Real Life

Separated for 33 years

As two little girls, clinging to one another in a home filled with violence and fear, Patricia Williams and Sue Te oottran swore they’d always be there for each other.

But when the state took them out of that terrifying place and put them into separate foster homes, just one thought helped them survive – that they’d be united.

Now these two brave women have found each other after 33 years but, once again, fate is keeping them apart when they need each other most.

It’s a heartbreaking story that begins in 1954, when Patricia was just a baby and Sue, her half-sister, was two years old.

That year, they were taken into social welfare care for the first time. The two lived in Greymouth and were kept together initially, forming a close bond, especially when they were returned to their abusive home environment. 

With nobody to help them, the girls tried to protect each other from the violence.

“Pat was my world,” says Sue (58), who now lives in Australia. “I clung to her. I’d always try to protect her when we were at home. I knew I’d cop it, but I didn’t care.”

Life was just as bad when the girls were removed and put into different welfare homes, where they suffered more abuse.

“We were so close because we both lost our identities, but we always had each other,” says Patricia (56), who still lives in Greymouth. “Then we were placed in lots of homes around New Zealand and had no control over what was happening to us.

“Every day was the same – the same food, even. I had no schooling – I still don’t know my times tables.”

The girls’ paths crossed at various points as they moved from home to home, and their close bond gave them the strength and courage to cope with their harrowing day-to-day lives.

In her teens, Patricia decided she had had enough, and ran away from a welfare home she had been placed in. Meanwhile, Sue was taken under the wing of the late poet James K Baxter, who took her to live in his commune at Jerusalem, near the Whanganui River.

“It gave me a different perspective on life,” Sue says. “He was very out-there.”

Born with a taste for adventure, Sue left for Australia when she was still a teen, boarding the plane in bare feet – a remanent of the alternative lifestyle she led at the commune. She had nowhere to live and little money to her name, and ended up living in a cave on an Australian island.

“I lived there for a few months and I ate rice and lentils, with some oysters off the rocks,” she remembers.

“I really needed that time alone. I felt the need to escape from society because it had not been good to me. But after few months I decided I missed people and moved back.”

She returned to New Zealand for a holiday in her twenties – the last time she saw Patricia, who was battling leukaemia.

Seeing Sue was the boost she needed, and she survived the illness. But Sue had to return to her life in Australia and eventually they lost touch.

For 33 years they wondered how they could possibly reconnect.

“I knew Sue was out there, but I was scared because she could be dead, and did I really want to know?” says Patricia.

Unbeknownst to Patricia, Sue was searching for her – trawling through genealogy sites and Googling her name.

Sue’s search finally paid off a month ago, when she found Patricia after tracking down another family member in Wellington through the phone book. But Sue had bad news for her family – she was fighting a deadly illness.

It was a huge blow for Patricia, who immediately got Sue’s phone number and called her.

“When I finally spoke to Patricia, I went into shock,” says Sue. “I was over the moon. I was so happy, I actually felt sick.”

Now confined to a wheelchair with severe osteoporosis, Sue has been diagnosed with a particularly virulent kind of cancer. With no family in Noosa, she would love nothing more than to see Patricia again.

But Sue can’t travel in her condition and Patricia, who has four children and lives on an invalid’s benefit, can’t afford the trip. Patricia can now only hope that somehow they can be reunited at last.

“Even though I’ve got a passport, I’ve never been overseas. My life has not allowed a holiday. I got the passport just in the hope that it might happen,” says Patricia, her voice filled with emotion.

“one way or another, I’ve got to see Sue. That’s why I’m doing this story.

It’s hard for me to talk about it, but I’m hoping people can open up their hearts and help me.

“She’s been by herself for so long, and trying to find her family for such a long time. We don’t know how much time we’ve got. If anything happens and I don’t get to see her

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