‘Killing Daniel’ a true story

‘Killing Daniel’  is a powerful story about real events. It is just one story in a collection of gritty writing in True Stories, by Helen Garner. The subject matter of  ‘Killing Daniel’ should concern all of us. This special story should be compulsory reading for everyone who cares about the safety of children.

True Stories

True Stories

‘Killing Daniel’ recounts the 1993 murder trials of Paul Aiton,. This man beat two-year old Daniel Valerio to death at the Melbourne suburb of Rosebud in 1990.

This gut-wrenching  story tells of the murder of a child by his mother’s live-in lover. A final, heavy blow to his abdomen caused the death. The killer said he administered the punch ‘to stop him crying’.

‘Killing Daniel’ is not simply about murder. It provides an account of  sadistic, ongoing maltreatment of a little boy over a number of months. Effective intervention might have saved the child’s life.

At autopsy, the pathologist discovered one hundred and four bruises on the tiny body. They were distributed liberally over his head, face, neck, chest abdomen, arms, legs and back. The pathologist also found several broken bones, left undiagnosed and untreated. The pathologist told the court that the boy’s death had been a long, slow process.

Garner provides a harrowing account of the man’s savagery. She also, equally disturbingly, writes of the inaction of Daniel’s mother, Cheryl Butcher. The mother was not charged with any crime.

Garner says

 ‘…when the dead boy’s mother…was called to the witness stand, she displayed the dull eyes and defeated posture of a woman whose path through life is joyless and without drive’.

Butcher seems to have been able to

‘overlook’ the brutality inflicted on her child in exchange for her boyfriend’s company and his pay-check –  indeed, ‘for the simple fact of not being manless.’

A procession of witnesses – neighbours, tradespeople, social workers, teachers, family friends, doctors, nurses, police and a photographer – told the court that they had seen and heard Aiton inflicting blows on the child. Some said they had seen his bruises. But no one spoke out or acted effectively to prevent further harm.

It seems simplistic to say that child protection should  be everyone’s business.

One family friend and sometimes babysitter told the court  he constructed a version of a boxer’s headgear. He used strips of wet-suit material and a ‘lime-green strip of rubber and another, dark blue one’. He used these in an attempt to protect the baby’s head from further damage. As Garner comments,

‘It seemed a gesture of helpless kindness by a good, gentle man – but wasn’t it misdirected?’

Helen Garner, Author of 'Killing Daniel,'

Helen Garner, Author of ‘Killing Daniel’

Surprisingly, Aiton’s first jury could not reach a verdict. But a second, older, more sombre panel took just four hours to reach the verdict of guilty of murder. Aiton served 18 years of a 22 year sentence and was released from prison in 2011.

Over the months he was being tortured, twenty-one professionals saw Daniel.That surely must be the most horrific indictment of child protection in Australia at that time. This child’s death was a failure not only of bureaucracy, but of the community and of  society at large.

‘Killing Daniel’ demonstrates the lack of energy displayed by child protection officers and others when faced with evidence of maltreatment of children. I worry about the apparent gate-keeping in some government departments. This still occurs occurs when  ordinary citizens try to report their suspicions of danger faced by a child.

Helen Garner, the author of ‘Killing Daniel’, is the recipient of the 2016 – Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for non-fiction works. First published in 1993, True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction is still in print.

Garner later wrote Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief (2014). They are also true stories about murder trials. But ‘Killing Daniel’ continues to haunt me so many years after I first read it.

All child protection officers, teachers, nurses and general practitioners should be made to read it. Indeed, all of us who care about the well-being of children should read it..

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2014.

 

‘Killing Daniel,’  a powerful story about real events. It is just one story in a collection of gritty writing in True Stories, by Helen Garner. The subject matter of  ‘Killing Daniel’ should concern all of us. This story should be compulsory reading for everyone who cares about the safety of children.

True Stories

True Stories

‘Killing Daniel’ recounts the 1993 murder trials of Paul Aiton,. This man beat two-year old Daniel Valerio to death at the Melbourne suburb of Rosebud in 1990.

This gut-wrenching  story tells of the murder of a child by his mother’s live-in lover. A final, heavy blow to his abdomen caused the death. The killer said he administered the punch ‘to stop him crying’.

‘Killing Daniel’ is not simply about murder. It provides an account of  sadistic, ongoing maltreatment of a little boy over a number of months. Effective intervention might have saved the child’s life.

At autopsy, the pathologist discovered one hundred and four bruises on the tiny body. They were distributed liberally over his head, face, neck, chest abdomen, arms, legs and back. The pathologist also found several broken bones, left undiagnosed and untreated. The pathologist told the court that the boy’s death had been a long, slow process.

Garner provides a harrowing account of the man’s savagery. She also, equally disturbingly, writes of the inaction of Daniel’s mother, Cheryl Butcher. The mother was not charged with any crime.

Garner says

 ‘…when the dead boy’s mother…was called to the witness stand, she displayed the dull eyes and defeated posture of a woman whose path through life is joyless and without drive’.

Butcher seems to have been able to

‘overlook’ the brutality inflicted on her child in exchange for her boyfriend’s company and his pay-check –  indeed, ‘for the simple fact of not being manless.’

A procession of witnesses – neighbours, tradespeople, social workers, teachers, family friends, doctors, nurses, police and a photographer – told the court that they had seen and heard Aiton inflicting blows on the child. Some said they had seen his bruises. But no one spoke out or acted effectively to prevent further harm.

It seems simplistic to say that child protection should  be everyone’s business.

One family friend and sometimes babysitter told the court  he constructed a version of a boxer’s headgear. He used strips of wet-suit material and a ‘lime-green strip of rubber and another, dark blue one’. He used these in an attempt to protect the baby’s head from further damage. As Garner comments,

‘It seemed a gesture of helpless kindness by a good, gentle man – but wasn’t it misdirected?’

Helen Garner, Author of 'Killing Daniel,'

Helen Garner, Author of ‘Killing Daniel,’

Surprisingly, Aiton’s first jury could not reach a verdict. But a second, older, more sombre panel took just four hours to reach the verdict of guilty of murder. Aiton served 18 years of a 22 year sentence and was released from prison in 2011.

Over the months he was being tortured, twenty-one professionals saw Daniel.That surely must be the most horrific indictment of child protection in Australia at that time. This child’s death was a failure not only of bureaucracy, but of the community and of  society at large.

‘Killing Daniel’ demonstrates the lack of energy displayed by child protection officers and others when faced with evidence of maltreatment of children. I worry about the apparent gate-keeping in some government departments. This still occurs occurs when  ordinary citizens try to report their suspicions of danger faced by a child.

Helen Garner, the author of ‘Killing Daniel’, is the recipient of the 2016 – Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for non-fiction works. First published in 1993, True Stories: Selected Non-Fiction is still in print.

Garner would later write Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and (2014) both also true stories about murder trials. But ‘Killing Daniel’ continues to haunt me so many years after I first read it. All child protection officers, teachers, general practitioners should be made to read it. Indeed, all of us who care about the well-being of children should read it..

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2014.

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14 thoughts on “‘Killing Daniel’ a true story

  1. Thanks, Maureen. I’m not with you in putting Garner up there. I’m a prejudiced and selective reader, and after reading Joe Cinque’s Consolation, decided not to read any more of her books, as I thought it was a biased account, and I thought that she and Philip Adams, in the interview on Late Night LIve, colluded to cast the woman/murderer in the worst light, and to sanctify Joe and his mother.
    However, your summary of this book sounds like she is on the side of the angels, and is raising important questions about our child protection (or lack of it) system.

    • I really like her work, and have read most of it from Monkey Grip on, although Joe Cinque’s Consolation is not one of my favourites. But her story about Daniel is extremely sad and also well written. I was prompted to write about it because I’ve been thinking a lot about domestic violence, child protection and elder abuse in the past few weeks. The story seemed to sum up some things I wanted to say about intimate violence.

      • As I was reading this, I thought of Joe Cinque’s consolation – and then you mentioned it at the end. It sounds very much like Garner’s style of reporting, her observation and her language (“she displayed the dull eyes and defeated posture of a woman whose path through life is joyless and without drive”). It also touches on the wider duty of care issues that Garner discusses in Joe Cinque.

        I must say – with some anxiety – that I’m with Christina on Joe Cinque, but not on not putting Garner up there. Joe Cinque is a very uncomfortable story and you feel if you criticise Garner’s take you are somehow condoning what happened to Joe, but it’s not that at all. Rather, it’s as Christina says … I think Garner did not attempt to understand Anu Singh though there were hints that she was a troubled young woman. What happened to Joe was terrible, and should not happen to any human being, but I’d have liked some analysis of Singh rather than demonisation. Garner made me really angry with her The first stone too. But, I still have her as one of my favourite Aussie writers – she writers beautifully and she’s fearless about what she writes about. That’s worth a lot to me.

        • Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response, Whispering Gums. I only partly understand your position and that of Christina in relation to Garner’s treatment of Anu Singh. As the author of a narrative non-fiction book (Other People’s Country) which was long-listed for a Walkley Best Non-Fiction Book Award, and short listed for the Western Australian Premier’s History Award, I believe that authors of narrative non-fiction should tell their stories as they see them, without necessarily undertaking analysis of all the characters involved. In fact, Garner did try to interview Anu Singh, but her request for a meeting was declined.
          I will reread Joe Cinque’s Consolation with new eyes. Thank you again.

          • For me, Whispering Gums has put how I felt better than I could, some years after reading Joe Cinque’s Consolation and listening to the Philip Adams interview with Anu Singh. Demonisation and sanctification, to me, don’t add up to a fair analysis. Garner held a lot of power, in interviewing the people involved (Anu Singh excepted) and in writing their story. It is true, as you say, Maureen, that authors ‘should tell their stories as they see them.’ But how they see them, in this case, may be biased, just as history and legal judgements may be biased.

            • Oh, of course stories, history and legal judgements can be, frequently are, biased. We could also say that about medical and ethical judgements. I guess it boils down to a matter of ethics, which as you know can be personal and contentious. I really will reread Joe Cinque’s Consolation because I seem to have missed some fundamental points.

  2. i,too am haunted by the death of Daniel Valerio. I cried for him several times and also cry for the needless cruelty that parents inflict upon children. There is no justice for the ‘silent” suffering of children like Daniel. Maureen it still occurs to this day!! We have had conversations in the past and sadly will do so in the future. Perpetrators seem to “get away “with despite laws and sanctions, Thank you for drawing attention to this needless cruelty and brutality.
    Rosemary KX

    • Yes, Rosie, we have discussed the death of Daniel Valerio before. All these years later, I am still haunted by the thought that it was ‘good people doing nothing’ that contributed to his torture and death. And the incompetence of child protection workers who did not do their job effectively. When I did orientation programs and staff education in a couple of positions I held before I retired, I used to get new and inexperienced staff members to read the story, and often talked about it in supervision.

  3. I hope you will write a blog about Joe Cinque’s Consolation when you re-read it, Maureen, or at least a comment on this post. It is an interesting conversation. One thing I’m very aware of is that writers with a high profile like Garner have immense power, which I think is sometimes not used with as much care as it should be, when it comes to interviewing and writing about people who are damaged and broken or at least vulnerable.

    • Yes, you are right about writers and power, Christina. Thank you for reminding me about conversations about power we’ve had before, when we were PhD candidates. I feel I do need to write a review of Garner’s book in light of this conversation, and post it here.

  4. I’m reading Joe Cinque’s Consolation at the moment, and its unputdownable. Helen Garner at least acknowledges her biases, unlike many writers, and to be honest I can see why she feels the way she does. She also brings her personal experiences into the story in a very thoughtful way. The story of Anu Singh, and her coterie of friends, who seem utterly wrapped up in the drama she provided, beggars belief. They all just want to abdicate any moral or ethical obligation towards Joe – yet he was supposedly their friend too. My heart breaks for the Cinque family. And Singh will of course have to live with what she did. There are no winners. I also have This House Of Grief to read too, but her fiction doesn’t sound as appealing to me personally. I wanted to find out more about this case, which is mentioned in the book, and found your blog.

    • Thank your comments, Linda. You have obviously thought deeply about the Joe Cinque case and Helen Garner’s account of it in ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’. I really enjoy everything Helen Garner writes, especially her non-fiction. The killing of Joe Cinque seems such a senseless act on the part of Anu Singh, and I do not begin to understand her motives or the actions of her associates. I have not yet read ‘This House of Grief’ although I have it by my bed. I understand that Garner’s fiction might not sound appealing but if you do change your mind I highly recommend ‘The Spare Room’ – although I can’t help thinking it is at least semi-autobiographical.

      • I’d no idea of the gap between someone’s moral or ethical “duty of care”, and the legal definition of it, at least in Australia, and I’m sure in the UK it’s similar. Bizarrely, if you try and help someone and they don’t survive, as you’ve involved yourself you are open to prosecution – meaning it’s easier to ignore someone in need…that is incomprehensible, and the judge agreed that was the case. But it isn’t his job to create the law, that’s a political issue. I’ve also downloaded True Stories, to read THIS story. It greatly reminded me of the Baby P case here; in fact there have been many murders of children by a stepfather figure while the mother stands by. We as a society have a collective responsibility to look out for those who can’t speak up – that’s what community means, I think. As for Joe Cinque’s story – what a hideous group of self-absorbed drama-seeking vacuous children (that’s how they behaved, with no maturity.) And they intended to be lawyers?! I do wonder what Anu Singh is doing, and what she has made of her life. Also I feel that women CAN be very judgemental of other women (this has been seen in juries in rape trials.) We can be so harsh with each other. Garner admits Anu raised her “girl-hackles” – and I know exactly what she means. Sorry for the length of my comment, but this book does make you examine all these things, and having now finished it I wanted to add this. Thanks for the tip; I’ve (fatally!) downloaded a sample of The Spare Room. I’m glad I’ve found your blog!

        • I love that you are engaging with my blog, Linda. It makes me think blogging is a really good medium for people to talk to each other about what matters to them. The Killing Daniel story in ‘True Stories’ just about broke my heart when I read it twenty or so years ago. I think I said in the blog that it should be compulsory reading for everyone who is involved in the protection of children, including child protection officers, teachers, nurses, parents grandparents… Hope you enjoy The Spare Room. It is very poignant and very honest as I find Garner always tries to be.

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