BRAVEHEARTS founder Hetty Johnston AM is emphatically calling on every Australian to push for an extension of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse and an overhaul of the family court system.
It’s the system, she says, that continues to fail our children and is a sickening reflection on our society that can be prevented.
Mrs Johnston was the guest speaker at Port Macquarie’s annual Bravehearts Breakfast on September 1.
The campaigner for children’s safety has spent the last 21 years fronting an organisation that has championed for change and challenged the hierarchy of power preventing it.
And for Mrs Johnston, it’s personal. Her daughter, at age seven, disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted at the hands of her grandfather – a man they were to discover, had sexually abused women and girls in the family across two generations over 40 years.
"This offender was my husband’s father. Not one of the women, the girls, the children in our family apart from our daughter, ever told anyone - not even each other,” Mrs Johnston said.
“This was a secret. I was really angry about that.”
Mrs Johnston said the dynamics of child sexual assault and the burden of silence for young victims validates the disempowerment of abuse.
“This fallacy that if you’re a survivor, you’ve got to keep quiet is absolutely rubbish,” she said. “This is disempowerment – I wasn’t going to say to my daughter don’t tell anybody.
“The moment I do that I put a ball and chain around her ankle and for the rest of her life she would be dragging it around thinking she wasn’t perfect anymore, that she is less innocent, has less worth, that she has this yucky secret.
“I am so proud of my daughter and husband – the moment she spoke out and my husband supported her. They took the power back.
“His father went to jail and we started Bravehearts. They are my heroes.”
Bravehearts receives the bulk of its financial support through community donations and people who believe the voiceless should have a voice and the faceless should have a face.
Hope, she says, keeps her motivated because child sexual assault is preventable.
“We have to prevent the preventable. We cannot stick our head in the sand and we cannot turn the other cheek when we know children are being harmed,” Mrs Johnston said.
“If we walk away as parents, as religious leaders or just as human beings, we need to question our own morality.”
On September 8, White Balloon Day will celebrate its 21st year. Mrs Johnston said the campaign has come from a place where people would not talk about child abuse, to a national Royal Commission. But more needs to be done, particularly with the family court system that she says, continues to fail our children.
And it needs to be done now.
We are teaching these children to tell somebody, but nobody is listening to them.Bravehearts founder, Hetty Johnston
“There is nothing that has upset me more than the family law system in this country,” she said.
“Our children are dying. They are cutting themselves, starving themselves to death, they’ve got all kinds of mental health issues.
“We are teaching these children to tell somebody, but nobody is listening to them.
“This system is more dangerous than any church group or any other institution in this country. The pain, the hurt and the suffering that is occurring today is horrendous and we need to fix it.”
Johnston took her concerns about the family court to the prime minister in a final plea for change to a system that is “dangerous”. She has also called for an extension of the current Royal Commission into child abuse because, she says, it is “morally imperative”.
“(The Prime Minister) said all the right things and I thought great, I’ve got someone here who is going to listen,” Mrs Johnston said.
“But no - despite the fact we had a meeting with the Prime Minister’s office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Family Law Council. They know (there’s a problem).
“If you know, then why the bloody hell are you not fixing it! How do you sleep at night.
“Look at our parliament – what a joke. I want them to fix this for our children. Make it the number one priority in this country.
“If our children are not the most important thing in this country for every adult breathing, then something is seriously wrong.
“I will shut the doors of Bravehearts before I shut my mouth. We have to demand this of our politicians.”
Johnston received independent legal advice to confirm there is nothing in the Constitution preventing the Family Law Court being involved in a Royal Commission. And she is determined to make it happen.
These courts are sending kids to live with known predators, with serious domestic violence perpetrators. These courts are not listening to children.Bravehearts founder, Hetty Johnston
“My prime minister lied to me. And when he lied to me, he lied to every child in this country.
“These courts are sending kids to live with known predators, with serious domestic violence perpetrators. These courts are not listening to children.
“I’m going to keep pushing for a Royal Commission and I encourage each and every one of you to help me. It’s the only way we are going to get to the truth.
“Let’s demand that those people in power who are able to rescue these children do it as a matter of priority.”
As a part of Child Protection Week, more than 800 Hastings students will participate in the Ditto’s Keep Safe Adventure Show.
Ditto teaches children age-appropriate strategies and skills to stay safe in a range of situations from bullying to sexual assault.
“Preventing child sexual assault starts with educating and empowering children with vital knowledge and skills to help keep them safe,” Mrs Johnston said.
“Bravehearts has come so far over the last two decades and has been instrumental in breaking the silence on this crime, but we have a long way to go, and on September 8 our quest continues as we strive to create a safer Australia for our children.”
Mrs Johnston encourages the Hastings community to come together to support the charity’s vision of making Australia the safest place in the world to raise a child.
“The Mid-North Coast committee is very passionate about supporting the work of Bravehearts,” she said.
“We want as many people as possible to support White Balloon Day on September 8.
“There are many simple ways to get involved in this year’s campaign and it is a good opportunity for parents to talk to their child about personal safety.”
Further information about White Balloon Day and how you can get involved in this year’s campaign is available via the official White Balloon Day website at WhiteBalloonDay.com.au.