/assets/images/headerlogos/AWW-logo.svg
Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: Hannah Clarke's parents lost their daughter and grandchildren in a heinous act of violence - now they're creating a lasting legacy

The new 2022 Queensland Australians of the Year are forging ahead despite their unimaginable tragedy.

By Susan Chenery
Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of domestic and family violence, sexual assault and murder that some readers may find triggering.
In the days before Christmas, in the rising early morning heat, a house in Brisbane is festooned with decorations. Santas all along the front fence and all through the house, Christmas trees and ornaments everywhere.
Sue Clarke is a "massive" Christmas person. So was her daughter, Hannah: "My daughter loved Mariah Carey's Christmas song."
Hannah had spent every Christmas of her life with her parents. They always went all-out.
Around the house are photographs of Hannah's three children – the grandchildren who will never come for Christmas again. The first without them was "surreal", Sue says. She still puts up the decorations, even though the holidays could never mean the same thing.
Sue and Lloyd noticed Rowan's controlling behaviour after their first grandchild was born. (Image: Grace Smith)
We are sitting at the kitchen table. Hannah sat here in the last weeks and days of her life. She had come for refuge when she had finally summoned the strength to leave her suffocating husband, Rowan Baxter. There was, she told her mother, "no love left. He ruined it."
By then she had a secret second phone because he had tapped her original one with tracking and listening devices.
"There were too many times where he would just pop up," Sue says.
And by then Hannah was scared. He knew where she went and who she spoke to. He even knew she had spoken to her brother, Nat, who had answered his wife's phone. Hannah understood that he wasn't going to let her go.
In the last week of her life, Hannah spoke to her mother and a friend about writing a will.
"She said to me, 'When he kills me, he'll be in jail, and I don't want his family anywhere near the kids,'" reveals Sue. Hannah wanted her parents to take her children.
"She knew he would kill her. She knew more than anyone what he was capable of," says Sue. Then she adds, "I certainly didn't think he would harm the kids."
Hannah told her parents that Rowan had once confessed he had planned to kill his previous wife and son, but hadn't carried through. Sue and Lloyd Clarke loved having their grandchildren in the house in those final 10 weeks. They could not have known what was coming.
"They were such good kids," says Sue. "I loved the chaos with them here. I was in my element." The worst thing, Lloyd says, is "not knowing what they could have done with their lives, especially Aaliyah. She was so smart. She was reading a year above her level at school."
Sue and Lloyd never wanted to be in the national spotlight, talking to journalists, campaigning, advocating. They never wanted to know the things that they know now – things you can't know until they happen to you.
"It's a platform that no one would want in a million years," Lloyd explains.
Hannah and her three children - Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey. (Image: Supplied)
It was from this suburban, weatherboard Camp Hill home – an anomaly in this wealthy enclave – that Hannah set out to take Aaliyah, six, Laianah, four, and Trey, three, to school on February 19, 2020.
Sue and Hannah would take it in turns to go to the gym early so that one of them was there with the kids. Then Hannah would sit on the bed eating her brekkie and chatting while Sue got ready to go to her job at a dental surgery, where she has worked for 27 years.
While this innocent ritual was unfolding that February morning, Rowan was driving up and down the street in an unrecognisable car he had borrowed from his aunt. Sue kissed her daughter and grandchildren goodbye and told them she loved them. Lloyd will always regret not getting "that one last hug" from Laianah as she sleepily passed him in the hallway as he left much earlier.
Just before 8.30, Hannah strapped the kids into the back of the car. As she got into the front seat, Rowan jumped in, put a knife to her head and said, "Drive". Her screams at him to get out were "desperate and fearful", according to those who heard them. As she drove, he poured petrol throughout the car.
Around the corner in Raven Street, neighbours heard a series of explosions. Trapped in the car, the children died instantly. Hannah managed to get out, but died from her injuries later that day. She was 31 years old.
"Who does that?" Lloyd could not fathom what had happened to his daughter and grandchildren after being informed by police. (Image: Supplied)
Badly burned, Rowan plunged the knife into his heart and died at the scene.
Sue had heard the sirens. When detectives walked into her work, she said: "They're dead, aren't they?"
When detectives told Lloyd, "My whole guts just dropped," he says. "Just trying to fathom what had happened and trying to comprehend who does that."
Sue and Lloyd have held and consoled each other ever since. Sue says Lloyd is her "rock". Hannah came from a house of love, parents who love each other and their children. A place where things like this don't happen because people are kind to each other. Until they do happen.
The murder-suicide horrified the country.
It was, says Sue, "a line in the sand". And not long after, Lloyd and Sue founded a charity, Small Steps 4 Hannah, to try to ensure that this doesn't happen again.
"I personally felt like I didn't do enough to save her," says Lloyd. "I felt terrible. I never saw it coming, so in the back of my mind I thought we needed to do more. They started saying it was coercive control. We go, 'What the hell is coercive control?' That's when we decided to try to do something about it. We didn't want another family to go through what we had to go through."
WATCH: We need to criminalise coercive control. Story continues after video.
Sue says they knew Rowan was playing mind games, "but we didn't know it had a name".
Lloyd's own father had been an alcoholic who took it out on the kids, but Lloyd had made his choice: "I do not want to be like him." That a person who could do this was in their home, in their lives, was almost beyond comprehension.
Small Steps aims to educate, advocate for, fund and support those living with domestic violence.
The Clarkes had no idea how to set up a foundation.
"We are lucky we have a lot of support," says Sue. "We've been fortunate that people wanted to give us money, so we thought, 'Let's use that for the greater good. Let's find like-minded organisations that are trying to do the work that we want to do and help them.' In November, we gave nearly $100,000 away. At the moment, we are looking at doing two and maybe three rounds of grants."
As a little girl, Sue says, Hannah was "bubbly and happy. She loved her gymnastics and trampoline."
Sue and Lloyd were both worried for their daughter and grandchildren's welfare. (Image: Grace Smith)
She and Nat used to scare their parents at the beach. "They were both good tumblers. They'd be egging each other on to do backflips off the shower recess and somersault onto the sand." It was an Australian childhood. "We loved the bush, we loved the beach."
Sue says Hannah always wanted to be a mother. She was 19 when she met Rowan at the Police Citizens Youth Club in 2008. He was 30 and married with a child. At first Sue didn't trust him.
"He was a personal trainer and he was still living with his partner." But he love-bombed their daughter with a whirlwind romance. Hannah was infatuated. "He did win us over," Sue admits. "There was a lot of going to lunches and dinners. He was a really good networker."
Four years later came the romantic proposal: 'Will you marry me?' written in shells on the beach. Lloyd says Rowan had an "unusually big input into their wedding. It had to be a real show." Lloyd and Sue had to remortgage their house to foot the bill. Throughout the marriage, the Clarkes bankrolled their daughter's family.
"He was shocking with money. They would be behind with the rent, we'd have to get them out of trouble with car finances, registration."
Lloyd and Sue invested in the gym Rowan and Hannah opened. Sue says the controlling behaviour started once the first baby was born.
"They started saying it was coercive control. We go, 'What the hell is coercive control?' That's when we decided to try to do something about it." Lloyd on starting their charity Small Steps. (Image: Grace Smith)
"It was a gradual process, so you didn't notice it. He started to get more controlling and more critical of Hannah. After she'd had a baby, he would say she was fat, and disgusting stuff constantly about how useless a mother she was. If the house wasn't tidy when he got home, he would get a garbage bag and throw out the kids' toys. He would deliberately come home at different times to catch her out."
He shut down her Facebook page, saying they should have a family page instead. Hannah, Sue says, "was always on edge". Rowan wanted her to be perfect.
"But not when they went out. He didn't approve of anything she wore, especially if she looked really good in it."
He would go through her phone and ask the children what Mum had been doing.
Rowan drove a wedge between Hannah and her brother, who had been incredibly close as children. Cutting off people who might have influence is one of the first signs of controlling behaviour.
When she worked at the gym, Sue says, "she had that beautiful smile and she'd have her Mums and Bubs classes, and these women would turn up. She would ask how it was going, and they might say, 'I didn't sleep much last night.' So she'd take on their problems and no one knew what she was hiding."
WATCH: Hannah Clarke's brother recalls moment he heard of sister's death. Story continues after video..
Hannah talked to her mother every day, "even if she had to sneak out in the car". Hannah complained to her mother about being forced to have sex every night.
"She would say, 'Mum, I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I lie there like a starfish, he will abuse me for not enjoying it. And if I say I don't want it, he will sulk for days.'"
A policewoman would later tell Hannah that this was rape.
Sue looked after the children on Fridays, "but if Hannah had misbehaved, he would withhold the children and decide I couldn't have them. I would be upset and then Hannah would be upset because I was upset. It was all just a way to control her."
Sue thinks Hannah had made up her mind to leave after her second daughter was born.
"I said, 'You can come home at any time.'" But then she became pregnant with Trey. By this time Rowan wasn't working much.
After Hannah left, she went to the police.
"She was lucky," says Sue. "She got a lovely young woman who had been through a similar thing. She came home feeling validated, and this policewoman kept checking on her."
She even inspired Hannah to consider a new career in the police force. She'd done an online test and begun the application process. But now Hannah was entering the most dangerous period – a controlling man losing control. And the situation was escalating fast.
Initially, to keep him placated, Hannah had offered Rowan 50/50 custody. But on two occasions, he took the children and turned his phone off.
"We were in a panic," says Sue. On Christmas Day 2019, he stayed for 11 hours and wouldn't leave. On Boxing Day, he snatched Laianah and disappeared for four days. A domestic violence order was taken out.
In late January, as Hannah was getting Trey out of Rowan's car, she saw on the seat A4 photographs of herself in underwear. While she was screwing them up, Rowan twisted her arms behind her back. He had breached the domestic violence order and could no longer see his kids.
Sue and Lloyd now wonder whether, if he'd been jailed at that time, there might have been a different outcome, or whether "it would have made it worse".
On their last night on Earth, Rowan FaceTimed the children.
"He couldn't stop crying, he was blubbering," says Sue, "and the kids were just looking at Hannah and looking at him. Clearly he knew what he was going to do then."
Sue spoke to her daughter every day and did her best to help her in her troubled circumstances. (Image: Grace Smith)
Later, they would go through a checklist designed by the Scottish police and known as the gold standard for red flags of coercive control – isolation, deprivation, demeaning behaviour, surveillance, threats to harm.
Says Sue: "It was yep, yep, yep, tick, tick, tick. We answered through Hannah's eyes, and it was 900 per cent."
Sue and Lloyd exhausted themselves trying to protect their daughter. They wish they'd known then what they know now, and they are determined to spread the wisdom.
Lloyd says, "Be patient and don't be a bystander. Stand up and say something. All these perpetrators, surely their friends, their family, must know what they are doing. Step in and say, 'Hey, it's not cool the way you are treating your spouse.'
"I just hope people become more aware and actually start saying something instead of, 'It's not my problem.' That is what it has been for so many generations."
Sue agrees. "People think, 'If he's not hitting her, he is not being controlling.' But it doesn't matter. If someone is trying to control you, that's abuse.
WATCH: Brisbane tragedy puts Australia's domestic violence crisis in the spotlight. Story continues after video.
Sue and Lloyd have been named Queensland Australians of the Year for 2022. The judges noted that the Clarkes "empower victims to speak up, guide family members to be aware of those who may be in an unsafe environment, and create safe environments for those who need them most".
As well as creating Small Steps 4 Hannah, the Clarkes have worked with the Queensland government to establish the Women's Safety and Justice Taskforce. By advocating for legislative change, Sue and Lloyd hope the criminalisation of coercive control will become Hannah's legacy.
The Clarke family became famous for all the wrong reasons, but they are determined that their daughter's life and death will leave a lasting impression on the world. Sue and Lloyd have discovered a strength in themselves they hadn't thought possible. But none of that has taken away the heartbreak.
More than anything, Lloyd says, they miss Hannah and those little kids "like crazy".
To donate to Sue and Lloyd's work and discover more, visit smallsteps4hannah.com.au
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You can read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.

read more from

/assets/images/headerlogos/AWW-logo.svg