This is not a story for the faint hearted. It includes details that may disturb. But it deserves to be told because it reveals how children - several generations of them - have fallen through the cracks of Australia's child protection system.
In July last year, locals in a quiet valley in south-west 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.
The police and child protection authorities left with 12 children under the age of 16.
The children were malnourished, filthy, could barely talk, had appalling hygiene and had been living without electricity and running water. What has subsequently emerged is a truly horrific case of child sex abuse and intergenerational incest.
As the royal commission into 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 set new grounds 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. And next week one mother will face charges over an attempt to remove a child from care.
All names in this article have been changed because of legal requirements not to identify child victims.
Just a short drive from
Canberra is a small town in prime merino country. There are still some big properties but up in the valleys that stretch out from the town are smaller farms, used increasingly as hobby farms or as 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 seem 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 one neighbour. "Caravans, cars filled with kids."
Soon after the Colts arrived in the district they came to the attention of the police and the education department for failing to send their children to school. The education authorities were unable to find the farm because it is so remote 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, the older children at the high school. Close neighbours realised there was a large group living on the land but the Colts kept to themselves.
"Apart from the noise of the chainsaws, they didn't really worry us. I knew there were children living up there but I never heard any noise of laughing or playing," one neighbour said.
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 the timber for firewood. The family also received money from Centrelink.
The children's attendance at school was patchy. Several 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.
It took two years before the department acted. When authorities finally visited in June 2012 they were met with scenes of harrowing deprivation. According to descriptions in proceedings before the Children's Court, the family were living without permanent electricity or running water. There were no toilets and the family 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 being used for heating inside the confined space.
One mother slept in a tent with her daughters. There were exposed electrical 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 could not speak intelligibly. Their dental health was appalling and several did not know how to use a toothbrush.
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 behaviour and told carers they had engaged in sexual acts with each other and watched adults having sex on the farm.
Genetic tests showed that all but one child of the 12 removed had parents who were related or closely related to each other.
The four mothers, Rhonda, Betty, Martha and Raylene, have disputed the genetic testing, saying it is wrong and offering the names of alternative fathers. All were either dead or could not be found.
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 to South Australia during the 1970s with their six kids. They moved to Victoria, South Australia again, then Western Australia before ending up in NSW.
There is evidence that the abuse began back then and possibly even earlier.
Dwayne, one of Betty's sons, told his carers that 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.
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 from a rare genetic disease, Zellweger syndrome, and she failed to attend an appointment with Betty to discuss the role that close consanguinity between parents can play. Tammy's 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 that Derek was in fact her younger brother and father of her children.
She also revealed she had been abused within the 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.
The question that needs to be answered is how these children, and their mothers before them, managed to fall through the child protection net.
Part of the problem is that child protection is a state-based responsibility. When the Colts came to the attention of authorities - The Saturday Age understands the children have been taken into care in other jurisdictions - the family simply snatched the kids and moved states.
But against that background there is evidence that 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 1012 when the children were removed.
Asked why it failed to act, the department refused to provide a detailed response because the matter is continuing.
"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.
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.
* Name has been changed.