Peter Johnstone, president of the New South Wales Children’s Court.
In July last year, locals in a quiet valley in south-western NSW were startled to see three police four-wheel drives, a police bus and an ambulance bouncing up an old stock route towards a remote timbered block, tucked away from the road.
Police and child protection officers left with 12 children under the age of 16 in what is shaping as one of the most serious child abuse cases in Australia.
The day they arrived it looked like the circus had come to town.
The children were malnourished, filthy, could barely talk, had appalling hygiene and had been living without electricity and running water. What emerged is a truly horrific case of child sex abuse and intergenerational incest. As the royal commission on child abuse within institutions gets under way, the events at this farm highlight what many say is a far more serious threat to children: sexual abuse within the family.
It also raises serious questions about how, Australia-wide, authorities failed three generations of victims, many of whom have now turned into perpetrators.
In September this year, the NSW Children’s Court decided to permanently remove the children and in a rare move, published its decision because it laid new ground on when children could be permanently removed. In Victoria, there was another order two months ago to remove children from another branch of the family.
Apprehended violence orders have been taken out to stop the parents approaching the children, who have been placed in homes and in foster care. Next week one mother will face charges relating to an attempt to remove a child from care.
All names in this article have been changed due to legal requirements not to identify child victims.
Just a short drive from Canberra is a small town in prime merino country. The wide main street and substantial buildings point to an era when Australia rode on the sheep’s back. There are still big properties, but up in the valleys that stretch out from the town are smaller farms, used increasingly as hobby farms or boltholes for those on the fringes of society. The Colt family were in the second category. There is no suggestion they were part of a religious cult. They seemed motivated by a desire to keep below the radar of the law.
Two sisters paid a relatively modest sum for the land from a local farmer in 2009 and soon the rest of the family followed from interstate. ”The day they arrived it looked like the circus had come to town,” says a neighbour. ”Caravans, cars filled with kids. ”
Soon after the Colts arrived they came to the attention of police and the education department for failing to send their children to school. The education authorities were unable to find the farm because it was so hidden, but a local policeman visited early on and told the mothers they had to send their children to school.
The younger ones were enrolled in a small bush school with remedial teachers, while the older children were enrolled at the high school.
Neighbors realized there was a large group living on the land, but the Colts kept to themselves and returned stock that strayed onto their property.
”Apart from the noise of the chainsaws, they didn’t really worry us,” a neighbor says. ”I knew there were children living up there, but I never heard any noise of laughing or playing.” The family were seen in town shopping and two of the men worked for the local shire. The men also chopped down trees and sold it for firewood. The family also received money from Centrelink.
But all was not well. The children’s attendance at school was patchy, several of them were rake thin and wore dirty clothes. Soon risk-of-harm reports began coming in to the Department of Family and Community Services from teachers and the local bus driver.
But it took two years before the department acted. Finally, in June 2012, the authorities visited and were met with scenes of harrowing deprivation. One police officer told colleagues she would never get over what she saw that day.
Proceedings before the Children’s Court heard the family was living without permanent electricity or running water. There were no toilets and they washed in a tub. One caravan housing one group had dirt, cigarette butts and rubbish on the floor. Three children’s beds were dirty and unmade, cooking facilities were very dirty and a gas barbecue was used for heating inside the confined space.
The second caravan had dirt on all surfaces and two broken windows.
A third mother slept in a tent with her daughters, while the sons slept in another. There were exposed electricity wires, chainsaws without covers, and piles of rubbish, the reports said.
The children were observed to be neglected in significant ways. Most were far behind their peers in terms of educational development and some had no formal schooling at all. Some were developmentally delayed and others showed signs of more permanent intellectual impairment.
Several of the children were unable to speak intelligibly. Their dental health was appalling and several did not know how to use a toothbrush.
The family were given a timeframe to fix up the property, but in the meantime more information emerged and the director-general of FACS decided the children needed to be removed immediately.
Since taking the children away, the authorities have uncovered an even darker picture: of intergenerational incest and child sex abuse involving children as young as five.
Away from their families, the children began exhibiting inappropriate sexual behavior and told carers they had engaged in sexual acts with each other and watched adults having sex on the farm.
The department ordered genetic testing to clarify the status of the children. The tests showed that all but one child of the 12 removed had parents who were related or closely related.
The four mothers, Rhonda, Betty, Martha and Raylene, have disputed the genetic testing, saying it is wrong and offering the names of alternate fathers. All were either dead or unable to be located.
Older members of the family have not been tested but the judge in the Children’s Court made several references to ”intergenerational incest”.
According to the court record, the Colt grandparents, Tim and June married in New Zealand in 1966 and came first to South Australia during the 1970s with their six children. They moved to Victoria, South Australia again, then Western Australia, before ending up in NSW. There is evidence the abuse began back then and possibly even earlier.
Dwayne, one of Betty’s sons, told his carers he and his siblings were told never to tell anyone that their father was in fact his grandfather, Tim, because his mother, Betty, would be sent to jail because she had started having sex with him when she was 12.
Betty has had 13 children. The testing of the five children under 16 showed that the 15 year old had closely related parents, possibly a father/daughter, while the other four had related parents.
But the incest has not stopped at one generation.
Tammy, Betty’s third child, aged 27, has come to the attention of authorities in Victoria after one of her children died at Canberra Hospital of a rare genetic disease, Zellweger syndrome, and she and Betty failed to attend an appointment to discuss the role close consanguinity between parents can play.
Her two remaining children were taken into care in February this year. At a hearing to take out an apprehended violence order against her partner, Derek Colt – who had threatened ”to kill her if he couldn’t have her” – she told a social worker Derek was in fact her younger brother and father of her children.
She also revealed she had been abused within the Colt family from the age of 12 when other family members began having sex with her, including her brothers and cousins. She said the same happened to other girls on the farm and that her mother, Betty encouraged this activity.
When the girls fell pregnant, they were not permitted to see a doctor in case someone discovered what was happening. Sometimes there were miscarriages but Tammy managed to secretly put herself on the pill from the age of 16.
The big question to be answered is how these children – and their mothers before them – managed to fall through the child protection net in a civilized country such as Australia.
Part of the problem is that child protection is a state-based responsibility. When the Colts came to the attention of authorities the family simply snatched the kids and moved states, choosing isolated places to resettle.
But against that background there is evidence the Colts were registered for federal benefits, raising questions about how state authorities were unable to follow up on these vulnerable children.
In the case of the NSW authorities, the Department of Community Services received seven risk-of-significant-harm reports in the two years before July 2012 when the children were removed. Asked why it had failed to act, the department refused to provide any detailed response as the matter is ongoing.
”The children are safe and living with foster carers,” the department said. ”Like many child-protection matters, this case involves a number of complexities and Community Services caseworkers are working closely with FACS’ partners in Health, Education and in the non-government sector to provide ongoing support and assistance to the children.”
The mothers have contested their children’s removal in the courts and continue to agitate for their return.
But the Children’s Court judge found they had not come to terms with ”their own traumatic past” and until they acknowledged the history of incest in the family they would be unable to engage in therapy and be protective parents.