‘I thought this only happens in movies’: A bereaved mother takes up the anti-violence campaign

Grace Donato was at the gym this week when she overheard "a terribly familiar story", one that up until the murder of her daughter, 20 year-old Adriana Donato, in August 2012, she believed only happened in movies.

Adriana, a bachelor of science student at Melbourne University, had attended a small birthday party at a friend's place when her former boyfriend, James Stoneham, then 21, arrived to look for her. She had ended their high-school relationship the previous December but Stoneham had not accepted it.

Grace Donato, whose daughter Adriana was murdered aged 20, felt “the story was terribly familiar” when she heard of Celeste Manno’s killing this week.Credit:Paul Jeffers

"It was a weeknight, she went to a friend's place with her girlfriend because he was turning 21 and the mother organised a birthday cake – he knew she was going there and rang a friend in there, [though Adriana] said 'no' they convinced her to go out," said Ms Donato, who this year joined the State government's violence Victim Survivors' Advisory Council.

Stoneham, who Supreme Court Justice Michael Croucher heard had planned the attack meticulously for three weeks, had never hurt Ms Donato before but, says Ms Donato, "he was always controlling of her behaviour".

Adriana Donato, a science student, was killed by her former boyfriend in 2012.

Though coroner Peter White found Stoneham had bought a knife, spoken of his anger and told a friend on the night that he was going to kill Ms Donato, "she didn't know" she was at risk, her mothers says: "She went in the car with him to talk to him and he took her to a park and killed her; you think you trust somebody, you think you know somebody."

Stoneham was sentenced to 19 years' jail after pleading guilty to Adriana Donato's "calculated and sinister" murder.

This week as she was exercising Ms Donato heard about the stabbing death of 23-year-old Celeste Manno in Mernda in the early hours of Monday after her alleged killer broke into her home, where she was with her mother. A former colleague, Luay Sako, 35, has been charged with Ms Manno’s murder.

"When I heard it I said, 'oh my God that is such a familiar story," says Ms Donato, who decided to become involved in the victim survivors' group "because I wanted to be a voice for all the women who have lost their lives".

She posed for The Age at the site of a new memorial at St Andrews Reserve, next to Treasury Gardens that will be built to commemorate the loss and suffering of family violence victims.

The space will be for "remembrance, reflection and hope", according to Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, Gabrielle Williams, and will include a field of purple flowers that bloom year-round. Purple is the colour associated with the movement to end family violence.

Ms Williams said the memorial "will be a powerful visual statement that we will no longer allow family violence to be hidden behind closed doors and that each of us have a role to play in bringing it to an end.”

Chair of the victim survivors' council, Jennifer Jackson, said the memorial would be "provide us all with a place to dream of a future free from violence.”

Ms Donato said the memorial was especially meaningful because she had asked the Moonee Valley City Council if she could plant a tree in the Aberfeldie park in which Adriana was slain but had been knocked back. A long-running campaign to have lights put in the area had also been rejected.

She said during her time on the survivors' council she will continue to push for culture change to protect women from violence, including promoting the message that if a woman rejects a man he must never turn to forms of control or violence.

"It shouldn't happen; these things should not happen; when it happened [to Adriana] I thought this only happens in movies. It should not happen in real life," she said. According to the group Counting Dead Women Australia, which records violent deaths of women, 45 have been killed in 2020.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636. For help in a crisis call 000.

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