The Sunday Age: Meet The Family

From XFamily - Children of God

Meet The Family

The Sunday Age/2004-05-09

It's 12 years this week since 128 children were taken from their parents in a raid on the Children of God religious sect. Most of those children are adults now, but the scars remain. Peter Wilmoth reports.

By Peter Wilmoth

In a city cafe, eight people in their 20s are sitting at a long table. They've 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 who were 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 at an architecture firm in South Yarra. "It's not worth getting resentful."

Michelle, then a close friend of Danielle's, is now 24 and a "Christian volunteer" in southern India. She works between five orphanages ensuring the children have food, shelter, education and the knowledge that someone has love for them. "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 in Melbourne and India 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 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 inappropriateness, to encourage sexual activity between children in its care. In Victoria it lived away from the public gaze in its two properties at Glenlyon, near Daylesford, and Panton Hill, near Eltham, and surfaced in the media only as a shadowy cult.

But the raid changed all that. Believed to be at risk, 128 children between the ages of two and 16 from six communities in New South Wales and Victoria were taken into protective custody. The 56 children in Victoria spent six days in foster care and were released back to their parents after a court found no evidence of sexual or physical abuse.

At the time, in a 200-page summary of the case tendered to the Children's Court, the then Victorian Department of Health and Community Services alleged "women cater to the sexual needs of males in the group as directed, often by required adherence to a sexual sharing schedule".

It went on: "Literature (seized from the houses) is pervaded by a lascivious and prurient obsession with matters sexual, with a particular emphasis on young boys and pubertal girls."

The director-general of Community Services Victoria, the late Dr John Paterson, said in May 1992: "These children appear to be being raised according to a number of norms and doctrines, which threaten long-term pyschological damage and incapacity to perform as ordinary members of adult society. That's our sole concern."

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. "Of all the children taken in Victoria, we are not aware of any of them having a criminal record, there is no record of suicide or drug abuse and more than half have stayed with The Family," says Hartingdon. 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. Talking to the three Family members now in their 20s, the memories for fine detail are as clear as their assessments of the effect that morning has had on them.

We are drinking tea in Sam and Michelle's house in outer Melbourne and talking about growing up as a member of The Family. "It was like the best of boarding school but with your parents," Sam says.

He remembers a life of games, home schooling, singing and dancing spectaculars and the constant company of other children - before it all ended on that May day 12 years ago.

As part of a co-ordinated raid across Victoria and NSW, about two dozen police and some 20 officers from Community Services Victoria gathered just before 6am outside the two houses on the Family's property at Glenlyon where about 40 people lived.

Inside, Michelle, Danielle and a small baby were sharing a room. The girls stirred. "I'm a light sleeper so I woke up with the torches flashing around outside," says Michelle, then 13. "I heard my dad answering the door and that was pretty freaky because I heard fear and uncertainty in his voice.

"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.

"The first thing was all the adults were gone. They didn't want us to talk to anyone. The baby was about one and he was just screaming. They made his mum leave him and go downstairs.

"Danielle's mum was saying, 'Don't worry, kids', but you could see on her face she was really worried. We were wondering what to do with the baby. They started questioning me and Danielle while we were still in bed. They said, 'Get up and get dressed.' I said, 'Can you leave while I get dressed? 'No', they said, 'we're not going to leave you unsupervised at any point in time.'"

Sam, then 11, was with a friend, Mike, in the neighbouring house on the Glenlyon property. "As soon as it happened we said, 'What's going on? Are these good guys or bad guys?' They had police uniforms on. We just assumed that all these people who had invaded our house so early in the morning must have our good in mind. Later on we learned that wasn't the case.

"We lived in a beautiful old farmhouse with a big fireplace and when we got up the fire had gone out. I was one of the guys who chopped the wood and lit the fires. I said 'Well, we need to go outside and get wood for the fire.' And I remember the guy in the suit stepping forward saying, 'No, you're not going anywhere.' And one of the police took him aside and said, 'Let them start a fire, it's pretty cold.' So I went out and got wood.

"A couple of times kids would run to their parents and somebody would forcibly move them away."

Sam and his friends had seen strange people before. "They had us under surveillance for two years. We'd see people in cars staring at us.

"We were country kids. We knew from the type of cars they were driving that they weren't our farmer neighbours. We knew something was going on."

Says Danielle: "They knocked on the door one day and said, 'We're doing a survey of kangaroos in the area,' and we were like, 'Right.' They were trying to check out the property. A few days later they raided us."

"What was most upsetting was that they treated our parents like they were criminals. They talked to them like they had done something wrong. That was my first angry moment."

At the Glenlyon house 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."

Michelle says: "I remember hearing the police telling the adults, 'We're going to apprehend the children'. All the mums started crying. There was an uproar. I ran back to the rest of the guys and said 'They're going to apprehend us, what does that mean?' One of the mums came in and she hugged her baby and she was crying and crying."

The children were asked about sexual contact with their parents or other adults in the houses. Michelle says, "From the time they (the CSV department officials) walked into our rooms that morning, they sat down and said, 'Have you been sexually abused? Has anyone ever touched you? Have you been brain-washed?'"

Sam: "They'd ask, 'Have your parents ever touched you?' And the kids are like, 'Yes.' What kind of question's that? And then these guys are writing it down like it's evidence."

Michelle remembers them questioning her sister, not yet two. "I remember my little sister drawing stick figures one time on her blackboard slate and this woman came up and said 'What are you drawing? Are you drawing a man?' 'Yes.' 'What kind of a man?' 'Just a man man.' 'What else goes on the man?' And she's like, 'Er, eyes?' 'No, what else goes on the man? 'Hands?' 'No, what else ?' It was stop, leave her alone."

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," says Michelle, "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. We were sitting in the vans, it was freezing, you could see your breath in the air, so we sang songs. 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."

Sam remembers that Friday morning clearly too, the children being "herded" into the vans. "There were police carrying children like this (held out in front). They weren't children people."

Remembers Danielle: "When I was driving away from Glenlyon I remember turning back and looking at the house and saying to my sister Jessica, 'I'm never going to see that house ever again'. And I never went back there." (A few families returned to Glenlyon, but for some the memories were too traumatic. On release, Danielle moved to a house at Panton Hill, near Eltham.)

"It seemed very strange, very bizarre that there were people all over our house," says Danielle. "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 a temporary home to one family. "Mine was down on the Hume Highway somewhere," says Danielle. "They (the foster parents) were fine, they didn't know what was going on. But we hated them because they weren't our parents."

Like the others in their early teens, Danielle acted as a mother figure to her younger brothers and sisters. "Every night the children would cry. The foster parents would try and help but I just said, 'They don't know you, just leave them alone.'

"The social workers would let my brothers and sisters watch things on TV that my parents would never allow them to watch."

On that Friday night, at the end of a long, traumatic day, the children were brought into a court session for a judge to rule on whether they should be released to their parents. The children saw their mums and dads for the first time since early that morning. "We came out of the court room and our parents were there," says Danielle. "The social workers were standing around us and all the little children tried to run to mum and dad. The social workers were pulling us back saying, 'You can't see your parents.' We realised we weren't going to see them all weekend, and we didn't know if we'd ever see them again. At that point we realised that this was serious, that something was happening. "

Michelle: "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 remembers. "I went up to one of the social workers and said, 'We're hungry', so he came back with a big box full of Wagon Wheels.

"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. "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) 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. 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 following Thursday a 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," remembers Sam.

But being reunited was just the beginning of the nightmare. As the department continued to pursue its argument that the children needed to be in protection, the children's lives became a blur of court cases, demonstrations in the city for their rights, endless dealings with lawyers and interest from the media.

"The television helicopters used to come and park on the other side of the field," says Danielle. "And the reporters - especially the women with their high heels and short skirts - had to tramp across the mud and climb over the little barbed-wire fences. And us kids used to always laugh."

After the raids, the children remember being treated with suspicion for years. "One Christmas we organised to sing at the Children's Hospital," Danielle remembers. "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."

Michelle remembers 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."

There were nightmares, new insecurities, fears for their future and a complete breakdown in trust for authority figures. They largely retreated back into their own community. It was the beginning of the rest of a lifetime of being known as the kids of the Children of God.

Danielle Cannane was forced to grow up quickly. She'd spent much of her youth in a mothering role while her parents were fighting their long battle in court.

Today, we are talking in a city cafe in the heart of the secular world - around us is the noisy lunchtime banter of Melbourne's lawyers and business people. Danielle speaks powerfully and passionately. She is an assured person and it's unnerving to hear her talk about the inferiority complex she says she developed after the events of 1992.

"It's the government that has made me feel strange because they're the ones that ? said something must be wrong with you," she says. "I never thought there was anything wrong with me and I still don't."

As she tells her story, her calm is broken twice by tears. "I completely missed out on my teenage life, and that's probably the main thing that I'm sad about. 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."

Danielle let go later. "When I was 17 or 18 I went a bit crazy, a bit wild, like you would when you were 13 or 14 because I didn't get a chance to do it then.

"It completely changed my outlook on life. It made me a bit harder, I don't trust people as easily."

The Children of God were often associated with lurid practices such as "flirty fishing" or "hooking for Jesus": using women to seduce men to the sect. It's an image that has haunted them, many believe unfairly. "It became a media thing," Danielle says. "For us it was, 'Not that again.' Us kids hadn't grown up with that. What happened in the '60s? I was born in 1978, so for me it was long gone. It was a hippy thing and it was put on us.

"Even today I'm stereotyped. No one completely understands me."

Danielle lives in inner Melbourne with the 11 members of her "personal family", another family and various others. Often there are 16 people in the house, so Danielle goes to a pub in Fitzroy for a peaceful evening.

She now considers herself a "part-time" Family member. "I needed to go out on my own, do something different, find out what I do and don't believe."

Her close friend is making an album so she watches a lot of live shows in St Kilda and Fitzroy. But despite friendships at work and in the music scene, she sometimes feels it was The Family that gave her most support. "Sometimes I feel the only people that I can fully, completely connect with are the children that grew up with me." She is still close to them now.

"I have this mark against my name forever. I try not to bring up the fact that I was in a court case because people look at me and go, 'Aah, something's wrong with you' and I say 'No, nothing's wrong with me, there was something wrong with the government at that time.'"

Michelle is a live-wire: she sings, plays guitar and drums and speaks with a passion and maturity borne of her teenage experiences.

As an adult, Michelle decided to stay with The Family because the desire to help others was so strong. She works helping poor 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. Every day it overwhelms me (in India, where she works), little kids saying, 'Auntie, Auntie, tell me a story'. They have never had people to care for them. For me, that's the greatest thing I could do."

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 she was fighting to stay alive. That has had a very emotional effect on me."

On the phone, Sam speaks with the resolute articulateness of a man much older than 23. In India, as a Christian volunteer, he organises corporate fund-raising for projects to help supply education for the poor. In Australia, as well as running prayer groups, he helps maintain half-way houses for female victims of violence and does missionary work in jails.

He 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."