We All Failed My Sister Before She Became A Killer. We Can't Let It Happen Again.
My little sister is digging greedily into a mammoth slice of chocolate cheesecake.
In between mouthfuls, she tells us about the best parts of her week: her girlfriend made spaghetti for dinner, she wrote a whole verse of a song for music class, she trained a new girl to wash the dishes at work. Anna is very particular about her dishes.
When I was asked at a recent interview to describe my sister, I said she has a childlike quality. There’s a wide-eyed earnestness; a look of naivety bordering on confusion that’s never left her. It’s the reason people often guess her age a decade too low. And it’s one of the reasons she was so often taken advantage of as a kid. She so obviously lacked the nous required to sniff out a duplicitous bully -- the kind that pretends to be your friend only long enough to swindle you for lunch money.
I used to use the word innocent, when asked to describe my sister. But she’s not innocent. She is, in fact, guilty of murder.
It’s difficult to contemplate how this softly spoken young woman, who as a girl refused to see movies because she couldn’t stand to witness anyone getting hurt, could be serving a 17 year prison sentence for murder. But, when you put together the set of factors that were bearing down on Anna on that awful day, the picture becomes a little clearer.
In the Dame Phyllis Frost Women’s prison visitors' centre, we’ve finished our chocolate cheesecakes and are taking our customary walk around the little playground. For the first time in a while, I ask Anna to tell me about that day.
“I had been off my antipsychotic medication for five days,” she says, “because I hadn’t filled my script in time and was too sick to go out. The house was a bombsite. I was pregnant and had hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness). Weed helped with the nausea but I’d run out of that, too, so I was throwing up eight times a day.”
On the day of Anna’s sentencing hearing, when Justice Jane Dixon read out her considerations in deciding my sister’s sentence, she emphasised Anna’s malnourished state at the time of the crime. My sister had been unable to keep even water down for days, so was not only withdrawing from medication, but starving. Seventeen years with a 13 year minimum is a light sentence for Anna’s crime, and Justice Dixon took into account the fact that my sister clearly should have been in hospital when issuing her sentence.
So why wasn’t she?
It was clear to my family that Anna was a danger to herself. Mum knew it when she discovered her daughter unconscious and barely breathing, lips blue and pill packets scattered around her lifeless frame.
My family knew it when Anna adopted the habit of taking herself off the train to find predatory men who would bring her home and give her ice. To Anna, the risk to her own life had become a reasonable price to pay for anything that would quiet the voices, so torturous they had become.
My father knew it on the day that Anna took the kitchen knife and in one desperate motion plunged it toward her chest, and he only just got there in time to stop her, but in order to do so had to tackle his youngest daughter to the floor and force her arms down as she screamed.
Mum called the police that day. We thought that Anna would finally be detained in the psych ward and get some help. But she wasn’t. Despite Mum’s pleas to keep her daughter somewhere she would be safe, Anna was sobered up and sent home. In a rage, Mum snarled at the nurse: “We’ll just take her home to die, then!”
There are more stories, each one more sickening than the last. And over time, the stories became increasingly violent. There was the night that Anna approached a strange group of men on the street and began shouting at them. She challenged them to fight. In her mind, they were spies sent by the gang that had been pursuing her, and the ice in her system had emboldened her to face the challenge head-on.
There was the time she put the man she was staying with in a chokehold from which he could not break free without hurting her. Anna is deceptively strong. He waited and hoped he would not lose consciousness.
Then, in the chaotic share house where she lived in the lead-up to the crime; a place where older men would come to sit and drink warm white wine; there were the times that she attacked her male housemates with weapons from the kitchen.
It was dumb luck that afforded Anna her freedom from retaliation. Not one of the men she assaulted decided to take matters into their own hands. What they did, was call the police. And Anna, who had so obviously cleared the hurdle for involuntary treatment; who had become a danger to herself and others; was never held in a psychiatric unit for more than a few days.
She was held, and discharged. Held, and discharged; each time to a life teetering closer to the edge of collapse.
We tried to sound the alarm. Mum begged the psych units to keep her, always citing the clear pattern of escalating self harm and violence that was playing out with each new “incident”. But the police and health care staff never seemed to have access to a file with this information, instead treating every new hospitalisation and arrest as an isolated incident. My family’s input was never sought when making decisions about what should be done with Anna. When we tried to offer it anyway, Mum and I were met with incredulity, or dismissed as drama queens.
Mum quit her work and dedicated herself entirely to the project of trying to get Anna treated.
I spent countless hours researching the legalities of involuntary care. Made phone call after phone call, trying to find someone, anyone, who would be the missing puzzle piece and save us from this hell.
Anna’s illness was a speeding train, and we were all on the tracks, watching its advance in helpless horror.
Soon, the train would smash into the lot of us and our lives would be shattered to pieces. When Anna herself begged the psych ward to keep her involuntarily, because she no longer felt capable of controlling herself and had no idea what she might do, and she was told by the head nurse that the “psych unit was not a hotel”. We all just had to lay down and resign ourselves to the impending blow.
It came, of course. Not in the form we’d thought it would. But in an outcome so skin-crawlingly awful that my family will never reconcile it. Anna not only lost her own freedom. She killed a man, shattered a family, and stole the nucleus of a flawed but vital community in the process.
She also lost her own child. Ollie, the little boy who had been growing in Anna’s tummy as horror upon horror unfolded, was taken from my sister at birth.
If there was anything more we could have done to try to get Anna taken off the streets, I don’t know what it is. And this story is not just my family’s. It’s the story of the Victorian teenager who inflicted two separate knife attacks on strangers after being tormented for years by the voices in her head. The court heard that she’d never been adequately treated for her illness.
And it’s the story of the young woman charged with murdering an Indian student she met on a dating app, believing herself to be a werewolf. She had earlier said in social media posts that she wasn’t taken seriously by psychiatrists. “If only they believed me when I said I’m not sane.”
It’s the story of thousands of people across this state who have tried to find help where there was none. Our prisons are brimming with people who could tell you this story. At DPFC, Victoria’s only maximum security women’s prison, a huge proportion of the rapidly expanding prison population are there for a crime connected to mental illness.
Because, as we painfully discovered, there is no long-term, involuntary care unit for people with mental illnesses or addictions. The prison is it.
In the face of this, the women’s prison is doing a good job. The women are encouraged to work and have access to a wide range of classes, from drama and music to parenting.
But people with mental illnesses deserve better. Their families; their victims; their separated children, deserve better.
When a person has a severe, poorly treated mental illness, there is a domino effect -- loved ones are pulled into the cycle of destruction wrought by the sick person, their lives consumed by the mammoth task of getting their relative through each day. In my family’s case, each of us were plagued by the constant, nagging fear that Anna could die at any moment. So even when she was out of contact, we could never rest.
And then there’s the domino effect created by the crimes that people with mental illnesses commit. Entire communities can be irreparably damaged by the actions of a single person.
How much are all these lives worth to us? All these desperate and grieving families, the children, the sick people who are at risk of getting stuck in the never ending prison cycle. Are they worth enough to fix a broken system?
A couple of years ago, after my sister had been imprisoned for murder, I wrote my first article about the multiple systemic failings that I believed preceded that awful day.
A few years and countless words later, not much has changed. But we have a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity. The Royal Commission into the Victorian mental health system is currently underway, and the Andrews government has committed to implementing every single recommendation.
My mother will be telling our story at the commission. Here are the main changes she will be asking for.
Build long-term residential treatment services
Here’s Anna on her life in prison: “In here, I got my personality back. I can be goofy and make people laugh. I’m important to people, I have a place in the community. I’m proud of myself for having a good reputation with the girls and the staff. I help the other girls with their English and give them a hand writing letters for court.”
In the safety of the prison, women like my sister can thrive. And that’s not just because they are properly medicated and free from the destructive habits of the outside. It’s because every aspect of their lives is being managed and taken care of: They have rules and structure, they have authority figures to guide them, and they have a community to which they are important. For Anna, this opportunity to be an integral part of a group -- to have friends and to be looked at as an equal -- has been perhaps the most vital aspect of her rehabilitation.
So what are we doing wrong when the only place that provides this type of holistic, long-term care is the prison? Anna and others with complex mental illnesses and addictions deserve better than to have to trade their freedom, and their children, for care. Their victims deserve better.
As a society, we must come to terms with the fact that there are people out there who simply need to be looked after. Medication or psychiatric appointments will never be enough. They need round the clock support in every aspect of their life. We must replicate the care model provided by the prison, in the outside community. We must build an infrastructure of residential care facilities; from involuntary psychiatric units at the highest-needs end of the spectrum, right through to supported accommodation on the ground level; which is designed to take care of people like Anna as they are gradually rehabilitated.
As Anna now believes: “I needed a long-term placement in an involuntary psych ward. I don’t mean for a few days. I mean a couple of years or more. If I could have got that help when I was asking for it, maybe a good man wouldn’t have had to pay with his life, and I wouldn’t have had to pay with my future.”
Listen to families
Families know more about their loved one than anyone, and can provide health staffers who are conducting assessments with vital pieces of the puzzle. They should be treated as assets, not annoyances. So often, when we hear about a tragic situation, we soon afterward hear that the family’s calls for help had fallen on deaf ears.
Don’t discharge sick people back to the street
When someone as sick as Anna makes contact with the health or justice system, that should be taken as the opportunity to get them into treatment. A case worker should be assigned and a long term treatment plan created that includes multiple services. They should not, as Anna was, be discharged back to the street with only a brochure in hand after every three or four day stint in a facility.
Yes, this will all be very expensive. It will blow the current mental health budget out of the water. But what is the cost of not doing it? How much are we spending on our rapidly filling prisons? How much are we losing in productivity when people like my mother take years off from work to care for family members?
And what about the human cost? What are these people’s lives worth to us? People like Anna, and her child, and her victim, and her victim’s family? Enough to fix a broken system?
At DPFC, Mum and I are winding up our visit. A guard has popped her head out to the playground area and given us the customary 10-minute warning, and we are chatting at speed; always with more to say. “I forgot, I’ve got one more question!” I interject. “What would you like to do with your life when you’re released?”
Anna takes a moment, then says: “I’d like to keep helping young people, like I do in here. Hopefully I can work with kids who are struggling; the quiet ones, like I was.”
“And what about for yourself?”
Anna forms a melancholy smile. “I’d like to have a tiny house and a senior cat who just wants to sit on my lap and never runs away. Most of all I hope to have a good relationship with my son.”
*To be clear, I believe that Anna deserves every day of her sentence. My family has always believed that she is fully responsible for her crime. My mother and I campaign for change so that in future, tragedies like these might be avoided.
*I will be donating my fee for this article to the Prison Network charity.
For more on Anna's story from Katie and their mother Mary, tune in to The Project tonight at 6.30 on Channel 10.