We Were Family
The Sun Herald/2004-05-09
By Peter Wilmoth
They were once the children of the Children of God. 12 years on, they revisit the day they were torn from their parents and how it affected their lives.
In a city cafe, eight people in their 20s have gathered for a rare reunion. It could be any happy lunch group except these friends will forever share a dark history: they are the children of the Children of God sect, ripped from their parents in the early hours of Friday, May 15, 1992.
Back then we saw them on the television news or in newspaper photographs as young children being hustled into vans or cuddling teddy bears or surrounded by microphones outside court. Twelve years after their lives changed, they have gathered as adults to thank the lawyers who fought for them all those years ago, and to keep track of each other.
Three of the children taken from their parents have decided to tell their stories about the effect that infamous morning had on their lives. "I was bitter for a while, but I believe bitterness hurts you more than it saves anything," says Danielle Cannane, who was 13 that day and is now a 25-year-old personal assistant. "It's not worth getting resentful."
Michelle, then a 13-year-old close friend of Danielle, is now 24 and a "Christian volunteer" in southern India. "I believe what the Bible says that you should love your enemies and that you should do good to those who have falsely accused you," she says.
"Our parents had to keep telling us that."
Michelle's brother, Sam Jinadasa, was then an energetic 11-year-old playing James Bond games around the group's country property. He is now a 23-year-old missionary and father of an 18-month-old girl. "It's made me more compassionate towards other people who've gone through traumatic things," he says. "I have a real fighting spirit and it made that stronger."
Before the NSW and Victoria raids, the Children of God, or The Family as it was called, was known as a secretive group, which lived communally and was believed, among other suggestions of inappropriate behaviour, to encourage sexual activity between children in its care. In NSW, the group lived away from the public gaze in three properties in Sydney's north-west and surfaced in the media only as a shadowy cult.
But the raid ensured it came out of the shadow. Believed to be at risk, 128 children between the ages of two and 16 from six communities in NSW and Victoria were taken into protective custody. In NSW, seven children spent three days in foster care before being released back to their parents, but another 65 spent a week in state custody before a court found no evidence of sexual or physical abuse and ordered them be returned to their parents.
The raid was a national story and its aftermath a two-year legal wrangle that, ultimately, brought about no charges against The Family meant the children were famous. "People would ask them, `Are you the abused kids?'" says Family spokesman Paul Hartingdon.
It was the beginning of a life of explaining the reality behind the headlines. On the surface, they've coped. In Victoria, 53 out of the 88 children have returned to a quiet life in The Family. The rest have left, some burned by the raid. Many of the children taken away that day are now adults, with an ability to cast a cold eye on the past. There are still feelings of anger, but there is also forgiveness.
"It was like the best of boarding school but with your parents," Sam Jinadasa says of growing up as a member of The Family. "And then they have the audacity to say that you're emotionally isolated. Not that we even knew what that meant."
As part of co-ordinated raids across Victoria and NSW, police and Department of Community Services joined forces.
"I heard my dad answering the door and that was pretty freaky because I heard fear and uncertainty in his voice," says Michelle.
"We were in the attic and out the window we could see people and cars and I was saying to Danielle, `What's happening?' And then there were people everywhere. Someone had a video camera and I was in my nightie in bed. I remember the video camera being in my face and that was really scary. I had to get dressed in front of men. We didn't know who they were."
At the Glenlyon house, near Daylesford in Victoria, and over the next three days in the foster homes and at holding rooms at the Children's Court, the children at Glenlyon were strip searched and inspected for evidence of sexual abuse, a process that took about 20 minutes. "It felt like we were animals," says Sam, who refused to submit to the inspection.
Michelle demanded to be there when the smaller children were stripped and questioned. "I told them `I'm not going to let you take my little sister in there and take off all her clothes without having someone she loves and trusts in the room.' It was really cruel. It was `She's got a scrape on her knee, how did she get that? Are you lying to me? Look me in the eye!' "
"They tried to put words in little kids' mouths, five, six years old. `Your parents did that to you, didn't they?' We could hear all this going on around us and it was a nightmare."
The children, separated from their parents, were moved into several vans waiting outside. They were told they were going on either a picnic or to the circus. "Then," Michelle says, "they turned to my dad and asked, `Are there any foods these children are allergic to?' And I was thinking, `Why would they need to know that?' Dad was saying, `Honey, don't worry about it, just trust them. Take care of the kids and whatever you do, pray. God's going to take care of us.' My little sister was barely two. I didn't feel at all ready for that kind of responsibility.
"There were news cameras everywhere and people taking photos. They brought a baby out in a nappy and a little T-shirt and this baby was screaming. I said, `You are not taking her, send her back to her mum and dad.' So the baby stayed."
"It seemed very strange, very bizarre that there were people all over our house," Danielle says. "I'm a very trusting person. I've never had anything bad happen to me. I've always been taken care of, my parents have always loved me. Up to that point in my life I always had a real peace with people. I was always told police would take care of us."
The children were taken to various foster homes. Each was a temporary home to one family. Like the other children in their early teens, Danielle acted as a mother figure to her younger brothers and sisters.
"Every night the children would cry," she recalls. "The foster parents would try and help but I just said, `They don't know you, just leave them alone'."
Michelle says: "Over the weekend [at the foster homes] we'd been strip searched, interrogated. By Monday we were a bunch of very traumatised, confused children."
On the Monday the children returned to court for further argument about whether or not they should be released.
"We were all starving hungry and there was no food," Sam says. "From A-Z, everything they did was a travesty to what we knew and what we'd learned. We were brought up to be fairly conscious of what we ate, we didn't watch a lot of television. They basically forced us to watch television because there was nothing else to do."
For a few days during the court case when legal funding dried up, Danielle even became the representative of six children in court in Victoria. "We had no lawyers," she says. "We didn't know what we were doing, we were demanding lawyers.
"That day, the prosecution handed over a white book, which was their whole case. They published all of our in-house writings [religious devotionals and the writings of the sect's American founder David Berg] and said, `Here's the evidence'. We didn't even know what it was."
The children spent six nights away from their parents. Michelle remembers the use of mind-bending tactics during the morning of the raid and later at the holding rooms at the Children's Court. "It was this good cop/bad cop thing," she says. "We had people coming in saying, `I'm your parent's friend, you can trust me'. These kind of tactics, over and over again. Then in the end there was nothing there and it was, `OK, fine, take the kids back, but we're going to come round for the next two years'."
No evidence of physical or sexual abuse was found, and the court ruled that the children be released back to their parents. On that day, the children were gathered in a room at the Supreme Court. At the end of a corridor they saw their parents. "There was a big hugging session," Sam remembers.
After the raids, the children remember being treated with suspicion for years. "One Christmas we organised to sing at the Children's Hospital," Danielle says. "All the sick kids were brought into the room and we were lined up. We did whole floor shows, dancing, singing, Mariah Carey-type stuff. And then one of the heads of the hospital came down and said: `We just found out that you're The Family. You children can't sing here.' They took us out through the emergency exits because they didn't want us to have any contact with the children in the hospital, as if we were going to infect them."
Danielle was forced to grow up quickly. She spent much of her youth in a mothering role while her parents were fighting their long battle in court. As she tells her story, her calm was broken twice by tears.
"I completely missed out on my teenage life, and that's probably the main thing that I'm sad about," she says. "I didn't get to enjoy those years. I had to study at the same time as taking care of my brothers and sisters. I look back on those years as being very difficult. It completely changed my outlook on life. It made me a bit harder, I don't trust people as easily."
Michelle recalls the effect on the smaller children in the years after the raids. "My brothers and sisters started wetting their beds," she says. "When cars would come up the driveway, kids would run."
As an adult, she decided to stay with The Family because the desire to help others was so strong. She works with disadvantaged children in Indian orphanages. "I want to be someone who changes the world for people. That's the life we fought to live and I'm living it now."
Michelle and Sam's mother, who taught her eight children at home, died of cancer in 1995 aged 39. "The last four years of her life was embroiled in that court case," Michelle says.
"She was fighting to keep her kids and fighting to stay alive."
Sam lives and works in India and Australia as a Christian volunteer and has seen life outside The Family. In his late teens he travelled to Sydney and worked as a labourer, in landscaping and in restaurants.
"I've done a lot of other things and nothing is as fulfilling as helping other people," he says.
Does he forgive those who changed his life?
"I'd like to believe that I'd say, `I forgive you' [but] I don't think I would."
Family History: From Disgrace To Redemption
Current position: Personal assistant.
- Danielle was a 13-year-old living at The Family's property in Glenlyon near Daylesford in Victoria when the raids happened. "I was bitter for a while, but I believe bitterness hurts you more than it saves anything. It's not worth getting resentful."
Current position: Christian volunteer in southern India.
- Michelle is Sam's brother and was a close friend of Danielle on Glenlyon property. She was 13 when police raided the community. "I remember hearing the police telling the adults, `We're going to apprehend the children'. And all the mums started crying."
Current position: Missionary in India and Australia.
- Sam was 11 years old at the time of the raids on the Glenlyon community. He now has an 18-month-old daughter. "It [the raids] made me more compassionate towards other people. I have a real fighting spirit and it made that stronger."
- 1968: Children of God formed in California by Moses David.
- 1972: First Children of God group formed in Australia.
- May 15, 1992: Police and welfare officers raided homes in Sydney's north-west and in Victoria and 128 children between the ages of two and 16 were taken into protective custody. The State alleged the children had been, or were at risk of being, sexually and physically abused.
- May 18, 1992: Sydney magistrate Ian Forsythe ordered 65 of the 72 children to remain in the custody of the Department of Community Services. The other children were returned to their families.
- May 23, 1992: Remaining NSW children reunited with their parents, conditional on twice-weekly checks by departmental officers. No charges were laid against the parents.
- April, 1994: Victoria's Department of Health and Community Services reached an out-of-court settlement with the sect.
- May 28, 1999: NSW members of the sect settled their long-running legal battle with the state.