Australia’s most renowned child protection advocate has a simple reason for walking away from the organisation that has consumed her life for almost 25 years.
“Bravehearts has grown up and my time is done,” Hetty Johnston said of the organisation she founded in 1997 amid a personal nightmare and has grown to become the country’s leading voice in the battle to prevent child sexual assault and exploitation.
“We’ve been working on a succession plan for a few years and it has worked beautifully. It’s a great organisation with great people doing great work. It’s calm. It’s settled. It has great leadership headed by Chief Executive Officer Alison Geale.
“This day has been a long while coming and it is definitely the right time for me to step aside.”
While she will remain as a board director until the end of the year, Ms Johnston is standing down as Executive Director Special Projects and will not have an executive role at the organisation for the first time in its history.
Having launched the not-for-profit in the wake of her then seven-year-old daughter revealing her paternal grandfather had sexually assaulted her, Bravehearts has evolved to deliver industry-leading child protection training and education programs, provide specialist counselling and support services, and engage in much-needed research and lobbying.
Most importantly, Ms Johnston has been at the forefront of bringing the scourge of child sexual assault and exploitation into the public conversation.
“We broke the silence,” she said.
“When I launched Bravehearts, no one else was talking about this issue but now there are beautiful new voices such as Australian of the Year Grace Tame. They weren’t there when we started but we fought like banshees to get people talking because we knew silence aids and abets sex offenders.
“I know we have saved countless children from harm. The intolerance of sexual assault has reached a crescendo and I am 100 per cent proud of what Bravehearts achieved during my leadership. We have changed the face of child protection in this country. That is not even up for a debate.”
While Ms Johnston is stepping down without any regrets, she concedes there are disappointments.
Her greatest frustration is the refusal of federal governments on both side of politics to launch a Royal Commission into the family law system, the web of courts, lawyers, experts and police that too often fails to keep vulnerable children from harm.
“It shouldn’t be that hard to protect children,” said Ms Johnston, who has never taken a backward step in calling out those she believes care more about their own careers than child safety.
“I know there will be some politicians and others who will be glad to see the back of me but they shouldn’t relax just yet. I will no longer be speaking on behalf of Bravehearts but I won’t step away if I’m asked about this issue.
“I’ve explained to the board that I’m not going to lose my voice after I’ve fought so hard to get it. I haven’t lost my passion for the welfare of children and will never turn my back on them. I will always be in the fight for them. I’ll just be wearing a different hat now.”
Ms Johnston’s list of achievements during her tenure with Bravehearts is mind-blowing.
The charity’s inaugural White Balloon Day resulted in a 514 per cent increase of police disclosures and has become an annual awareness event supported by the Federal Government. More than 1 million children have seen its ‘Ditto’s Keep Safe Adventure’ child protection education program.
She was a key player in the campaign that led to the 2003 resignation of Governor-General Peter Hollingworth over his historic handling of child sex abuse allegations and successfully lobbied for multiple legislative changes that have made her community safer.
She has also received numerous personal accolades including being inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame in 2016, named the 2015 Australian of the Year for Queensland and awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2014.
“It’s amazing to reflect on what we’ve achieved but it was just passion in motion,” Ms Johnston said.
“I saw something that needed to be done and we just did it. It was just having passion and taking no prisoners. I’ve also never done anything on my own. There are people at Bravehearts who have been there for more than 15 years and we have all travelled this road together.”
And while Ms Johnston singles out the likes of Detective Inspector Jon Rouse and Bravehearts Director of Research Carol Ronken for their support over the years, she saves her most heartfelt gratitude to two people who were beside her when the journey started – and still are today.
“The people I admire most are my daughter and my husband,” she said of Kayleen, whose assault was the trigger for Bravehearts, and Ian, who supported his wife’s mission from the curtains.
“Kayleen has not only endured but didn’t silence me. She works at Bravehearts and is still in there fighting and that takes courage and heart.
“As for Ian, he put up with my commitment to the cause all these years. It hasn’t been easy and I can’t say that without enough exclamation marks. It’s been a really arduous journey for our family and, along with my eldest daughter Anj, they are absolute heroes.”
As for what the future holds for the self-confessed workaholic?
“I have no idea what I’ll do but I can assure you I’ll be doing something,” Ms Johnston laughed.
“It’s a little scary not having a plan but at the same time I’m excited. I don’t even know who I am without Bravehearts but I’m going to take a break and I know whatever I find will make me smile.”