In 1996, Hetty Johnston was busy, but blissfully ignorant. Hetty had left a career in corporate administration to spend time with her newborn daughter, but getting restless had again become active in her home town community of Logan, and among other things, helped lead a campaign that successfully prevented a massive toll road being built through the middle of the Daisy Hill State Forrest. Later, as then State Leader of The Australian Democrats and also running for the Federal seat of Fadden, she suggested her husband, Ian, take their youngest daughter and have a holiday in New Zealand with his family.
On their first night in New Zealand, their family was changed forever when Ian and Hetty’s daughter bravely confided in Ian that she was scared of her Poppy, his father. When gently pressed for a reason for this fear, she revealed Poppy was touching her inappropriately (although she hadn’t used those words).
Confronted with an unimaginably difficult choice, the beautiful father decided to defend his young daughter’s innocence and not his strong friendship with his own dad. After they returned home, Hetty later discovered that her daughter’s grandfather had not only been assaulting her, but had conducted a forty year reign of terror on practically every female in and near the family. Daughters, nieces, grand-daughters and even neighbours had suffered at his evil hands. When Hetty’s daughter bravely spoke up that first night in NZ, that reign of terror ended. He spent just over two years in jail.
Hetty’s previous community and political activities lent her lots of researching experience, and she soon discovered that there was no support or advice anywhere in Australia for young victims of sexual assault or their families; despite research and figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology revealing that one in three girls and one in six boys were victims of sexual assault.
Only 10% of these crimes are reported. 85-95% of times the offender is known to the family. 70% of the time the offender is not actually living with the victim, but is close to the family – a relative, a neighbour, a teacher or other respectable community person – close to the family. This can’t be confused for neglect or even abuse. It’s premeditated assault. The offenders are methodical, and in an evil way, almost talented. These domestic terrorists will groom parents, winning their confidence, and planning their strategy for up to two years before assaulting their victims for the first time.Hetty Johnston was initially very angry at the family members who didn’t speak up, by their silence possibly allowing the continuation of assaults on her daughter. “It’s strange how your thoughts of what you would do in that situation turn to just wanting to protect your loved one. You really have no idea until it happens to you.” As her research continued, Hetty realised that very few people ever spoke up. It’s so impossibly hard to deal with, let alone talk about, that silence often seems easier.
Hetty wanted to break the silence. She was inspired by a story overseas where a predator had imprisoned and killed his many child victims, and the parents asked everyone who wanted to demonstrate their loathing of this crime to bring a white balloon and meet in the public square. 300,000 people attended with white balloons that afternoon! So Hetty started Australia’s own White Balloon Day here in Logan.
Every year now, the Sunday after Father’s Day and coinciding with Child Protection Week, Bravehearts organises White Balloon Day. In 1999, Qld police statistics showed that due to White Balloon Day, there had been a 514% increase in disclosures of child sexual assault to Qld Police HQ that week – people were breaking the silence. White Balloon Day works. But there was more work to be done.
Many school principals approached Hetty before White Balloon Day saying they would love to hang white balloons on their school fences, but kids coming forward without fear would create another problem. There was no one to support them. What could already overwhelmed school teachers and administrators do to cope with the special services these kids would need?
So Bravehearts evolved again, and began providing professional counselling and support, and even further to provide education. They’ve now visited over 100,000 kids! It’s been demonstrated by Bravehearts that education can reduce incidents of child sexual assault by up to 50%. It also has a huge impact on bullying and domestic violence. The Bravehearts education pack is targeted at kids between the ages of three and eight, and has an entertaining, educational message and songs which the kids remember. It really works!
Further breaking the silence, Hetty campaigned successfully for changes to laws prohibiting parents from speaking out about these crimes against children. Designed to protect kids, these laws mandated silence and added to the dynamics of shame and the sense of a loss of innocence that plagues sexual assault victims . The law now allows parents to seek permission to openly disclose and discuss the issues publically.
Bravehearts is helping us make it ok for kids to speak out about sexual assault. “Break the silence” remains their main message. There is some federal funding for their educational programs, and some Qld State funding, but Bravehearts does much more and needs much more. We need to provide them with a source of funding from the community so they can provide a voice that isn’t limited or tied to funding. This is how laws have already been changed – by fearless representation of our kids.
No one in Australia is more qualified and experienced in the exclusive and holistic provision of support, counselling and representation of our most vulnerable – our children – than Hetty Johnston and her wonderful team at Bravehearts. Queensland Police work with Bravehearts as their partner in Logan for a program called CRYPAR (Coordinated Response to Young People At Risk). Within 24 hours, Bravehearts will respond to needs of children and families who have experienced sexual assault – importantly, without contaminating evidence.
In fact, Bravehearts’ counselling standard was recognised when they were federally funded to present two workshops in every capital city of Australia to rooms full of practicing social workers and psychologists on how to provide family support and counselling to these children without contaminating evidence needed for the successful investigation and prosecution of these monsters.
The end game, as Hetty calls it, or her ten year plan, is to make Australia the safest place in the world to raise kids. And she is so positive and full of confidence we really can do it. Logan can be proud that we fostered and surrounded Hetty as Bravehearts was born and evolved. But now we need to dig deep again, and ensure that the end game is achieved this decade. We need to give Bravehearts a bigger voice.
“ProspeKtus to ProtectUs” is an opportunity for your family or business to buy a stake in the future of our kids and the voice of Bravehearts. Please consider not if, but how many stakes you can buy for only $20 per week or $1000 per year. If you had to pay for counselling (God forbid), and thanks to Bravehearts many less victims do, it would be much, much more. Prevention is actually cheaper.
Let’s break the silence in Logan. Tell your kids it’s not ok when someone trusted assaults them. Tell your kids to tell you, and that you will believe them. Buy a white balloon this September. Speak out. If you’ve been a victim or need advice from Bravehearts, you can call them anytime, free of charge, on 1800 Brave 1, or visit www.Bravehearts.org.au.
This story was written for and first published in the Logan magazine, “Inside Special” in April 2010, by David Pellowe.