In the winter of 2015, an ambulance responded to an unusual call-out to a home in the well-heeled Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. A working mother of three, Kumuthini Kannan, had called triple-0 to say her house guest was lying on the bathroom floor. Paramedics arrived at the large house to find an older Indian lady barely conscious in a pool of urine. She was bone-thin, weighing only 40kg, and cold to the touch. They rushed her to Box Hill Hospital where she was placed in the intensive care unit and found to be suffering from septicaemia, hypothermia and untreated diabetes. She couldn’t speak English, but a doctor noticed she had lesions on her hands and feet, and multiple pressure sores. He would later describe her as “fading away”.
“She was in a bad state,” says Detective Sergeant David MacGregor, the former head of the Australian Federal Police’s Victorian Human Trafficking team. “I don’t think [the doctors] would have seen people in that condition very often. That state of malnutrition. She had septicaemia. All of those things led us to the suspicion that this was not something that happened over a few weeks, this was something that has happened over a long period of time.”
A few hours after the woman was admitted, on July 30, a doctor phoned Mrs Kannan to get a better understanding of what had happened. She told a strange story, saying the only thing she knew about her house guest was that her first name was Harita* and she had relatives in Sydney who did not want her living with them. She gave the impression Harita drifted in and out of her family’s life, saying, “Someone would call or write stating they were picking her up and she would pack her bags and go.”
The mysterious house guest lay recuperating in hospital for weeks while the authorities tried to figure out where she had come from. They had recorded her surname as Rangan but had no other information. On August 24, Victorian police officers knocked on Kumuthini and Kandasamy Kannan’s door on an unrelated matter. They had been asked to do a welfare check on behalf of a family in India who were worried about their mother, a Mrs N*.
Mrs N’s family were distressed because they hadn’t been able to reach her, but they believed she was living with the Kannans. Yet when the officers spoke with the couple, they said Mrs N had stayed with them for only six months after her arrival in Australia eight years earlier, in 2007, and they hadn’t seen her since.
Meanwhile, the Federal Police had got involved. Det Sgt MacGregor and his team visited Mount Waverley to question the Kannan’s neighbours, who said they had seen an older lady walking around the house from time to time. They assumed she was a member of the family.
“In retrospect I think the neighbours would be asking themselves, ‘What did we miss here?’. But really people have these quiet lives,” Det Sgt MacGregor says. Mr and Mrs Kannan both worked in a bank. They took pride in the life they had built. They seemed like a normal family.
“Mum, Dad, a couple of kids, middle-class suburban home, quiet, well-mannered, there was nothing that would necessarily make you think something was amiss in the house. That’s why it’s so difficult to identify so many of these cases. It happens behind closed doors,” he says.
By now, hospital workers were getting some fragments of information from Harita, and the story was very different from the one Mrs Kannan had told. Harita described being an on-call servant 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She was verbally abused and reliant on her so-called employers for everything, including access to medical care.
Then, in mid-September, the couple admitted that Harita and Mrs N were the same person, and Mr and Mrs Kannan were arrested and charged with keeping a slave in their suburban home.
The Victorian Supreme Court would eventually hear that Mrs N, a grandmother from a humble background, had been working for the Kannans for eight years, earning as little as $3 a week, unable to escape, while enduring abusive behaviour, like having hot tea thrown on her. Justice John Champion would say what happened in the middle-class Melbourne home was a crime against humanity.
Mrs N’s story
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