Trapped in the hell of their parent's suffering Print
Written by Julie-Anne Davies   
By Julie-Anne Davies
Melbourne Age, 10 March 2002

The physical damage is all too obvious; the girl's legs and arms are swathed in bandages to protect her badly burnt limbs although her raw, blistered toes provide a clue to what lies beneath. The invisible scars are more elusive, they reveal themselves when she sleeps. Then, she relives over and over the moment when her already chaotic world became a nightmare.

"Carly", a name she has chosen for this story, came home from school one day last year and her mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, poured petrol on her daughter and herself and the room they were standing in and lit a match.

Carly, who is 14, spent 11 weeks in the Royal Children's Hospital with burns to 45percent of her body. She has had many operations and there are more to come. She is scarred for life and lives in hiding from her mother who, after being admitted to hospital after the attack, was released and is living in Melbourne. The police have laid no charges despite urgings from Carly's father and health professionals. The only protection on offer for Carly at the moment is a restraining order.

It is estimated that as many as one in five Australians suffers some form of mental illness, ranging from schizophrenia to depression. International research shows that children of parents with depression are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than other children. According to the Victorian Department of Human Services, nearly 20 per cent of notifications received last year concerned children whose parent or parents suffered from a mental illness.

These children are often the invisible victims of mental illness. Their experience translates into hidden feelings of anger, rage, fear, isolation, humiliation, loneliness, guilt and profound sadness.
Trying to figure out why it happened is obviously something that consumes Carly.Although she's come a long way since that day last September, it is still too soon for her to give up her own sense of guilt about her mother's actions.
"I wore my hair in a pony tail that day, maybe that was it because, you know, I don't usually do that," she reasons.

"At first when I was in hospital I couldn't think about what my mum did to me but then the dreams started," Carly explains slowly, guarded in her answers, wary of the intrusion yet desperate to be heard. "Now I do think about it and I find it hard to forgive her, although I know she is sick."

Asleep at night, Carly has faced the flames again and again. A measure of how far she has come since the fire is reflected in her most recent dream. "I dreamt about a bowl of petrol and in it, I just threw a match and it caught fire but the flames were just within the bowl, they didn't reach me."

Carly's childhood effectively ended when she was 10. That was when her dad moved out. From that time, Carly was her mother's protector, trying to keep their secret, keep them fed, keep her mother's medication going and keep herself safe. She knew intuitively that her life was not like other girls. Her mum not only was different because of her illness, she looked different. And sometimes, she smelt. Carly did what many children in her position do, she retreated. She had no friends, she and her mother lived in squalor and ate junk food. They were so obviously outsiders in their community.

"My mum didn't teach me things I should have known and so I learnt the hard way," Carly says. "You know, matters of hygiene and stuff. I used to get stirred at school for being smelly because I just didn't know anything."

She remembers one occasion when she was 12; she accompanied her mother to the doctors.

"She got upset and the nurses called the police and they came and took her away but noone told me so I was left sitting in this waiting room until finally I sort of figured out what had happened and I just went home and stayed with a neighbour."

Wasn't she scared being on her own? "I just thought 'Oh well, I've got to look after myself' but, you know, I could also relax a bit too because mum was in hospital. The worst thing was not knowing what she'd do next and I guess it gave me a break when she went away to hospital."

    Another time when she was in primary school, her mother threw a table at her. She spent the night in her room waiting for morning so she could escape to school. Protective services was called in because that time the evidence of her mother's abuse was plain; Carly's face was black and blue.

It wasn't the first time child protection had received notifications about Carly. According to documents seen by The Sunday Age, there had been at least five other reports. On at least one of these occasions abuse had been substantiated but the authorities decided Carly should remain with her mother. Support services were introduced, Carly's mother was given her medication by injection in an attempt to stabilise her condition. The adult mental health services did all they could to keep Carly's mother at home with her daughter. But then the abuse was too bad. She was sent to live with her father.

A confidential court report written at the time stated: "It is sad when a 12-year-old child has to carry the responsibility of an adult and that her parents don't allow her to be a child."

Four months later Carly went back to her mother. While it is worth questioning the welfare authorities' decision to send her back to her mother's care, Carly's reasons are more understandable.

"I didn't think she'd hurt me again, but she did," she murmurs pointing to her bandaged legs. "And, I went because I was worried about her being on her own."

It is a statement that lays bare the intolerable responsibility many children with mentally ill parents shoulder.

The parent/child roles are reversed to such a degree that children often convince authorities they are coping. Sometimes the authorities do not take much convincing, says Paul McKillop, the convenor of the National Network for Adult and Adolescent Children of Mentally Ill parents.

The son of a mentally ill woman, McKillop has been waging a lonely campaign for years to convince government that the children of the mentally ill need their own support services. The emphasis of existing mental health services - and there are many - appears to be on getting the ill parent well, not on the residual damage being suffered by the child who has become the defacto parent, McKillop says.

"These children are not going to have it easy, but they deserve to have a few cushions put under them," he says. "I often hear, 'if we could only get rid of the stigma regarding mental illness everything would be better'. No, I'm sorry. crap. Mental illness is not going to go away even if you could take away the stigma, the effect on these kids would still remain."

McKillop managed to convince the State Government to give the group a computer, which sits in his suburban lounge room. Every night he comes home from work - he is a counsellor - to read the 50 or so e-mails the group receives daily from the children of the mentally ill. They contain things like this:

"She's cunning, you know. She took us by the hand and led us to the car. She bribed us with chips and Coke and the pipe was connected to the exhaust but then Dad came home to collect some things he had left in the garage," the child of a schizophrenic mother wrote.

"Look we're not asking for better mental health services," McKillop says. "That's for other organisations to lobby for. I mean if mental health services ran barbecues and discos on Sundays none of the kids we come into contact with would go because they don't want to be caught up in the system that cares for their parent. They want to know their mum or dad is getting treatment but they need counselling services and respite where their needs are the most important thing, not anyone else's."


"The Victorian Courts in Melbourne recently at the hearing, only gave my mother a Two Year Good Behavior Bond! No order to attend psychiatric treatment or to instruct her to accept treatment or medication! She has not, to date, since the above day been made to attend any hospital or served any sentence in custody in any facility appropriate for her needs. At the time of burning me, after a short hospital checkup, she had been released soon after to a special accommodation home.

I wish to say in my view this does not give the right message to our community or to people with mental illness. What is going on with the Justice System in our state? Psychiatrists reports to courts get mentally ill people off serious offences, as I have been told by police and others mental illness is a defence. So you can be mentally ill attempt to kill some one, and because you have a mental illness never see consequences for your actions. I don't wish my mother any ill but... This sends the wrong message to everyone involved. Who will change this stupid system? My mother does not get help treatment or hospital even prison is not seen as a solution."

Melbourne Australia.
August 2004