The bravest hearts

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Meet Hetty and Kayleen Johnston; soldiers, lionesses, heroes. Get it’s Hayley Bogaard sits down with this mother and daughter duo, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves.

Bravery takes many forms, many different faces. It’s a fearless soldier running headfirst into battle, a lioness protecting her cubs from predators, a hero facing the monsters in the night.

Hetty and Kayleen Johnston are all of these things. Fearless soldiers, protective lionesses, heroes facing monsters in the night. Hetty Johnston, the founder of child protection organisation Bravehearts, has spent the last twenty-two years fighting to break the silence on child sexual abuse and advocating for the victims of such abuse.

Her daughter, Kayleen, is one of those victims. Mother and daughter now stand hand in hand; facing the incessant waves of red tape, criticism and obstacles that challenge the cause they fight for. They are strong, resilient and brave in their pursuit to protect children. And it all began twenty-two years ago with one tiny sentence, three words, eleven letters.

This is the story of the bravest hearts.

He touches me

Hetty was in the throes of life in politics when her husband, Ian, decided to take their daughter Kayleen to visit his family in New Zealand. As she always did, Hetty drove them to their airport and waved goodbye as they walked through the international gates.

“He was holding her against him, going down the escalator at the international airport and she was looking behind him back up at me at the top, waving, and she was crying,” Hetty explains.

“You can just tell with your child – when they cry – you just know when something isn’t right.”

But with Ian’s soothing reassurance, they boarded the plane and left. They arrived at his father’s house – Poppy’s house – with a warm greeting from friends and family. Poppy had even prepared a special room, just for young Kayleen, adorned with her favourite colour: pink.

But when it was time to go to bed, Kayleen became distraught, refusing to go to sleep in her special room. Ian took her to his room instead, patiently sitting with her until she calmed down.

“He lay down with her in bed and asked her, ‘What’s wrong?'”, Hetty tells,

“I’m scared.”

“Scared of who?”

“Poppy.”

“Why are you scared of poppy?”

And then in one sentence, three words, eleven letters, their whole world changed forever. A family torn apart, a little girl’s innocence shattered, a mother and father’s heart broken.

“He touches me.”

In that pivotal moment, Ian faced an agonising choice.

“He had a choice. He could either tell Kayleen not to say anything and protect his father. Or he could tell me and he knew what would happen if he told me. He’s been married to me a long time, he knows I take no prisoners when it comes to our children,” says Hetty. “So being the most beautiful man on the planet, he chose his daughter.”

brave (adjective)
1. Ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage. – Oxford Dictionary

Once his family had gone to bed, Ian snuck out of the house and used a payphone down the street to call Hetty.

“Life as you know it just ends, in a split second,” Hetty explains, “People say that all the time but until you experience it, you don’t know how true it is.”

“I could’n’t pick her up, I couldn’t hold her. My husband either. He’s stuck in the house with an offender, a man that he loves. It’s like a death, but they’re still alive.”

With thousands of kilometres between them, Hetty did the only thing she knew: she went to work.

“I got up, went outside and I screamed the most revolting obscenities known to man. I just had to get it out. I screamed and I cried.”

“And once I’d done that, I went in and turned the computer on.”

And that’s where Hetty’s battle began. She wrote a letter to the family in New Zealand, telling them what had happened. She soon discovered he had been sexually offending against almost every female member of the family for forty years; two generations of mothers and their children. And not one of them ever shared his secret. That was until Kayleen spoke up.

He was convicted and sentenced to four years in jail. He served two and a half.

Hetty quit politics. She had a new fight that needed every ounce of her energy and focus. The family sought help, guidance, counselling but to no avail. They approached children’s charities but no one wanted to know about child sexual assault.

“It was too scary, too disgusting, too confronting,” Hetty explains, “No one was talking about it, no one wanted a bar of it.”

Except Hetty did. And where her heartbreak and agony collided with her resilience and tenacity, Bravehearts was born.

Breaking the silence

Bravehearts is now Australia’s leading child protection organisation and has been breaking the silence for over twenty years. From humble beginnings in a small house with just a handful of volunteers, Hetty and Kayleen – who works alongside her mother at Bravehearts – have set their sights firmly on the future. Their mission is simple; to prevent child sexual assault in our society. Their vision is to see Australia become the safest place in the world to raise a child.

But there is still a long road ahead, fraught with adversity.

“It happens to one in every five kids,” Hetty explains, “It’s going to come home to roost.

“If it hasn’t already, it will, sadly. Someone you know, someone close to you.”

“If people out there think that they don’t know anybody, they just don’t know it, the person just hasn’t disclosed to them. If it’s not your mother or your father and it’s not you or your kids, maybe it’s who your kids marry, who they play with in the school yard.”

Bravehearts push for change; for legislative reform to protect children and break the silence and the stigma around child sexual assault.

“It was actually illegal for me to speak publicly about child sexual abuse at the time,”Hetty explains,“But we changed that law in section 189 of the Child Protection Act.”

“I told them that I am not going to tell my child to be quiet, to not tell anybody. Because the moment I do that, I put a ball and chain around her ankle that says to her: you’re less than.

“It says you’re damaged. You’ve got something to be ashamed of. You’ve got something to hide.

“It’s the three S’s: the silence, the secrecy and the shame. They are a paedophile’s best friend and our kid’s worst enemy.”

Amongst the parliamentary red tape, lobbying for legislative change, finding the funds to keep the fight alive and battling a society that didn’t want to know about child sexual assault, there came the stories. Families who had been torn apart by abuse, victimised and assaulted by the Family Court system. One of those stories that really struck Hetty was that all of Gill Hamersley and her daughter, Abbey.

Abbey was 17 years old when she committed suicide in 2013. Prior to her death she suffered from mental health issues including anorexia, bulimia, self-harm and multiple suicide threats and a serious but failed attempt.

Abbey had been sexual abused by her father, Gill’s ex-husband, since she was young. Despite being convicted of the sexual assault of Abbey’s best friend, her father was granted access to her and her two sisters throughout, and following, his incarceration. Despite Gill’s repeated and desperate attempts to protect her children, the Family Court allowed him access to the girls. The courts treated Gill as a hysterical and vindictive wife, rather than what she was: a protective mother.

I got up, went outside and I screamed the most revolting obscenities known to man. I just had to get it out. I screamed and I cried.

In May 2013, Abbey disclosed to her mother that her father had abused her. Again, Gill sought protection orders for her daughters.

Tragically, in the November of that year, Abbey took her life by overdosing on medication. Ten days after she died, the Child Protection Authorities sent a letter to Gill stating that ‘the department has assessed that [Abbey’s father] has harmed Abbey and is at risk of harming [Abbey’s younger sister] if they were to have unsupervised contact’.

It was too late for Abbey. But Bravehearts wouldn’t let it be too late for other children.

“I flew over to Western Australian to meet Gill, Abbey’s mother,” Hetty says,“I told her that if we could get the money, if we could make it happen, we would call it ‘Abbey’s Project’ for her sweet little girl.”

In June 2016, Bravehearts launched Abbey’s Project, a Discussion Paper that highlighted the failings of the Family Law System and calling for a Royal Commission. The Paper put forward 30 recommendations, the first being that a Royal Commission be established to scrutinise the failed Family Law System.

“I cried,” Hetty admits,“I cried every day. I still do.”

Hetty admits that before Bravehearts started looking into the Family Law System, before she cried for children like Abbey and mothers like Gill, she was strong; resilient to the evil in the world. But that has changed.

“It’s so woeful, it’s so dangerous and it’s so now,” Hetty explains, “It’s not 20 years ago, it’s now, it’s today. It’s our kids, I’ve looked in their eyes, I’ve seen these children. I know what’s happening for them and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, there’s nothing their parents can do. Their parents have to hand their kids over to offenders every other weekend.

I am so battered and bruised. I am so tired. But I will not give up this fight, mark my words, I will not.

“The kids are screaming. Parents can’t even take their children to the doctor. And if they disclose, parents are meant to change the subject. It is absolutely a gross violation of human rights.

“And for the first time, I’m not coping as well as I have done. This is actually really bad.

“Parliament knows, they know. And what human being can know what I know – and believe me, they know – and not move heaven and earth to fix it?”

And so Hetty is doing just that; she’s moving heaven, earth and everything in between.

“I’ve hit the ceiling”

In March this year, Hetty announced that she was running for the Senate as an Independent in the May Federal election.

“They [parliament] would rather not fix it, they would rather look the other way and I feel sick about that and shame for this country. And that’s why – I can’t raise my pitch, my sadness, my anger, my disgust any more. I’m at the ceiling; I’ve hit the ceiling. The only thing I have left to do now is run for the Senate and that’s why I’m doing it.”

Hetty admits that the fight has worn her down. She is tired of being bound by red tape, watching helplessly as children fall victim to monsters, and then victim again to the Family Law System.

“I have to take the fight to them,” she admits,“I don’t know how I’m going to go. I have no money. But I have a big heart and a big passion and a lot of amazing people around me so we’re just going to try. That’s all I can do.”

Hetty confesses that the battle has not come without scars. From the moment her daughter whispered,“Poppy” through her tears, Hetty’s life and her mind has been consumed with child sexual abuse and that is a dark place to exist.

“I am so battered and bruised. I am so tired. But I will not give up this fight, mark my words, I will not.”

Hetty Johnston is not a greedy politician with a thirst for power, fame and publicity. She is a lioness protecting not only her own cubs, but those of every family in our country.

And that takes the very bravest heart.

You can join the fight at hettyjohnston.com.au and find out more about the incredible work that Bravehearts do at bravehearts.org.au

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