Clea Dunn’s father Ross on how he forgave his daughter’s killer

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And, to the surprise and consternation of many, they made a point of reaching out to the person who was behind the wheel of the car that struck their daughter.

At the time, Dunn says, they were, if not criticised, then branded naive when they insisted the teenager be given a chance.

“We thought this guy was still only 14, and that he had a chance,” he says.

“We arranged for him to actually finish high school, with lessons.”

The family sent him educational resources, so that he could learn to read and write, and helped organise an apprenticeship.

When he breached bail soon after being released from prison, they stood by him. When he broke into houses, stole cars and, horrifyingly, was involved in another car chase near a primary school, they insisted there was still time for him to turn his life around.

“We’re not religious or mystical or anything, but there’s a very handy list of harms and antidotes, a sort of Tibetan Buddhist thing,” he says.

“The antidote to rage is compassion, for example. It wasn’t like open-handed forgiveness – it was more like healing ourselves was the point.”

But the youth responsible for Clea’s death is now 27, and has been in and out of jail ever since.

In a recent court hearing, he admitted that the death had not stopped him from taking drugs. Nor had time in jail, family support, the birth of his own son, or his most recent offence of breaking a prison guard’s neck while high on ice.

Clea Rose

Clea Rose

Dunn says he feels “terrible” – he chooses his words carefully – but that he still believes in restorative justice.

“Absolutely – the odd failure doesn’t invalidate the concept,” he says.

“We didn’t have false expectations, however. We didn’t have rose-tinted glasses, as some people would think. We knew what we were dealing with, but if there was the slightest chance, we wanted to make it available.

“Otherwise, to do nothing was simply to consign that individual to a life, probably a short one, and his victims, of a lot of grief.

“And it wasn’t just us being good, it was us being good for our bodies and minds. If you take action, and think of other people, then it’s good for you. And it’s turned out that way for us.”

Does he think the man responsible for killing their daughter, who has continued to steal cars, evade police, and cause harm to other people, is irredeemable?

“It’s possible, but I don’t think anybody’s irredeemable,” he says.

“We developed a code for this young fellow, a code of living, that he signed off on, and that he had input to himself. It was in words that he was comfortable with, and he agreed to it full on, about how to live. So it still might be useful to him, one day. It’s about how to be a constructive citizen.”

But Dunn says he and his family will not reach out to the man anymore.

“It would have been about two, three years ago that we told him we had had enough. Even so, we said that if he ever commits and makes a real start at sorting his life out, he knows he can contact us again.”

It’s nearly 14 years since Clea died, but Dunn is still angry and calling for change. He and Rose were on the scene in the Civic Bus Interchange just moments after receiving the call on a winter’s night in July, 2005. They then endured three weeks of agony while Clea hovered on the edge of life. She died of catastrophic brain injuries.

Then came court hearings – the 14-year-old and the other teenagers in the car were all charged – and an inquest. There were questions about whether the police had been in pursuit when Chloe was struck. And there was an evident lack of concern for how victims were dealt with by the prosecutorial and coronial process.

Zoe Rose, Ross Dunn and Frances Rose after the verdict in the trial of the teenage driver of the car that struck and killed Clea Rose.

Zoe Rose, Ross Dunn and Frances Rose after the verdict in the trial of the teenage driver of the car that struck and killed Clea Rose.Credit:Gary Schafer

Dunn’s voice is barely level as he repeats the words of coroners, of police, of society, when talking about how we deal with homicides when police and young people and outdated prosecution processes are in place.

“We wanted to be sure what happened to us wouldn’t happen again, and community safety was our main priority,” he says.

Their case was also the first time restorative justice – mediation aimed at rehabilitation by putting family and friends of both offender and victim in a room together – had applied to a young offender charged with something as serious as culpable driving causing death.

But, he says, he and Rose are worried, as ever, that they will be “portrayed as saintly. The way we have behaved continues to help us heal”.

Instead, he would rather talk about all the other work he and Rose have done over the years, in what is a lifelong mission.

“What else can you get? You’ve lost your daughter, you’ve got to get something out of the wreckage, and that’s what we worked towards. And it kept us thinking outwards, instead of inwards,” he says.

They have used their profile – the crime, and Clea’s death, have received significant media attention – to exert influence, and take an interest to changes that were being made to how victims are treated.

“It turned out that [through] our experience in the courts and the inquest and all of that, we felt a lot was lacking in the way we were looked after,” he says.

When you’re in that situation to start with, it’s just one big ball of misery.

Ross Dunn

“When we went through, the victim was merely a vehicle on which the law was enacted. You gave your evidence, and then you went away. All the actors, the perpetrator, the lawyer, the cops, the DPP – [for them it was] all a process that they knew, and they all worked together, and you were just an accidental plug-in.

“Now, it’s much more victim-central and focused.”

They were also disappointed, not only with how they were cared for during the inquest, but in the findings themselves, which Dunn has described as “pusillanimous, partisan and pathetic”. The coroner at the time declined to make findings on whether or the police had been pursuing the car at the time it struck Clea, or to make recommendations as to future public safety.

Since then, together, the Rose-Dunn family – Ross, Frances and Clea’s older sister Zoe – have helped to make changes to police pursuits policy, to children and young people in the legal system, to coronial inquests, and to how victims of crime are treated in the judicial process.

He says being honoured this Australia Day with a medal of the Order of Australia (Rose received a similar honour in 2017), has spurred him onwards.

“Since I got the award, I’ve been thoroughly encouraged to take on some new projects,” he says.

Chief among them is thinking of ways to reduce the danger inherent in police pursuits.

“There’s no way of stopping a car that’s determined not to stop. There is definitely, I think, a solution out there, maybe more than one,” he says.

Clea's Rose

Clea’s Rose

“There’s lots of technology that’s being experimented with, and I’m going to do my very best to interest a tertiary institution with a technology and scientific bent, to get the funding and get cooperation with a police department or two, to explore and prototype and test and improve stopping technology.

“I can’t say what it might be yet, but that’s the rest of my life.”

Dunn smiles spontaneously when he describes the rose he and Frances had named after their daughter.

“It’s a remarkable plant. It starts off as a dark pink bud, then it comes out as apricot, with lemon near the base, and then it goes a beautiful pink all over,” he says.

“And the odd thing is the perfume is exactly the perfume that Clea used to wear.”

The rose has been part of their healing. It has helped them raise awareness of acquired brain injury, and has been a source of comfort for other grieving families.

“It had some sort of a quality that made people very calm and reassured,” he says.

“Everyone who has been subject to one of these disasters, we’ve offered them a rose, and they’ve taken it.”

He and Rose also continue to lobby for other victims of crime, and make themselves available to those facing similar trauma.

“When you’re in that situation to start with, it’s just one big ball of misery, and you don’t know how to approach it,” he says.

“In our case it was three weeks of torture in the hospital, and seeing some truly horrible things. And then there’s the death, and the death is different.

“It’s a bit like radioactivity – time and distance. The loss never changes, you’ve always got that loss, you’ve got the loss of your kid’s future and every birthday and every anniversary of the incident, all of those things, places in Civic where you just can’t go without feeling sick – that doesn’t change.

But what does change is the trauma ebbs away with distance and time, and that’s one of the reassuring things we can tell to people, that they don’t grasp initially.

“The horror fades. Sometimes you get a reminder, but mainly the horror is not in the front of your mind, and the loss is stored away.

“The thing is, the more you love, the more vulnerable you are. But you can’t not love.”

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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