, too, found her­self iso­lated from her own chil­dren.

That has now been par­tially re­solved and, after nearly four years with barely any con­tact, she has been re­united with her son Delsin, 16, but in the in­ter­ven­ing years, shocked, bewil­dered and grief-stricken at be­ing re­jected by the two lit­tle peo­ple she loved most in the world, she con­sulted experts and psy­chol­o­gists and learned

about parental alien­ation. It hap­pens, she ex­plains, when one par­ent in­flu­ences a child to turn against and re­ject the other with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

As a re­sult, to help im­prove aware­ness and pro­fes­sional un­der­stand­ing, two years ago, Amanda set up the Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foun­da­tion. The group also aids re­search and pro­motes Fam­ily Court al­ter­na­tives. Mean­while, her Aus­tralian sup­port group has more than 600 mem­bers.

For those in lov­ing fam­i­lies, it can be hard to un­der­stand how a wedge can be driven be­tween a child and their lov­ing par­ent, so Amanda in­tro­duced us to Jai (not his real name), a teenage boy in her group. Jai was 11 when his par­ents split up. Ini­tially, he went hap­pily be­tween the two, but says his dad was con­stantly ask­ing him, “Has Mum done any­thing to you?”

“I kept say­ing no, but he kept ask­ing, so to stop the ques­tions, I said Mum had smacked me,” says Jai. It was a lie, he ad­mits, but he could see it was the an­swer his dad wanted.

After that, it was easy to come up with more lies to si­lence the con­stant in­ter­ro­ga­tion. “None of it was true.

I’d never been choked or smacked or abused by Mum. I knew I was ly­ing and yet it didn’t feel like I was be­cause there was al­ways this pleased air ev­ery time I said some­thing bad.”

Even­tu­ally, he stopped see­ing his mum com­pletely be­cause it caused so much stress and made his dad so un­happy. When she asked him why, he said only, “You know. Don’t ask me that ques­tion.”

Jai learned to put away the good mem­o­ries he’d shared with his mum and stop talk­ing about her. How­ever, he missed her ter­ri­bly and felt bad at not see­ing her. So, at 14, he tried to lose him­self in ob­ses­sive sport, drink, drugs and even fight­ing. “I think

I was lash­ing out at life,” he says.

It was a ca­sual “What’s the go with your mum?” ques­tion from a school­friend that changed ev­ery­thing. As Jai con­fessed to his lies, his friend urged him to get back in touch. Re­count­ing that re­union now, a broad grin spreads across Jai’s face.

“It was so easy!” he ex­claims. “I think I’d been on edge for a very long time and sud­denly there was this mas­sive stress re­lief.”

To­day, Jai lives with his mum, is re­ceiv­ing ther­apy to help him deal with what has hap­pened and still sees his dad. Like most kids, he loves them both, but ad­mits, “I would like an eas­ier re­la­tion­ship with Dad. Those days when he just talks about nor­mal things like help­ing me with a school project, they’re re­ally good.”

Dr Mandy Matthew­son is a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia work­ing with the vic­tims of parental alien­ation.

“It’s dev­as­tat­ing,” she con­firms. “Par­ents have lost their child, but the child is still alive and, in many in­stances, in an abu­sive sit­u­a­tion.” The traits those par­ents suf­fer are sim­i­lar to those seen in post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) vic­tims.

As for the chil­dren, Dr Matthew­son con­cludes that, ba­si­cally, they’ve been so ma­nip­u­lated, “it’s as if they’ve had the life sucked out of them.”

Frus­trat­ingly, de­spite the fact it is such a big is­sue – Amer­i­can expert Dr Jen­nifer Har­man has es­ti­mated it af­fects 13 per cent of the US pop­u­la­tion – parental alien­ation is dif­fi­cult to deal with. The le­gal sys­tem is perplexed by it, says Dr Matthew­son. Health pro­fes­sion­als have dif­fi­culty recog­nis­ing it and if ef­forts are made to address it, with the fam­ily or­dered to at­tend coun­selling, the court often doesn’t re­in­force those or­ders.

In ad­di­tion, the safety of the child is para­mount, so al­le­ga­tions of abuse must be taken se­ri­ously and in­ves­ti­gated.

Amanda shows me pho­to­graphs of some of the peo­ple in her sup­port group. Some count the length of sep­a­ra­tion from their chil­dren in years, some count ev­ery mis­er­able day. “I call them the erased mums and dads,” she says, sadly.

“Chil­dren should never be put in a po­si­tion where they have to choose only one par­ent – and I’m ded­i­cat­ing my life to hav­ing their sit­u­a­tion prop­erly un­der­stood.”

“Chil­dren should never be put in a sit­u­a­tion where they have to choose only one par­ent.”

Amanda with one of her horses on her Queens­land prop­erty. She runs a sup­port group for ab­ductees.

Amanda’s fa­ther, Ian (above, left), re­fused to let her have a photo of her mum, Nola (above, right), in their home. Right: Amanda with her own chil­dren. Iron­i­cally, his­tory re­peated and she was iso­lated from them.

Amanda and Delsin (in­set) are now hap­pily re­united.

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