Betrayed by mummy

How could she do that to her girl?

Published by: Laura Hinton and Sharon Ward
Published on: 15 November 2012

Relief, that's what I felt right now, utter relief.
As I watched Melissa settle her kids Savannah and Logan down in front of the TV, I couldn't help but smile. She was visibly brighter. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
‘Mummy!' Savannah shrieked, suddenly. ‘I've lost Three!'
It was the name of the beloved toy cat Melissa had bought for four-year-old Savannah's birthday the year before. She carried it with her everywhere. ‘It's here,' I said, throwing it over. A mischievous little grin suddenly lit up her face.
‘Can we do crazy hair, Aunty Ashley?' she asked.
I chuckled, flicked my head upside down and waved my hair in her face. She loved it. ‘We're going crazy!' she squealed. ‘Crazy, crazy!'
Soon, she was settled back down in front of the TV with Logan. Me and Melissa had some peace at last!
‘I'm so proud of you,' I said, handing her a cuppa.
‘Oh, don't get all emotional on me,' she chuckled. But I couldn't help it. I'd got my sister back. You see, up until a few weeks ago, poor Melissa had been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of her hubby Dave, 30. For four years, she'd kept quiet. I hadn't known a thing about it until she'd turned up at our dad's house with a black eye. Since then, she'd got a restraining order against Dave and she was in a safe house with the kids.
‘I can't believe I didn't spot the signs,' I sighed.
‘It's not your fault,' she said, gripping my hand. ‘I was ashamed. I hid it well.'
‘I'm sorry, though,' I said, regretfully. ‘If only I could get my hands on Dave...'
I saw a flash of fear in Melissa's eyes just at the mention of his name. Thing is, I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty. Had I noticed a few bruises over the years? If I had, I'd probably just brushed them off.
Looking back, I realised she'd been a lot more withdrawn in the last few years. But I'd just assumed she was a busy, worn out mum. I'd never for one moment thought she was being beaten up on an almost daily basis by this monster.
On the surface, Melissa and Dave had seemed happy. They'd had a whirlwind romance and she'd fallen pregnant at just 17.
It wasn't just the fact that she'd hidden the abuse, it was the idea that this could have happened to Melissa at all. Growing up, she'd been my strong big sis.
Our mum had never really been around, so she'd become a
kind of second parent.
To think she'd become so weak, so broken, I felt devastated. Still, at least she was away from Dave now.
Over the next few weeks, me and Melissa spoke on the phone every night. She was still in the safe house but couldn't stay much longer because they had too many other women desperate for a place. ‘You sound happier, though,'
I said. ‘I am,' she admitted. ‘I finally feel free.'
But, a few days later, our dad, Phil, 59, rang. ‘I'm worried, love,' he said. ‘Melissa's met this new bloke called Scott on Myspace.'
‘Really?!' I mumbled.
‘She's only gone and moved in with him,' he said.
‘What?' I gasped. I listened, horrified, as Dad explained she'd moved to Indiana, which was a couple of hours drive away.
‘But she needs to be close to us right now,' I said. ‘It's ridiculous.' I couldn't understand. We'd only spoken a few days before. Why hadn't she mentioned anything?
Okay, I would've tried to talk her out of it, but still, I thought we could tell each other things. Desperate to speak to her, I rang again and again but couldn't get through. I was about to drive over to the address Dad had given me when he called once more with some news - Melissa and Scott had got married!
Furious, I rang her once more. This time, she picked up. ‘I haven't even met him. I don't understand,' I told her. ‘Why couldn't you wait?'
‘But I love him,' she said. ‘He's good with the kids, too.' She sounded happy, but I wasn't convinced.
Melissa had just come out of an abusive relationship and now she'd fallen straight into the arms of another man. I understood her confidence was probably at rock bottom, that this Scott had probably made her feel loved, but I just wish she'd taken some time to find herself again.
‘Please,' I begged her. ‘Come and stay with me.'
‘I love him,' she said, defiantly.
Of course, I wanted her to be happy - she deserved it. So, shaking my head, I put my doubts aside and let her be.
Three days on, I got another update from Dad. He'd visited Melissa and hadn't been impressed with Scott at all.
‘He was weird,' Dad said. ‘And he's just loafing around!'
‘I'll go and see her next weekend,' I sighed. Although
I didn't tell Dad, I couldn't help but feel uneasy. Had she fallen for the same kind of guy? Before I had a chance to do anything about it, Dad called again.
‘Savannah's gone,' he gasped.
At first, I thought he meant social services had got involved.
‘No, you don't understand,' he said, his voice cracking. ‘She's dead.' My breath caught in my throat. I couldn't speak, couldn't think... ‘W-where's Melissa?'
I finally managed to stutter. My heart broke for her. She'd be utterly distraught.
‘Melissa and Scott have been arrested,' he said. Falling to my knees, I doubled over in grief and shock. ‘I'm coming over,' I said.
As soon as I saw Dad, I threw myself at him. ‘Where's Logan?' I mumbled, my eyes darting about as I took in the police cars, the crime scene tape, the gawping neighbours. He was only five, must've been terrified.
‘I think he's been taken into care,' Dad said, a hollow look in his eyes. ‘I don't know anything...' Slowly, more information about what happened filtered through. ‘We believe Savannah was strangled by Scott,' one of the cops told us. ‘I'm afraid there are signs she suffered other injuries, too.'
From what Melissa had told them so far, things seemed to have kicked off a week before. Savannah had wet the bed again.This had been one of the few things Melissa had confided in me. Shortly after she'd married Scott, her little girl had started wetting the bed, something she hadn't done in ages.
‘It's probably the changes,' I told her, trying to keep my voice even. Only, this time, Scott had gone crazy. He'd laid into her, hitting her repeatedly on the head. Later, he'd strangled her.
I felt faint. I couldn't understand how anyone could want to hurt Savannah, the sweetest child in the world. And Melissa... had she been a part of this?
Was that why she'd been arrested? I felt guilty for even thinking those things. ‘Melissa loved Savannah,' I sobbed to Dad. ‘I have to see go and see her.'
A week on, we we were allowed to to visit Melissa in prison. As Dad drove us down, I didn't know how I felt. A part of me was angry with her. Surely, Melissa could've stepped in, saved our darling Savannah. But, for whatever reason, she didn't. I was shaking by the time we walked into the visitor's room. But, despite my anger, my heart broke as I saw my sister sitting there. She was pale and gaunt. ‘I can't remember anything,' she sobbed when we saw her. ‘I'm sorry, I'm... I love her. I don't know why he did this.' She was barely audible. One thing was clear though, she was a broken woman. I could see the same hollow look in her eyes as before. And that's when everything clicked into place.
‘Was Scott like Dave?'I whispered. She nodded, silent tears trickling down her cheeks. She'd gone from one violent relationship to another, was another victim in all of this. One punch too many had shattered her beyond repair.
A rush of emotion suddenly took hold. I thought I'd hate her, but I pitied her. Savannah had been murdered, and my sister hadn't been strong enough to stop it. Now, she'd pay the price for the rest of her life.
‘You're my big sister,' I sobbed. ‘No matter what, I'll always be here for you.' But, while Melissa grieved alone in prison, me and Dad had to fight her corner on the outside world. It was obvious she'd had a breakdown. A battered woman, she'd gone into meltdown when Scott abused her. Blocking everything out, she'd ignored what happened to Savannah because she couldn't cope. But to people who didn't know her, who didn't know the way she'd have done anything for those kids...she was a monster.
A few weeks on, Savannah's funeral was held. Dave organised it all, so my side of the family had very little involvement. I still hated him for what he'd done to my sister. Savannah was buried at a cemetery next to his father.
Later, we held our own private memorial. As I released 100 pink and purple balloons into the sky, I made a promise to myself - to make sure some good came from something bad.
The next few months whirled by. I didn't really know where
I was going or what I was doing from one day to the next. Soon, the court case had begun.
Melissa, 28, pleaded guilty to neglect of a dependant. She tried to use the battered women's syndrome as a defence, but the judge rejected it.
‘Nobody understands,' I whispered to Dad. As he took my hand in his, I suddenly thought back to Christmas the year before. Me and Melissa had been putting our make-up on when Savannah had walked into the room. ‘Look, I have make-up on like you, Mum!' she laughed. She'd put yellow highlighter on her eyebrows. ‘You cheeky little rascal!' Melissa had giggled, scooping her daughter up in her arms. That's how I wanted to remember Savannah, I wanted to remember mother and daughter together. Someone behind me in court cleared their throat, and
I was brought back to reality. Next, Melissa's sentence was read out. I felt numb. She received the maximum 20 years in jail, 10 of which she'd have to serve. Scott Bruce, 37, later pleaded guilty and was jailed for the cold-blooded killing of my darling niece. I was glad this
evil man would pay for what he'd done.
Now, four years on from Savannah's death, life is still not the same. Every day, I wake up thinking about little Savannah and the pain she must have endured. I take some comfort knowing that she did have a happy four years and that mischievous grin was never far from her face. One thing I have learnt is that life isn't black and white. Sometimes good people can allow terrible things to happen. Despite what happened, I still stand by my sister. She's my flesh and blood, I have no other choice. Every Saturday, we chat on the phone, and I visit when I can. I know her guilt is unbearable. She's only recently started getting flashbacks of the week when Savannah died, so it's still incredibly raw.
‘Will you send me some more pictures of her?' she asked the other day. ‘Of course,' I said.
I'm glad, though, that she's speaking about Savannah more. Meanwhile, Dave has custody of Logan, although I'm still fighting this with him now.
Melissa has started mentoring other women in prison who've suffered domestic violence. She's created a website, too, so victims can find the help they need. And, when she's served her time, she plans to open up a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. ‘I'm going to dedicate my life to this,' she said, recently. By doing this, Savannah's memory will live on forever and some good will come from something so tragic.

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Ashley Farber, 25, Virginia, USA