WARNING: Distressing detail

Inside the modest fibro house on an ordinary suburban street in Oberon, west of Sydney, pain, misery and unspeakable horrors were raining down on a little boy.

Joseph, 3, was in the very place he should have been safe, with his mother.

But in the winter of 2014, little Joseph was being subjected to torture and cruelty because he reminded his then-39-year-old mother of the man who had fathered him.


From the day he entered the house, the boy had 51 days to live, reports News.com.au.

Aided and abetted by his mother's de facto, Joseph's "stepfather", the boy was beaten, forced into a freezing Esky to bring out the bruises and had a ball taped into his mouth.

Finally, on Sunday August 2, 2014, the couple called the police.

Joseph, they said, had been rendered unconscious after tripping over dog leads on the oval across the street.

Called to hospital, Joseph's other relatives soon realised the damaged little boy in the ICU bed was not the happy and healthy toddler taken from them seven weeks earlier.

Doctors could not do anything for Joseph and his life support was switched off.

It took three years, but this month the NSW Supreme Court sentenced Joseph's mother to a minimum 33 years and her de facto to 30 years for murder.

The woman said her young son had "just pushed my buttons too many times" and that she had "so many thoughts about killing Joseph" before she did.

The mother of little Joseph is led away in handcuffs after being sentenced to a minimum 33 years in prison. Photo / News Corp Australia
The mother of little Joseph is led away in handcuffs after being sentenced to a minimum 33 years in prison. Photo / News Corp Australia

Justice Peter Johnson said Joseph's final assault came when he had no real capacity to defend himself and that the boy had been "worn down physically and psychologically" by the torture.

His Honour awarded both accused "de facto life sentences", and condemned their "grotesque and cruel" treatment of the boy.

Though shocking, Joseph's death is hardly unprecedented.

Couples who kill their children are more common than society cares to admit.

In many cases, the child dies after a "stepfather" moves into the house, the new de facto of the child's mother.

Dubbed the Cinderella effect, it commonly occurs in homes where drugs and alcohol are rife and men not programmed biologically to raise other people's children resort to cruelty and torture.

Melbourne's Deakin University Professor Greg Tooley, who studied the Cinderella effect among Australian child deaths.

The theory is controversial, but Professor Toohey found overseas statistics undeniable.

"If you look at the data, for children aged under two in the US who live with one non-biological parent, and they are overwhelmingly male because most kids stick with their mums, they are more than 100 times more likely to die from physical abuse and 40 times more likely to be physically abused," Professor Tooley said.

He said when biological parents became angry at their children, a protective mechanism kicked in and they gained control before harming their child.

A step-parent sometimes could not "because they don't have a genetic connection with the child".

But what about when the step-parent "loses it with the child" and the biological parent, usually the mother, joins in?

And in some cases, there are two biological parents who target one child in the house, who becomes the victim.

Dr Lillian De Bortoli has studied child deaths at the hand of one of their parents, and found four types of filicide other than that inflicted by a step-parents.

When a biological parents decide to kill, aided and abetted as in Joseph's case by their partner, the child has no chance.

Austin Allan Hughes and Gunn-Britt Ashfield

John's mother Gunn-Britt Ashfield. Photo / News Corp Australia
John's mother Gunn-Britt Ashfield. Photo / News Corp Australia

John Ashfield was one of five young children living in the East Nowra house where 25-year-old Gunn-Britt Ashfield was living in 1993 with her de facto, Austin Allan Hughes, 20.

One day, his mother became enraged after hearing a rumour that the first grader had touched his three-year-old sister in an inappropriate way.

Ashfield decided that John should not be allowed to "get away with it", and her boyfriend agreed.

They decided to teach John "a lesson" and went into his bedroom and started beating him.
As his siblings watched or listened, the beating turned into a frenzy.

In an assault on the boy which lasted two hours, Ashfield and Hughes punched him and struck him with an aluminium curtain rod.

The little boy sobbed, begged them to stop and repeated, "I'm sorry."

Hughes mocked him, saying, "You scream like a little girl," and forced him to wear one of his sister's dresses.

John cried, "Get it off, I'm not a girl."

Co-killer Austin Allan Hughes. Photo / News Corp Australia
Co-killer Austin Allan Hughes. Photo / News Corp Australia

Enraged, Hughes grabbed a hammer, and with a phone book against John's head, he repeatedly beat him until John flopped back on the bed.

Ashfield put her unconscious son under a cold shower, then a hot shower.

When she called an ambulance, Ashfield told paramedics that John had been bashed and kicked by a gang of teenagers in a nearby park.

The couple coached John's eight-year-old brother, Allan, to say teenage youths had set upon them as they returned home from a milk-buying errand.

When police charged Ashfield and Hughes with murder, an angry crowd gathered at Nowra Court.

Both were convicted of murder and sentenced to 21 years in jail, which was later reduced to 19 years on appeal, with a minimum of 14 years.

Ashfield changed her name to Anjelic Karstrom and has since been released, as has Hughes.

'SW' and 'BW'

Only a few years before she was starved to death by her own parents, the girl known as
Only a few years before she was starved to death by her own parents, the girl known as "Ebony" (not pictured) was a chubby child. Photo / Stock Photo

Only a few years before she was starved to death by her own parents, the girl known as "Ebony" was a chubby child.

Autistic, Ebony was the youngest of three sisters living with their Valium-addicted mother and her controlling husband.

The parents, who can only be identified as SW and BW, lived for years in the Sydney suburb of Matraville, where Ebony was mostly locked up in her bedroom to keep her from her compulsive habit of touching everything.

Ebony's decline was well in train by the time the family moved from Sydney to Hawks Nest, on the NSW Central Coast, in August 2007.

Child protection authorities and other agencies had attended the family home many times, and Ebony had been placed on a watch file.

But in November 2007, SW called an ambulance after she was unable to revive her daughter.

In death, the seven-year-old weighed just nine kilograms, and was found lying in a squalid room covered in her own waste.

SW's murder trial heard medical evidence that Ebony was so physically deteriorated she would most likely have been unable to stand, sit or swallow food in her final days.

The mother said alcohol and prescription drugs had prevented her from realising that her daughter was close to death.

But the sentencing judge described SW as "unimaginably heartless and cruel" and imprisoned her for life, which was reduced on appeal to a maximum of 40 years.

BW, the controller, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to just 12 years, which could mean he will be released in 2019.

Kristi Anne Abrahams and Robert Smith

After reporting her six-year-old daughter Kiesha Weippeart missing on August 1, 2010, Kristi Anne Abrahams shed tears for the media cameras who came to report the story.

Kristi and her de facto partner, Robert Smith, wept, saying they had no idea who could have taken Kiesha.

"If anyone has seen her can they please contact the police," Abrahams, 27, sobbed, "She's beautiful."

Neighbours and friends made a desperate search in the streets near the couple's Mt Druitt home in western Sydney.

But no trace of Kiesha could be found and for the next eight months as Abrahams and Smith kept up the pretence.

But in April the following year, police found skeletal remains in a suitcase in a shallow bushland grave at Shalvey, near Mt Druitt.

Kiesha's body bore injuries consistent with long-term abuse and serious blunt force trauma suggesting that she had been slammed into the ground or another hard object.

It would take Abrahams years to admit she had killed her daughter, who she hated because the girl resembled her biological father.

It emerged that Abrahams had been convicted of biting Kiesha in the shoulder when she was 15 months old.

At the age of three, Kiesha told a social worker her mum had burnt her with a cigarette.

Abrahams tired of Kiesha and her bed-wetting and had told the girl's father on the phone, "I really will hurt her, I will kill her."

Abrahams said on the night Kiesha died she had "nudged" her and she fell.

The girl had felt like "jelly" when put to bed, to be found dead the next morning.

However a forensic examiner would find fractures to Kiesha's teeth consistent with heavy blows, like "a sports injury".

Abrahams and Smith kept Kiesha's body in a suitcase for five days after her death, before burning it and burying her.

A judge sentenced Abrahams to a maximum term of 22.5 years for murdering the "vulnerable and defenceless" child and for interfering with her body afterwards.

Abrahams' defence counsel said she had an intellectual disability, an IQ below 70 and was a "product of what happened to her", a disadvantaged background.

Smith received a minimum of 12 years in prison.