It will be five years this week since Jeannie Blackburn lost her baby at 13 weeks.*
The baby was pronounced dead in utero following a savage beating at the hands of her partner of five years, Paul McCuskey, in June 2007. “Stop it Paul, the baby!” she cried as he dragged her around by her hair and left her in a pool of blood. But it was no use.
This baby wasn’t the first to die at his hands. A year before Jeannie miscarried at five weeks after an attack so brutal she has not previously spoken about it until now.
What she says he did to her is too graphic to reprint in detail.
As if losing two babies were not enough, another attack resulted in the severing of the optic nerve in her left eye. She could no longer see out of it.
McCuskey was never brought to justice for the attack that caused his partner to miscarry her first pregnancy. But there was a witness to the assault which took the life of the second baby just before her 43rd birthday, ending her chances of motherhood.
Of 14 charges, McCuskey pled guilty to four and was found guilty of intentionally causing serious injury. He was sentenced to five and a half years, with a three-year minimum before parole, He could be out of Loddon prison as early as April next year.
Is this the kind of man you would expect to be presented with a Bravery Award? It is difficult to comprehend. But that’s what has happened.
While the case wound its way through the courts, in February 2009 McCuskey, a volunteer fire-fighter with the Country Fire Authority, saved the life of an elderly woman in the Black Saturday bushfires. Of course it is good this woman was rescued.
But does this one act warrant the status of hero, given that the lives of two unborn children were previously lost and a bereaved woman is left with a life-long disability?
According to Jeannie, the CFA failed to tell the Royal Humane Society that its awardee was unable to attend receive his award in person because he was in jail.
“In my view the Royal Human Society should be called the inhumane society,” Jeannie Blackburn says.
Jeannie works as a cleaner with a Melbourne construction company. It has been challenging readjusting to life being partially blind.
“I get up at 3.30am every morning because it takes an hour for my good eye to work,” she says. “I memorise and count the stairs as I walk down, so I don’t stumble. I make a cup of coffee and spill the milk. I don’t go out at night because I’m afraid of violence and the dark.”
Gangrene has set in to the damaged eye. It has to be removed.
For Jeannie Blackburn, it’s about more than seeing the award rescinded. She wants to send a clear message about violence against women, which affects one in three women in Australia.
“Violence cannot be tolerated or accepted. You cannot reward people for acts of bravery when they are in prison. We try to tell youth ‘don’t do it, don’t be violent’, but they see men who are violent rewarded,” she says.“People have a choice. You can’t just blame the alcohol or the anger.”
Of British heritage, Jeannie is thinking of writing to the Queen, a patron of the Society, to see if she might act. Her suffering is eased somewhat by the petition launched through Change.org by Brisbane mother of five Melinda Liszewski which has attracted a massive 15,500 signatures.
It was initiated after the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, wrote to the Society of which she is a patron, urging them to strip McCuskey of his award.
Melinda says the award is a contradiction. “I don’t understand how an organisation that values saving lives could reward someone who took the life of an unborn child and scarred Jeannie’s life forever as well,” she says.
Jeannie is overwhelmed by the support she has received.“I thought they might get 5000 signatures, she told me. “But 15,500 is unbelievable, overwhelming. I want to give Melinda a big kiss, send her flowers.”
Jeannie will hand over the petition to society representatives in Melbourne this week and there has been talk she may be joined by a policeman who wants to give his bravery award back in protest.
He no doubt understands – as many more men in this country need to – that you can’t be considered brave if you serially bash defenceless women, end the lives of their babies and contribute to a global epidemic that continues to kill and maim millions and cause life-long trauma to those who survive.
Real heroes don’t do that.
*Correction. It is five years today since Jeanne Blackburn lost her eye. The baby she lost at 13 weeks was pronounced dead in January the same year.