Mum's message carries Sophie's legacy

LESLEY ELLIOTT: Women of Influence 2015 finalist relationship violence campaigner.
LESLEY ELLIOTT: Women of Influence 2015 finalist relationship violence campaigner.

Lesley Elliott drums her left index finger passionately down onto each finger of her right hand.

She counts the number of young New Zealand women murdered by their partners or ex-partners in the past decade. She runs out of fingers.

The centrepiece of the dining-room table in her home in Ravensbourne, Dunedin, is a framed photograph. It is a portrait of her beautiful Sophie, her precious daughter who was slain at 22.

On the floor above is the bedroom where Sophie met a gruesome death in January 2008 at the hands of her demented ex-boyfriend, to quote Elliott, "that bastard" Clayton Weatherston.

Elliott physically hurts at the sound of his name. So, Weatherston remains "he".

January 9 was his birthday. He was supposed to meet his mother for lunch. He changed his plans and came calling to slaughter Sophie.

The devoted mum watched him ascend the stairs to her daughter's room. After that she never saw Sophie alive again. He had locked the door.

Lesley Elliott is a finalist in the 2015 New Zealand Women of Influence Awards for her work in the field of relationship violence.

In the 6-1/2 years since Sophie's killing, about 80 New Zealand women have died at the hands of a partner or former partner, Elliott says.

"I mean that is terrible! And I think: 'life is so short. Why do we have to be like this? Why do people have to be so aggressive?' I'd like to give some of these guys and girls a shake and say, 'Life's beautiful'."

With the help of supporters, Elliott has found ways to tuck away her grief, to take her daughter with her, to be driven by Sophie, to broadcast the message about the signs of unhealthy relationships.

"If I hadn't done something, I think I would have curled up and died, quite frankly," Elliot says.

Ninety per cent of the signs, mostly psychological, were in Sophie's relationship with Weatherston, Elliott says.

But she and husband Gill did not recognise them. "And, of course, we didn't pick up on it: the name calling, the putdowns."

This year, after an evaluation of Elliott's Sophie Elliott Foundation pilot education programme Loves me Not, it has been officially launched with support from police and the Ministry of Social Development. It is now available to teens across New Zealand where districts choose to run it.

"I don't go into that, I don't talk about the actual murder," says Elliott, while outlining the content of Loves Me Not, as well as the countless speaking engagements she has delivered since Sophie's death.

"I know in the schools, usually their counsellors have told them [about the murder]. So, I just talk about the relationships."

Elliott breaks her rule occasionally. Speaking to a group at a Christchurch youth detention centre boys' boot camp recently was one of those times. She asked the group, "Do you know how he killed her?"

They all looked at her blankly. "So I told them. I said, he stabbed her 216 times. And, I said, he cut bits off her afterwards."

Elliott said she was met with absolute horror. "I mean these were tough kids. They really looked like they were shocked.

"And I thought: 'Good. If you can see that.' These guys need to know this was how bad it can get.

"Hopefully, if one of those guys says, 'Hey, I abuse women and kids. Hell, this is terrible. I'm going to turn my behaviours around.' If one of them does that, it's worth it."

As generations pass, Elliott wants cessation of the vicious cycle that is killing New Zealand's daughters, mothers and sisters.

"If every girl said no to abuse and every guy said no to abuse but supported the ones who abused not to abuse, then the guys that choose to abuse would be the wallflowers of today."

This is Lesley Elliott's ultimate.

In schools she tells girls, "you do not want your parents in a position we're in."

"And I can see they're taking it in."

She tells them: "It's not a good place to be, you just think about that. It's not a good position to be in."

Asked to describe exactly what that position is, Elliott's composure falters. Her mourning shows itself. "Do you want me to cry?" she asks.

Tears begin to roll down her cheeks, she reaches for a tissue box and her voice weakens.

"It doesn't change. I think of Sophie every single day. It's been 6-1/2 years and it doesn't get any easier. To be quite honest I don't think it will ever be any better.

"Sophie's best friend is about to have her first baby. Her other friends are getting married and having kids. One of her friends is making it in the business world.

"And I just think Sophie would have been out there ... See? We don't get to have all that. She would have been 29 now. And it's just crap to be quite honest. And I don't think that's ever going to change."

Elliott says people ask her how she manages to hold it together to achieve what she does.

"I say to people, 'I've got a little button on my back that I push when I go out the gate and I don't think about it'.

"I look at Sophie [on pictures and a video in the foundation material] but I don't see her."

Elliott concedes Bill O'Brien, mentor, foundation member and co-author of her book, Sophie's Legacy, had to encourage her into seeing the Women of Influence nomination as an honour.

Elliott finds it difficult to acknowledge her amazing accomplishment in the face of unimaginable circumstances.

"It's hard to put myself outside of what I've done because what I've done is just what I've wanted to do."

"And," she adds, "people have fallen in with it."

Elliott was happy to look on her finalist achievement as people recognising she has done something - raising awareness of abuse.

"But I don't think I've done any more than a lot of people would do. The thing is it's like I'm getting notoriety because my daughter died.

"I just feel like I don't want to trade on that. So I'm finding it really difficult. It's not about me; this is about Sophie and what happened. And I keep reminding people of that. If it wasn't for that I wouldn't be here.

"I mean I'm just a mother. But I thought and thought about, and, well, yes, if it does highlight the work of the foundation, that's good."

Elliott says she could have done nothing, absolutely fallen apart, and mooched around with no motivation after Sophie was killed. "But I don't have the motivation to do anything else. This motivates me."

It's tiring at times, she says.

She talks to Sophie about that.

"I say, 'Oh, Soph, I don't think I can do this anymore.'

"But I have a bit of a break, have some time out, and I have great support. Those in the foundation are fantastic. And then something comes up in the paper and somebody is killed and I think, 'I've just got to keep going. I've got to try and turn it around."'