s2 ep1: Vanessa fowler

Allison Baden-Clay is a name most Australians know well – she was a mother-of-three who was a victim of domestic violence, murdered by her husband in 2012.

Vanessa Fowler is Allison’s sister and the co-founder of the Allison Baden-Clay Foundation, which is not only keeping her memory alive but is educating the country and dispelling myths about domestic violence. See Vanessa’s interview with Roxanne McCarty-O’Kane on the first episode of season two of The Phoenix Phenomenon by clicking on the video above, or read on for the full transcription.

Roxanne – Okay, hello everyone. Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m Roxanne McCarty-O’Kane with another edition of the Phoenix Phenomenon, our first edition of season two actually. And I have with me here today, Vanessa Fowler, who is the chairperson of the Allison Baden-Clay Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us today, Vanessa.

Vanessa – Thank you for having me.

Roxanne – Not a problem at all. You’re a very busy lady lately, so I appreciate your time. So, for those of you that we need to make a bit of a connection actually, Vanessa is Allison Baden-Clay’s sister. Now most Australians would be familiar with Allison’s story but for those of you who are maybe watching from overseas, Allison Baden-Clay is a mother of three who went missing, was reported missing in April of 2012. There was a large police search and she was found 10 days later and two months after that, her husband, Gerard, was charged and then convicted of her murder. So, Allison was the face of one of the largest domestic violence reported in the headlines for quite some time, since and even before that, I believe, probably set a bit of a sad precedence for our country. And Vanessa and her family have regrouped and founded the Allison Baden-Clay Foundation to keep her memory alive and to keep the country talking about domestic violence so we can prevent anything like this from happening again. Thank you so much, Vanessa, for joining us again today. It’s a real pleasure to have you here. So I would really love to find out more about the foundation and the work that you are doing across the country now, and how it’s grown in the past few years.

Vanessa – Yes, the foundation that my parents and I started, actually has gained a lot of traction over the last few years, and our primary goal is in the prevention area, so we’re into the educational side of things. The foundation develops educational programs to assist people in the community, in recognizing the signs of domestic violence and helping bystanders support victims or support those that they feel may be at risk. So, we have recently, over the last 18 months, partnered with Griffith University here in Queensland and we have developed a program called the MATE Bystander Program. It actually intertwines Allison’s story and we use various segments of domestic violence and Allison’s story and compare how Allison’s story fits in to each of those cogs in the wheel of power and control. So as you say, yes, we’ve gained a lot of momentum over the last couple of years and we’re extremely excited to be doing this work and my family are very happy with the way that things are progressing because obviously we’re continuing the conversation and continuing to highlight the issue of family domestic violence.

Roxanne – Absolutely. And was it a hard decision for yourself and your parents to even take the step to create the foundation? I mean, it was two years after you lost your dear sister. Actually, you must have been tempted to, kind of, retreat and take care of the family and make sure everyone’s well but what was it that was the prompter for you to step out of that and to try and enact national change?

Vanessa – Well, in actual fact, it wasn’t long after Allison passed away, that a group of her friends got together and started Strive to be Kind Day. July is the month of Allison’s birth and so they decided that they wanted to ensure that the community knew what they knew and that she was extremely kind, generous, caring, loving. And they wanted people in the community to be more like that, in order to stem the violence that’s there within our community. So they started Strive to be Kind Day. And for the first few years, it was quite a small event and we involved a lot of schools and community groups, asking them to wear a splash of yellow, which was Allison’s favorite color. Wear yellow ribbons and actually perform a random act of kindness and just pay it forward to those that they come in contact with on that particular day. It ended up, it’s the last Friday of July each year, and from that, we had so much support, that our family decided that we needed to share Allison with the world and ensure that her legacy was a positive one for her three girls and that her name was one that people recognized with something positive and assisting others in making a difference.

Roxanne – Yeah, absolutely. That’s incredible. And so I understand, the foundation is now taking up a fair bit more of your time now. You’ve had to scale back your teaching role to take on more foundation work, is that correct?

Vanessa – Yes, I’ve been, well we’ve moved a little bit with, after Allison passed away, we’ve moved according to where the girls’ schooling was. And so my family have moved with my parents and the three girls and so we’re now all in essential spot. But yes, I managed over the last five years to maintain my teaching career but just this last year, I decided that it was just not fair on the children at the school that I was having to take so much time out to fulfill my commitments with the foundation and so, I think because it’s grown so much over the last 18 months to two years, that, yes, I’ve actually taken a leave of absence from teaching for a while and so we’ll see where the foundation takes us from here.

Roxanne – Absolutely. And what do you think it is that has, I guess, helped the foundation to gain traction in that time frame, in the last 12 to 18 months? Do you think maybe, finally, the country is ready to hear the message and to take action?

Vanessa – I think that firstly, because Allison’s story was such a high-profile one, and you know, since then, there’s been a lot of high-profile cases. And I think that because everybody knew the story, as you mentioned, everybody knows of it, it was in the media quite a bit. I think that because of that, people resonated with who Allison was and they could relate that she was the girl next door and you know, that people didn’t realize that domestic violence doesn’t discriminate and that it can manifest itself in so many different ways, that people started to have the conversation and started to be brave enough to listen to what the conversation is about and say, yes, I recognize that in a family member or a work colleague or a friend and I think that the conversation, we’re highlighting the issue so much more, that I think, not only that but also the fact that we’re working with this program, the MATE Bystander Program. And I think, as you say, people are starting to have that conversation a lot more and we’re highlighting the issue. So I don’t know whether there is an increase in rates of domestic violence, but I just think that people are reporting it a lot more. They’re feeling more confident they can report incidents more.

Roxanne – Yeah, and I have spoken to some police officers about that for other things that I do in my work and they have said the same thing. They feel like it’s just people are feeling more confident in reporting and assisting and that’s how the awareness is being raised on the law enforcement front. I mean, it’s incredible, isn’t it. But yes, we need to dial it back to the prevention now and I know that that’s where the MATE Bystander Program is going to play a really large role going forward, so that’s incredible.

Vanessa – Yes, yes, we’re very excited about it because I’m a teacher, Allison was always one that was making sure that young people were resilient and had their goals and were able to become independent and so, education is part of our family. And so that’s why we really wanted to focus on the education side of things and so, I think the Bystander Program resonated with our family because we were actually the bystanders in Allison’s case and if we’d have known then, what we know now, things may have been a little bit different. But we want to share this message with people, with other bystanders. We’re all bystanders and we all need to make sure that we have the toolkit available to be able to help those that need it most.

Roxanne – Absolutely and are you comfortable with sharing a bit about your, I guess your experience of what it is that happened before Allison’s disappearance? Looking back now, as you said, knowing what you know now, you’ve had a lot of education and things yourself through your own lived experience, but what were some of the red flags that happened in Allison’s particular case? I mean, there were no physical injuries, there were no broken bones or bruises or anything like that for you to take action on, so I’d really love to find out a bit more about what it was that you feel happened there.

Vanessa – Yes, I guess, leading up to and during the trial, we didn’t even realize that it was domestic violence. You know, we’ve only been educated after the fact and there were signs that we’ve now become aware of and that came out at the trial in the evidence of the trial that all pointed to domestic violence. So, the main thing looking back, was the isolation. Looking back, there was the fact that he had blocked my parent’s phone number and my phone number from their home phone so that we couldn’t dial in and then Allison couldn’t dial us. So he blocked our number from on her phones, so there was that slight chipping away. She very rarely went to any social functions, our old school alumni functions or a friend’s having coffee. There were occasions that she just wouldn’t attend. And so isolation for us, was the main one. And then the financial control. And I’m sure that a lot of women will understand that, as a stay at home mom, you don’t have any income and your partner is in control of the finances. They’re the main breadwinner, so it’s easy for the income earner to have control. And so there was very little income, very little money that she had to buy the things that the children needed and to maintain the home. So there was a lot of financial control. And technological control, as well, with him monitoring her phone, texts that she’d made, calls that she’d made. You know, she’d have to put the phone on the counter at night and he would look through it to see. So there was lots of little things that, you know, we as a family didn’t realize because a lot of them had been behind closed doors and we’re of a generation where you mind your own business and you don’t interfere with what goes on behind closed doors. So, that was something that we, I guess, could have been an influence, but we did along the way, certainly tell Allison that she had our support. You know, we knew that there wasn’t something just not right, but we didn’t take that next step to actually intervene and that’s what the Bystander Program does for those that attend the workshop. It actually gives them practical solutions and tools to help them intervene effectively and sensitively in the situation that they may see themselves in.

Roxanne – That’s amazing, yeah. Excellent. And I’d love to find out a bit more about how this program, the Bystander Program, is going to be rolled out and who will be able to access it.

Vanessa – Well, initially, we’re rolling it out to the corporate sector. Allison had a great career in the corporate sector, so that’s where her roots are and of course, we feel that it’s responsibility of employers to insure that their employees are aware of these signs because all of us spend the majority of our day at work. So, that’s where we’re going to be able to do, you know, be most effective. So, we’re hoping to roll it out to the corporate sector and then eventually, our goal is definitely to get into the schools and universities.

Roxanne – Absolutely. And I wasn’t sure if you wanted to go into this here, but I’d love to find out, maybe some strategies that you can share with listeners, you know that, maybe perhaps, the initial steps to take if they are seeing some of these, you know, emotional abuse warning signs and what, perhaps, the first step is to make contact with the person you feel is the victim and how you can show your support and help.

Vanessa – Well, I guess, depending on the situation, if you’re the work colleague and you’re finding that they’re coming in early, staying late, they may not have enough cash to contribute to the flowers for a colleague or there’s just those subtle signs that, ones that we can recognize that maybe something’s just not right. You know, just approaching them and rather than saying, is everything okay, you know, those closed questions, kind of start the conversation right then and there. But if you can have a conversation, like I read this great article about, you know, women spending so much time at work because of this, because of things that are going on at home, and yeah, would you like me to send you a copy? And think trust. You know, starting a conversation very subtly but it also sends a message to that person that they do have support, that you may know what’s going on and that you’re here for them. So it’s just letting them know because a person in a domestic violence situation, feels very alone and if they can know that they have a supporter around them, then that’s all that they need. Of course, if there is a violent situation, if there is a neighbor next door and you can hear screaming and glass broken, you know obviously you’re not, we don’t ask you to put yourself in danger in that situation so that, you would definitely call the police, in those situations. But as I say, it depends on the situation but our Bystander Program teaches the first scenario about how to approach a colleague or a friend very sensitively so that there are no consequences for that person.

Roxanne – Absolutely, yeah. And one thing I would like to talk to you about, as well, is, I guess, I’ve read in other stories, that you’ve commented on how well Allison was able to present herself to the outside world even though there was all of this going on, you know, when she was home alone. So I would love to get your thoughts on that and how, I guess, you would encourage people to be able to, perhaps, break through that.

Vanessa – Well, as I said earlier, domestic violence manifests itself in so many different ways and you know, outwardly, she was always well-dressed, you know, and had her makeup and hair done, you know, as if she– So, we felt she was coping very well and the community and her friends around her, thought that she was coping very well, whereas, I guess, behind the closed doors, things were not as happy as everybody might have thought. I think that when you’re in a situation like that, the presentation and the presenting that, you know, when you go out into the community, putting on that brave face, they looked like a very happy couple, successful couple. And it’s very, very difficult to know what’s going on. And that was the case with us. I think even with our Bystander Program, it’s going to teach people to delve that little bit deeper.

Roxanne – Sure, yeah.

Vanessa – So we’re very excited about sharing that message, too.

Roxanne – Yeah, it really comes back to human connection, doesn’t it. Actually getting to know your colleagues and getting to know your neighbors and we’re kind of the very disconnected society, aren’t we, at the best of times, so.

Vanessa – We are, we are. Very much into technology and you know, we’re not getting outside as much. We’re not, you know, as you say, connecting with our neighbors in our street or you know, doing things socially with our work colleagues, you know, actually getting to know them. We just, are like robots in some respect. When we go to work, we do the work and we come home. We have blinkers on, so hopefully we’re going to try and remove those blinkers and get people to see the whole picture.

Roxanne – Yeah, absolutely, that’s great. And you are doing a fair bit of speaking and other media engagements at the moment. I’d be curious to find out a bit about how people can get on board with the foundation and show their support for what you’re doing.

Vanessa – Well, we do have our Facebook page. We also have a website. So all of my information is on our website. Information about the Bystander Program, information about our Strive to be Kind Day, which is held, as I said, on the last Friday of each July. So all of that is on our foundation website and it’s AllisonBadenClayFoundation.org.au and people can go there and find out any information. And if they want to get in touch with me, or with any member of our board, and also make a booking for our MATE Bystander Program, we’re more than happy to connect through the website or Facebook page.

Roxanne – Excellent, no that’s wonderful. And I can’t let you go without saying a big congratulations for your recent awards, as well. For those of you listening, Vanessa was awarded The Pride of Australia Medal in December last year and early 2019, named the Ipswich Citizen of the Year for 2019 at the Australia Day Awards. A huge congratulations for you, too. I know you’ve put in a lot of work. So, yeah, how is the family feeling about all of this ceremony at the moment?

Vanessa – Well, it’s very humbling but a great honor, as well. Bittersweet. Bittersweet because you know, certainly we didn’t expect that we would be in this situation but it’s great to be recognized for the work that we’re doing and the impact that we’re making. So, very pleased.

Roxanne – Absolutely, alright, that’s wonderful. Thank you so, so much for your time, Vanessa. It’s been really great to chat to you today and I really hope that those of you who are listening or watching at home, if you are seeing any warning signs, definitely take some steps, connect with the foundation. I’m sure there’s some resources there that can help you to deal with that and let’s try and minimize and prevent as many of these domestic violence acts as we can. So, thank you so much and yes, I hope you enjoy the rest of your day, Vanessa.

Vanessa – Thank you, thanks for your time.

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