Happy ending for sisters in custody battle
EXCLUSIVE: THE two little girls dragged screaming from their Australian mother by police in an international tug-of-love have told how they are happy and settled now with their Italian father, and no longer consider themselves Australian.
Lily and Christine Vincenti, now 15 and 16, told News Corp Australia they lived permanently with their Italian father Tommaso Vincenti, while their older sisters Emily, 21, and Claire, 20, lived with their mother, Australian woman Laura Garrett, who had moved to Italy to be with them three years ago.
But the girls, who were just 7 and 9 when they were taken to Australia by their mother in 2010, said their family was fractured, and they didn't know if it would ever be fully mended.
"We (the sisters) talked about this a month ago and even though our parents fought we shouldn't let it divide us,'' said Lily, with a wisdom far beyond her teenage years.
"It's sad because I used to have an amazing relationship with Emily and Claire and I wish I could have that relationship back. We can try but I don't think it can be better than before.''
This is the first time Lily and Christine have spoken publicly about the day in 2012 the four sisters were dragged screaming and crying by police away from their mother on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and forced onto a plane back to Italy, where a court was to decide custody after their parents' marriage ended.
The vision horrified Australia. The court case lasted almost eight years and was finally resolved in March.
The younger girls settled permanently into their father's home in a village outside Florence in Italy's Tuscany region, along with their father's long-term partner Georgia Pettinichio, who they said has been like a mother to them.
Their mother Laura moved to Italy permanently in 2015, settling in Florence, about 30 minutes away from their village. Emily and Claire, who work in hospitality and retail, live with their mum.
Christine said she saw her mother and sisters about twice a month and while she was "moving forwards'', she wished she could build a stronger relationship with them.
"Everyone has problems but I wish there would be, for me, a decent relationship with my mother and my sisters, and to see my mum sometimes,'' she said.
"If it (the relationship) could get a little better - this goes for my sisters as well - even if we have different points of view over everything, at least have a nice relationship.''
The girls are doing well at school - Lily travels to Florence every day to attend a highly-academic school where she is studying Ancient Greek and Latin. She's preparing for university in the future but hasn't decided on a career.
Christine studies closer to home at a human sciences high school, and also plans to go to university as she considers a career as a psychologist or social worker.
While their lives have calmed down since the chaotic period which saw them taken to Australia by their mum in 2010, then be dragged forcibly onto a plane by the Australian Federal Police in 2012, there's an obvious sadness as they talk about their younger years.
"Things have drastically changed,'' Lily said.
"At first I didn't want to talk about things, I was still shocked. I was convinced Dad was a bad man.
"During the period I lived in Australia mum and her family convinced me dad was a very different person. I didn't want to be here (in Italy).''
None of the girls spoke English when they first moved to Australia but they quickly learned, and still speak it well, with an Australian accent.
Emily and Claire declined to take part in the interview, while Ms Garrett did not respond to an offer to also speak.
Ms Garrett and Mr Vincenti had been married in Italy in 1996 and had the four girls, but the marriage ended in 2007 and the pair were involved in a bitter custody battle when Ms Garrett took them to Australia and didn't return them.
Lily said she started to "open up'' in about 2013, helped by Ms Pettinichio, who has been Mr Vincent's partner since 2010, and was at the airport to meet them when the four traumatised girls returned home in 2012.
Ms Pettinichio, who had a corporate job in Rome, gave up her career and moved in with the family in 2014 to help raise the girls.
"I didn't have a mum and I got attached to her,'' Lily said. Her mother was in Australia at the time.
"She was like my mum. I was nine years old and I didn't have an adult to look up to.
"I used to cry because I knew I shouldn't love Georgia and be with her.
"It was hard to tell my older sisters but I realised I really liked being with Georgia.
"I knew I liked being with her. She lived in Rome at the time. She helped me with my homework.
"At the start I used to cry by myself because I didn't want to upset mum.
"In 2015 was the first time I told Georgia I loved her. Things were settling down.''
Things have not been easy since the girls returned to Italy. In 2015, social workers stepped in and placed the girls temporarily in the care of relatives. The older girls lived with an aunt and the younger girls with an uncle.
After Ms Garrett moved to Florence in December 2015, Lily lived with her for a period too.
Eventually, the arrangement that worked the best was for the older girls to live with their mum and the younger two with their dad.
Lily said she sees her mum "usually once a month, when I feel like it.'
"I feel guilty if I don't stay with her. I feel like she's going to be staying alone and it's difficult.
"We chat about how school is going, we don't talk about important things.''
Christine said she had decided in 2016 to investigate for herself the circumstances surrounding their parents' court case and their move to Australia.
"I wanted to find out the objective truth. I went through the documents of the court case. What mum wanted, what dad wanted. That's really when things inside me … I fought with mum and didn't speak to her for nine months. I decided I wanted to confront her.''
Christine has since started to rebuild her relationship with her mum.
"I'm kind of moving forward. It's been quite a slow process but now it's getting better.
"It's kind of a different relationship with my mum and still very hard. I'm confused. There's not really been a relationship between us. Very slowly we might be able to make a little relationship in the future.''
She sees her mother about twice a month.
The four sisters sometimes have lunch together, when the older girls come back to their father's home, or the younger ones go to see their mother.
It's obvious there's a lot of love still between the younger girls and their big sisters, and a lot of pain about how their family has fractured.
"What happened to us was very tragic,'' Christine said.
"It was very hard to be taken from home to another place, parents fighting, you don't know who to trust.
"It's very hard to get to trust again.''
Asked if they consider themselves to be Australian, Lily replied: "No, I'm Italian.''
But she said she would like to go back some day.
"I'd want to go back, there's no reason not to. Why wouldn't I go back? The country wasn't a problem it was the people and what happened.''
Christine said "of course'' she would like to go back to Australia.
Mr Vincenti said the court case had finished in March and he had no intention of raising any other issues or renewing hostilities.
"I just want peace,'' he told News Corp Australia.
A computer programmer for industrial machinery, Mr Vincenti, now 41, said he had lost his job at the time of the custody battle, spent all of his savings on the legal battle, but was now working again and getting life back on track.
"When this sort of thing happens, it changes your life drastically,'' he said.
"You have to focus on your priorities and the priorities were Lily, Christine, Emily and Claire.
"Things got stressful but when I focused on the priorities, getting them back, it was worth it.
"Who I used to be before, I had to leave it behind.
"I wanted to be a good example to them, a good father they could look up to.
"I felt like I needed to protect them.''
He said the girls could choose where they lived when they were older, like their sisters, and could return to Australia if they wanted to.
Lily said she wasn't concerned about the fact their family dispute had become so public.
"It doesn't bother me, and not at the time it happened,'' she said.
"There are other children who live through this experience.
"At first I had no hope, (I thought) that things would never get better.
"But maybe other kids will see, maybe through this interview, they will understand that things will get better and there is a solution.''
1996: Italian man Tommaso Vincenti and Australian woman Laura Garrett marry in a civil service in Italy.
1997: They marry again in a church, and go on to have four daughters, Claire, Emily, Lily and Christine, who they raise in Italy.
2007: Tommaso and Laura separate and begin to negotiate custody of the girls.
2010: Laura brings the girls to Australia for a holiday but fails to return with them to Italy.
October 2012: The girls are dragged out of their mother's home on the Sunshine Coast by Australian Federal Police officers and forced onto a plane to be returned to Italy. Video of them screaming and sobbing horrified Australia when it was broadcast.
April 2015: Older daughter's Claire, then 17, and Emily, then 16, speak to 60 Minutes, and say they have settled well into Italy.
December 2015: Laura moves to Florence to be closer to the girls.
2018: The two older girls, Emily and Claire, live with their mother in Florence, while younger girls Lily and Christine live with their father in a village outside Florence.