Dad’s confession: I bashed my pregnant partner
WATCHING Fred* and Cherie's* easy way as they walk hand-in-hand through the park, fingers lovingly interlaced, it's hard to imagine he nearly killed her. Twice.
The same big, rugged hands tossing their giggling son high into the bright, blue sky, and scooping him safely up again, used to bloody her freckled face. Pummel the soft body that birthed their children. Shatter furniture, smash holes in walls, destroy whatever home they had.
It was not that long ago that the same arm Cherie today curls affectionately around Fred's wiry waist was thrown up to protect herself, as yet again she cowered before his angry shouts, vicious insults and stunning blows.
Or worse, it wrapped her daughter close as she thrust herself between her warring parents, desperate to protect her mother from the onslaught. The little girl was never hurt. Neither were their two sons. Physically, at least.
QUEENSLAND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES
"He'd hit me, punch me, headbutt me. I used to have blood lip, split ear, bruised eye, cuts. He hit me two days a week, two times a day, that's pretty much it," says Cherie, 32, as she watches her youngest, James*, 4, push a doll and pram around the colourful family therapy room at Caboolture's Department of Child Safety, north of Brisbane. Daughter Rose*, 8, and son David*, 6 next month, are at school.
Police were their most regular visitors.
There was the time they argued about her parents' gift of a secondhand car and Fred repeatedly punched her in the head and stomach. She was eight months pregnant with their eldest son.
Another time Fred didn't like the way she'd set out plates ready for him to serve a fish and chip dinner, so he headbutted and punched her. And then there was the time she dared to challenge Fred about suspicious messages on his phone, and his rage left a giant lump on her forehead.
"It was two centimetres away from my temple. The doctor checked me over and said: 'Jeez, Cherie, I don't know how he didn't kill you'. That's when I literally broke down. If he did kill me, who's going to look after the three kids?"
It's hard to reconcile the man Cherie's talking about with the one who, barely 30 minutes ago, whispered "love you" as he softly kissed her and high-fived James goodbye. Except these are the events that Fred, 33, has spent the morning admitting to me.
He and Cherie are bravely sharing their unconventional story of love, hope and redemption to demonstrate the success of a radical new program laying the responsibility for domestic violence and family safety at the father's feet.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to remember the old me, because it wasn't a real good time; [a time] that I'm not proud of. I would often get stroppy and worked up over small stuff. I would often push her around; I used to call her names and be abusive and punch things. The kids would see things I'm not proud of," Fred says, his voice clear, blue-eyed gaze direct.
"Cherie basically had to start all over again and rebuild her life because I ruined it."
FATHERS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Take northbound exit 152 off the Bruce Highway and a decorative boulder proudly proclaims: "Caboolture - where lifestyle really counts". Farmland dotted with horses makes way for a main business area dominated by op shops, takeaway outlets and real estate agencies spruiking "Investors wanted!"
The large police station sits on one corner of the central junction, and the sprawling hub housing Moreton Regional Council, library and art gallery, community radio station and Department of Child Safety offices is diagonally opposite.
This riverside town of about 67,000 people is a recognised domestic and family violence hot spot.
In 2018, the Moreton Police District (Caboolture, Bribie and Redcliffe) recorded an average domestic violence protection order (DVO) breach rate of 59 per 100,000 people, significantly higher than the state average of 45 per 100,000. Of the 1797 DVO breaches in this district last year, 627 were in Caboolture - an average rate of almost 76 per 100,000.
Luckily for Fred and Cherie, Caboolture is also one of four sites - along with Caloundra, Gympie and Mount Isa - chosen to pilot Queensland Government program Walking with Dads (WWD), designed to help child safety officers more effectively identify and assist families affected by domestic violence, and make fathers accountable for the harm their actions inflict on their partners and children.
Based on the internationally successful Safe & Together model, created by American David Mandel, WWD focuses on helping fathers to see their anger and violence as a parenting choice they can control and change, and preparing them for men's behaviour change programs.
The "whole of family" approach involves child safety workers liaising far more closely with police, probation and parole officers, domestic violence support services and community organisations. Since the four-year trial started in October 2016 (February 2017 in Mount Isa), about 350 families have been helped; 100 of these live in Caboolture.
WWD program officer Emma Rogers says fathers have been invisible and unaccountable for too long. "It has to be about the father and his parenting choices and all his behaviours because that's what we need to stop," says Rogers, who worked in domestic violence support before moving into child safety.
"It's not uncommon for fathers to be going from family to family, and taking their destructive behaviours [with them] and having massive impacts on all those children.
"A lot of our dads are not only biological dads, but also stepdads. Instead of going around and chasing all these mothers, if we work with the father that is the source of harm, we can stop the cycle.
"A lot of the dads we work with are 'deal-breaker dads'; they have zero or low connection with their kids, zero or low responsibility, and they're unsafe. Our aim is to make them 'OK dads', and then they can continue to get that support to become even better dads in the community. Now we have the same goal as him: he wants to be a better and safer dad, we want him to be a better and safer dad. We're on the same path together," Rogers says. "Sometimes we get dads we can't engage in the process unfortunately and who are not safe, in which case we work very hard with Mum and all those other services to keep her and the kids safe. But in the cases where we can, we've got to give Dad that opportunity to change.''
THE HARD ROAD
Of course, it's not easy. Rogers recalls she first met Fred during his third stint in jail for breaching domestic violence protection orders and he was so aggressive, she had to cut her visit short.
Fred couldn't understand why he would not be allowed to see his children on his release, and saw Rogers as "the brick wall" keeping him from the family he'd always wanted.
Fred reckons he's been angry most of his life and can't really explain why, though he concedes his childhood might have something to do with it.
Whenever his parents argued, he - the youngest of three boys - escaped to his grandparents' caravan at the back of the family's 1.2ha block and started "bashing with hammer and nails".
His parents separated when he was 13, and Fred lived with his mother in Toowoomba for two years. He left school at 15 and moved back to his dad's Brisbane home to work in construction, moving into fibreglassing, home and garden maintenance, and now IT removals. Fred's brothers are married, each with three children.
Friends introduced Fred and Cherie, a single mum and cleaner living with her parents, at a casual get-together about six years ago.
The pair had little in common - Fred loves camping, fishing and four-wheel-driving, while Cherie is a Salvation Army member who enjoys softball. Still, he thought Cherie was "friendly, caring" and she thought Fred was a "nice guy" with "perfect partner" potential.
Within a few weeks, Cherie was pregnant with their first child and Fred became the only father Cherie's daughter has known. But his emerging violence shocked and terrified.
"If people rubbed me up the wrong way, I used to get stroppy. I don't know what goes through my head. It was more I used to puff up, puff my chest up and think I'm 10ft tall and built like a brick shithouse," Fred says, adding it was worse when he drank.
"I can't remember the first time I hit Cherie, but I remember a few times I have. I was just in a rage. The kids didn't matter; they were probably the last things on my mind, which is sad. I'd regret doing it afterwards."
The couple separated several times. Soon after James's birth, child safety officers started working with Fred and Cherie. She only felt safe when he was in jail.
Eventually, the three children were removed and placed with Cherie's parents, until their ill health forced them to allow the children to be put into foster care.
Cherie, allowed to visit freely with permission of the children's carer, sank into a deep depression and contemplated suicide. Fred was allowed short, regular supervised visits with his sons only. He and Cherie didn't speak for more than two years.
Cherie laughs when I ask why she persisted with the relationship.
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"Everyone asks me that. It's hard. Probably for the kids. When I first met Fred, he was a nice guy. I allowed Fred back, even though I had a DVO, because he wanted to see the kids and we were sorting things out."
After his first jail term, Fred completed vocational courses and started working with senior counsellor Lesley McConnell at the Caboolture Neighbourhood Centre, but it was the death of his own mother, unexpectedly and tragically, during his second jail term that cemented his determination to change.
"Life's too short to be fighting and arguing, because you can go at any time. And the other [inmates] were very supportive and made sure I was OK [after the funeral]; they showed me I had people around that cared. At that point, I knew I had a problem and I wanted to change. Before, I was blaming everyone else, I was in the wrong state of mind. All the tools people were giving me to help me with my life actually started working.
"One saying really got to me. I was asked, if someone exactly like me, identical to me, dated my daughter, would I smile? I did not, so I thought, nup, it's time to change, because the last thing I need is someone the same as me dating my daughter."
Fred learnt to recognise his anger triggers, self-calming and conflict resolution methods, the impact of his actions on Cherie and their children, and lifestyle skills such as cooking on a budget and how to play, through the community-run Caring Dads and Dads on a Journey programs. He also spent eight months working with Rogers in WWD when his final six-month jail term ended in June 2017.
Fred has since completed parole and the Department of Child Safety has closed his family's case, though he remains the subject of a five-year DV protection order. He's not been violent in almost two years and still attends weekly Dads on a Journey meetings with McConnell at the Caboolture Neighbourhood Centre.
"There are two sides to things and at the time I couldn't see the other side," Fred says. "It was all my side and that was it. It hurts to think about it now because if I knew back then what I know now, I'd probably be a lot happier. I've come to realise, no matter what happens, even if Cherie and I aren't together, she's still the mother of my kids and I can't change that. I will always support her."
Christmas has been and gone but Cherie still dissolves into tears, remembering a magical day out she and the kids shared with Fred. The pair were slowly reconciling when he invited his family to a local community fair, where they wandered around the market stalls, sang carols and shared a picnic dinner.
"It was the best time I have ever had with Fred since we've been together, and it was great having a good time with him. The kids loved it. Since he's done Walking With Dads, Dads on a Journey, he's changed so much. He's doing really, really, really well. Hopefully he keeps going, because [now] he's the guy I wanted [so long ago]," says Cherie, now a stay-at-home mum.
"Rose was so scared of him, didn't want anything to do with him. Now she's started calling him Daddy again, she gives him cuddles and just wants to spend time with him."
Neither Fred nor Cherie knows what the future holds. They're happy to just take one day at a time. They regularly spend time together as a family but live separately.
Both attend support groups and Cherie feels stronger and more confident than ever since completing self-esteem and parenting courses. Fred knows he also has to earn Cherie's parents' forgiveness and trust again.
Fred sees Rose, David and James whenever he can - walking them to school, taking them to swimming lessons, taking them bike-riding or for a swing in the local playground. He's scrapbooking a special photo album for Rose and working on another about how much he's learnt to one day share with all three children. Last year he enjoyed David's pirate-themed Father's Day activities at school.
"If they need anything, it's just about being there, supporting them, trying to get them to realise there's a better way of life than how I used to be. When I was inside, I can't imagine it would have been easy; if they needed to turn to Dad, or wanted Dad's help, or wanted Dad to come to Father's Day, and I wasn't there …
"I'm trying to show them a happier and calmer and better life. I'm proud of who I've become." ■
* Names changed for privacy reasons.
May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month