‘My mother liked to break my bones’

“Moving in with John and Dennis is pretty much like winning a car and hitting the jackpot,” says Sarah, the couple’s first foster child.
“Moving in with John and Dennis is pretty much like winning a car and hitting the jackpot,” says Sarah, the couple’s first foster child. ABC

SARAH'S early medical record is graphic testament to a childhood of horror.

From 1987, she was a regular visitor to hospitals for injuries which it would finally emerge had happened at the hands of her biological parents.

In 1987 it was X-rays for suspected breaks to her upper leg, pelvis, neck, wrist, hip, forearm and elbow.

In 1990, there was the broken arm. In 1991, a fractured skull. In 1992, a busted shoulder.

More X-rays for possible fractures all the way until 1999. That year they looked for breaks in her leg, pelvis and neck.

"My mother had Munchausen by proxy. She liked to break my bones," Sarah says.

More than 21 of them. She was lucky to walk out alive.

And, after ten foster homes and refuges, she was even luckier to find security, love, and family, from two rookie carers who had agonised over if they could help traumatised kids, and what the reaction would be to a same-sex couple becoming foster parents.

Those rookies, John Guthrie and Dennis Cash, have now spent 20 years giving foster teenagers a chance at a stable life, Australian Story reveals as the same-sex couple's work is showcased on the ABC tonight.

"I had some concerns about fostering young boys being a same-sex couple only because of what people might think. So my stipulation was that they had to be girls," Dennis tells Australian Story.


Sarah, then aged 12, was the first.

“They loved me, despite all my flaws,” Sarah says of her foster dads, Dennis Cash (left) and John Guthrie.
“They loved me, despite all my flaws,” Sarah says of her foster dads, Dennis Cash (left) and John Guthrie. ABC

"I have some memories of my early years, but none of them are happy," Sarah says of life before Dennis and John.

"I personally believe I was lucky to walk out alive.

"I tried unsuccessfully to tell a number of people the extent of what was happening. But nobody believed me."

Eventually, she wrote a letter to a Department of Community Services worker.

"And all of a sudden I was living at a refuge, purely because I don't think I could have lasted any longer. With the level of abuse, I don't think I would have."

Back then, John and Dennis didn't know the extent of the trauma Sarah had suffered.

All they knew was she needed time to trust them, and feel safe.

All Sarah knew was that the home she had landed in was "happy".

No violence. No yelling, or screaming, or doors slamming. Just peace.

They took her shopping. Her first gift was a Harry Potter book. She still has it: the first thing in her life "nobody could take from me".

"It was mine," she says, "someone had bought it for me. I loved that book".

But it wasn't all plain sailing. On day one of starting her new school, Sarah bolted before she even set foot in the gate.

"I made their life hell. running away, disappearing," Sarah, now 30, says.


After a few months the rookie foster parents thought they were failing her, and wanted out.

Sarah, convinced they would "send me back at any stage" was putting them through hoops.

"There were trust issues. She has suffered terribly with trust, trusting her parents," says John.

“I made their life hell, disappearing,” Sarah says.
“I made their life hell, disappearing,” Sarah says. ABC

Time saw her embrace, rather than flee from warmth, affection and security.

"They loved me, despite all my flaws, despite all the baggage, they loved me," she says.

Fast forward more than 20 years, and Dennis and John have looked after more than a dozen foster teens for stays varying from a few weeks to several years.

The two dads have created a modern family with the most complex of family trees.

After Sarah left home at 16, Dennis and John welcomed then 12-year-old Musu, who had survived civil war in Sierra Leone only to suffer severe beatings from the family friend who brought her to Australia as a refugee.

Caitlin and Aryana, current foster child Hailie, and many others would follow.

The reality of looking after traumatised teenage girls did mean "a lot of tension and it did create a lot of stress in our relationship," John says. But they worked through the bumps.

When Sarah fell pregnant at 17, while she "badly wanted to be a mum", she realised she was unable to look after her baby, Liam.

John and Dennis took him in. They later adopted Liam.

Sarah admits at the time, she was angry, and hurt.

"I trust them, gosh I trust them. But there was a mixed bag of feelings. I trust them because they adopted him and they gave him a really good life."

"I consider John my Dad but my son considers him Dad, and gosh it makes my brain hurt sometimes. I wouldn't call it messy, but it's certainly a new dynamic in terms of family," Sarah says.

Complex family tree: Foster carers Dennis Cash and John Guthrie, and some of their modern family.
Complex family tree: Foster carers Dennis Cash and John Guthrie, and some of their modern family. ABC

Liam is now 12, and has almost lost count of his "sisters" on the complex and happy family tree.

Sarah recently celebrated her 30th birthday with the whole modern family.

"I have a really great job and my life has changed dramatically to what I was when I was 12," she says.

"Moving in with John and Dennis is pretty much like winning a car and hitting the jackpot."

John and Dennis will continue to foster for as long as they feel they can help.

"All the kids that we've looked after, they've survived. They're survivors," says John.

"They've done the work, we've just been there to guide them.

"And they've popped out the other end pretty decent human beings."

Australian Story airs on Monday night at 8pm on ABC.

Topics:  abc tv australian story television

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