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Jenny Liddle-Bob. Lucy McDonald. Sasha Green. Why don’t you know their names?

Indigenous women are being murdered at frightening rates, their deaths often left uninvestigated and widely unreported. Here The Weekly meets families who are battling grief and desperate for solutions.

Content Warning: This article touches on the topics of murder, domestic and family violence, and suicide which may be triggering for some readers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are also advised that this article contains the names and images of people who have died, used with the permission of their families.

Missing and murdered Indigenous women in Australia are often uninvestigated and unreported, leaving grieving families desperate for solutions. Colin McDonald is one such family member who has agreed to tell his story to The Weekly.

When Colin came out as gay, his mother, Lucy, played him The Pretenders’ song, I’ll Stand by You.

“She already knew,” he says. “She was telling me, ‘I don’t give a sh*t, you’re my baby’.” Colin cries when he hears that song now. It is a memory of a mother who is no longer here. Lucy disappeared from her house in Lismore, NSW, on Tuesday, April 30, 2002. Colin is speaking now, he says, because “I just want to give my mother a voice”.

On the Sunday, he and his boyfriend had returned from the Gold Coast to find 11 messages from Lucy on their answering machine. “I didn’t have a mobile at the time. She was saying, ‘Help, please pick up’. Someone was tapping on her windows and prank calling her.” Colin, who was studying in Lismore, told her he would go and see her on Tuesday. But by then she was gone.

She screamed, then she vanished

On the Monday, a maintenance man heard her screams for help from across the road. Sometime between then and the next morning Lucy vanished, leaving her keys and wallet behind.

“She’d never go anywhere without her house keys and wallet,” Colin says. He insists Lucy wouldn’t have left the house on her own because she’d been suffering depression and anxiety attacks, not getting out of her pyjamas.

“I believe she left with someone she knew or trusted,” Colin tells The Weekly. “She was a very committed preschool teacher. If she went out with the girls and they all got on it, she was still at work at 7am. To this day I don’t understand what caused the depression, but something did. She was the most kind-hearted, beautiful, positive person.”

And Colin knows she would never, ever have left him or his sister. He had been born when Lucy was 14 years old. “We were so close. If she were to run away, she would have told us and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone’. She told us everything.”

One of Colin's favourite photographs of himself with his mum Lucy, one of the many missing and presumed murdered indigenous women in Australia.
One of Colin’s favourite photographs of himself with his mum.

Son calls for thorough police investigation

Colin says Lucy lived with domestic violence and alcohol abuse. “She was a very intuitive woman. She always said to us, ‘If anything ever happens to me, I want you two to love each other and look after each other’,” he explains.

Colin says there were “red flags” in the police evidence. “I just believe the investigation wasn’t done correctly.”

He says the police never interviewed his side of the family. When he read the police brief, “I thought, who are these people? They didn’t know my mother, they were friends and associates of her [non-Aboriginal] partner.”

In the past few years, family members have gone to the police with information. “And they’ve just been told to basically go away and not waste time. I hate to go there but I believe it is a bit of ‘just a black woman, who gives a sh*t?’ I kind of lost hope. It made me feel, well, what chance do I have? She wasn’t just my mother, she was a human being.”

When German backpacker 25-year-old Simone Strobel was found murdered at a Lismore caravan park – three years later and only five minutes’ drive from Lucy’s house – there were international headlines, books and television shows. Lucy’s tragic disappearance barely rated a mention in the media.

A coronial inquest in 2008 found that Lucy was deceased. “But the hows and the whys are not known and the case was not closed,” Colin explains. “We want to reopen this and to get police who will do a good job this time. You can’t be left not knowing … You want to know where she is and what happened.

“I just want the police to knowthat all these women aren’t ‘missing’ anymore. They have disappeared and someone out there made them disappear.”

Generations of lost lives

For Colin, his mother’s death is still raw. He has vivid dreams about her, a smell or a song can remind him of her. Mother’s Day is “triggering”. And Colin is not alone. All the broken families, all the motherless children, all the sadness and all the trauma. It ripples out and down the generations.

“The grief just gets layered,” says Leanne Liddle, who was recently appointed Executive Director Resilience Command for the Northern Territory Police Force. “One of my many tasks will be tackling racism in all its forms in the Police Force.”

Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised and 10 times more likely to die from a violent assault than other women.

Even with those statistics, it has been documented that close to 90 per cent of violence against Indigenous women goes unreported.

“It is a longstanding problem,” says Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson, a national leader in intergenerational trauma, “and one that has been totally neglected.”

“This recent spike in non-Aboriginal women being murdered – that has been our story for years. And it’s getting worse,” Leanne adds. “I think it is every four weeks that a woman is killed in the Northern Territory. How many more funerals do you need to pay attention to this? No one is listening. Or if they are listening, they are not hearing.”

“Every Aboriginal community and family has stories like this,” says Amy McQuire, author, journalist and academic. “They are seen as isolated cases and isolated crimes, but they are all connected. These women’s stories, their memories, are held within families and communities. It never goes away. We just don’t know the scale of the crisis.”

Who is keeping count of the missing and murdered Indigenous women?

There is currently no database to quantify the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Australia.

“Aboriginal women must be seen, heard and counted. Without reliable, comprehensive data we can’t accurately capture or tell our stories,” says Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Djirra, an organisation that provides support for First Nations people facing family violence. “This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are invisible to policy and lawmakers.”

The Northern Territory has the highest rates of domestic, family and sexual violence in the country, among the highest in the world. Intimate partner homicides are seven times the national average, but it receives one per cent of the Commonwealth funding for domestic violence.

Antoinette Braybroook looks directly and seriously at the camera. She wears a black top and has long, honey-blonde, curly hair.
Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Djirra.

We’ve failed Aboriginal women in our duty of care

Leanne Liddle, who also has a law degree, was South Australia’s first Aboriginal policewoman. “All I know is, when I was a cop, they were someone’s mother and sister and aunty, and they deserved a professional response. But I have seen second-class professional care where we failed in our duty of care. That’s why people don’t ring and ask for the police. They just get churned.”

Jenny Liddle-Bob, Leanne’s sister, was killed by her partner on July 26, 2007. “Jenny had long, black, shiny hair that was beautiful. She was so clever. Jenny could speak fluent German. And she had this ability to hear a song and be able to play it and then write down the notes. She could pick up an instrument she had never played before and play it.” But, Leanne says, “she was not so clever in trying to navigate her way through violent relationships.”

The gravestone of Jenny Alma Liddle-Bob sits against a rock. Brightly coloured flowers have been laid beside it.

She had been the eldest of five children growing up in Alice Springs. “We grew up in a really safe, happy household.”

Jenny went to teachers’ college in Adelaide but didn’t finish. While living in Tennant Creek, she worked in schools and looked after foster children who were at risk of being taken into the child protection system. “She looked out for others who couldn’t,” Leanne says.

When she was 40, Jenny was having drinks in the backyard of a house when she was stabbed in the chest in an unprovoked attack by her partner, Godwin Ladd. Ladd had 36 prior convictions, 11 for assault and others for breaching domestic violence orders. Jenny died 13 days later in hospital in Adelaide. Godwin told the court he was heavily intoxicated at the time of the murder.

Leanne Liddle stands smiling thoughtfully in front of a row of trees and a pale blue sky. She wears a dress with a blue and grey print. Her hair is dark brown and wavy and hangs just below her shoulders.
Leanne Liddle’s work with the Northern Territory Police Force is personal.

“The court case was so traumatising for our family,” says Leanne. “Mum said sitting there listening to his excuses was so hard. Jenny was someone who was loved. He didn’t deserve her. We never thought anything like this would happen to our family. It taught me that it can happen to anyone.”

The toll on their mother was terrible. “Mum had a lot of guilt. She used to say, ‘We could have done more’, but the truth is we couldn’t because the help both Jenny and her violent partner wanted just wasn’t there. It ruined us as a family.” Jenny’s two children, Leanne says, “have gone on to offend. Which is really sad.”

More than 300 First Nations women are missing or have been murdered in Australia since 2000.

“What is not in these statistics,” Leanne says, “is that the suicides, or what looks like suicide, is still domestic violence. The signs of domestic violence are overlooked or ignored.”

Sasha Green, 25, was found dead in a vacant lot in Tennant Creek on the morning of November 22, 2013. She had a deep stab wound on her upper thigh. Her father, Casper Green, would tell the NT News he believed police did not view the death of a troubled Aboriginal woman as a priority.

“We try to ask the police what is happening but we don’t get information,” he said. It was five days before they searched the apartment where she had been socialising with friends. There was no media conference or appeal for witnesses.

At an inquest held four years later the coroner, Greg Cavanagh, would find police had an “irrational preoccupation” that Sasha’s injury was self-inflicted, despite the fact she had no history of self-harm.

It was another case of victim blaming in the death of an Aboriginal woman.

And Cavanagh was scathing: “The investigation was undertaken by inexperienced officers in an incompetent fashion. In my view, it was so poor that prosecution would only have been possible if the killer confessed.” Families of the deceased, he said, “are entitled to expect better”.

Sasha’s husband, Rodney Shannon, has been named as a suspect but has never been charged.

The “horrrendous” truth uncovered at inquests

Amy McQuire has sat in on a number of coronial inquests. “One of the key issues I have found is that Aboriginal women are held responsible for their own deaths or disappearances. That is even in circumstances where there are clear cases of violence in which they are clearly vulnerable.”

She has been at several “horrendous” inquests where the victims “have gone to the police numerous times and they’ve been mocked and laughed at, and it later ends in their death. There’s just that added layer of racist violence.”

Dr Amy McQuire has sat through too many inquests about missing and murdered indigenous women.
Dr Amy McQuire has sat through too many inquests (Image: Jacob McQuire).

In the Northern Territory and elsewhere, frontline services are overwhelmed, shelters are full and women are being turned away. Urgent, radical change is required. An NT co-responder pilot program – where specialist domestic, family, sexual violence workers and social workers attend call-outs with police – was so underfunded that it hasn’t started yet.

First Nations women, Amy says, face danger even when they ask for help. There is the constant danger of having their children taken, “the violence of child protection, of the justice system, even the health system. Aboriginal women can’t go to these places for any form of safety, because when they do, they are criminalised.”

Most Aboriginal women in prison are victims of violence

Australian prisons are filled with Indigenous women. Victim-survivors are being punished, victimised again. The person who most needs help is often misidentified. Nationally the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has increased by 148 per cent since 1991.

“The majority of [Aboriginal women in prison], pretty much all of them, are victims of violence,” Amy continues. “All across the country, Aboriginal women are seen as perpetrators, and they’re seen as violent. All of these are cases of Aboriginal women retaliating for their own safety against their abusers and being jailed for it.”

“She decides to retaliate, otherwise he will kill her. People don’t get that,” Leanne adds. “And she enters jail because no one did their job in the first place, when she first called them.”

Amy speaks of women who were all too visible to police and government while they were alive. “But when they died, the police failed to search for them. If the victim is an Aboriginal woman she is just seen as not worthy of justice.”

“When a white woman dies by violence, there’s vigils, there’s protests, there’s displays of mourning. Why doesn’t that happen for Aboriginal women? ”

Amy McQuire

Amy says that Aboriginal women are “disappeared. When a white woman dies by violence, there’s vigils, there’s protests, there’s displays of mourning. Why doesn’t that happen for Aboriginal women? The media will never follow the cases of Aboriginal women in the same way. They are never seen as a victim worthy of the same level of mourning or sympathy because their experiences are seen as not palatable or even recognised.”

(Image: Samantha Trenoweth)

Nowhere to run

For women in remote communities, there is literally nowhere to run. Often there is no phone coverage. They have to travel hundreds of kilometres to find safety. Even if they can get through to a helpline, a high percentage of people in remote communities speak a language other than English. And as in the case of Jenny Liddle-Bob, they have often married into a community that is not their own and don’t have family close.

Antoinette Braybrook says “services must be provided to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women no matter where we live. While it is a devastating reality that Aboriginal women are being murdered or brutally disappear in regional and remote areas, it is essential we treat men’s violence against women as a national epidemic and recognise that Aboriginal women are experiencing violence in every part of our country.”

A voice for Aboriginal women

Leanne believes that Aboriginal people need to be at “the top of the chain” and have a voice and presence in government, health, and in the justice system. “We’re never going to be able to pull the levers,” she says, “because we’re not at the table to have those discussions. I think it can be fixed but there’s so much that needs to change.”

Djirra, along with other community-controlled organisations, has advocated for an improved “standalone, dedicated and national plan to end violence against First Nations women and children”.

Professor Atkinson and Dr Brown both stress no plan will succeed without addressing the effect intergenerational trauma – from the violence of the frontier wars through the stolen generations to the present – has had on both victims of these crimes and perpetrators.

“All this results in mass trauma, dispossession and basically every risk factor you can think of for violence, homelessness, poverty and substance abuse,” says Dr Chay Brown, a specialist domestic, family and sexual violence researcher with the Australian National University.

Leanne says “60 per cent of offending in the Northern Territory … involves alcohol. So you can assume the 40 per cent that doesn’t has some kind of untreated, undiagnosed trauma and grief”.

Signs of change

In August last year, the federal government released a plan to establish a national peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family safety. It’s part of a dedicated three-year action plan to tackle issues facing First Nations Australians. And on August 15, a federal government inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations Women and Children is expected to deliver its report.

In their submissions to the inquiry, Djirra, Change the Record and other First Nations-led organisations insisted that violence against women cannot be viewed in isolation. They agreed with Leanne that self-determination is a critical first step and mentioned better resourcing for community-controlled support systems. These organisations pointed to ending the threat of child removal and the criminalisation of victim-survivors. They also highlighted the importance of “ensuring everyone has a safe and secure home and enough income to live”.

murdered indigenous woman Jenny Liddle-Bob's extended family visit her grave at Canteen Creek in the Northern Territory.
Jenny Liddle-Bob’s extended family visit her grave at Canteen Creek in the Northern Territory.

Meanwhile, as the cogs of government slowly turn, women die and families and communities struggle through endlessly recurring grief.

When a loved one has been killed, says Amy, “they want to bring their spirit back home. They never stop seeking to bring disappeared women back to their Country. You talk to families and it is as fresh as if it happened yesterday … And the children are growing up with that trauma.”

Amy McQuire’s book, Black Witness: The Power of Indigenous Media, is out on July 16. You can order it now via Dymocks.

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Either call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit their website, or call Lifeline (13 11 14) or visit their website, or call the First Nations’ crisis support line on 13YARN (13 92 76) or visit their website.

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