Bravehearts’ reach out for child protection

Carol Ronken at Bravehearts’ Gold Coast HQ
Source: Jonathon Noone
Julia Gillard’s announcement in November last year that a Royal Commission would investigate institutional responses to child sexual abuse was the ultimate reward for Bravehearts.
After a decade of fighting for the country’s most vulnerable, Bravehearts’ Secretary Carol Ronken said she had “never been so happy” after the former Prime Minister’s announcement.
“We did not believe there was the political will to spend the money and act,” she said.
Since joining the organisation in 2003, Ronken and Bravehearts’ Founder Hetty Johnston have lobbied tirelessly to hold to account institutions that were suspected of negligence and concealment.
 Bravehearts launched during Child Protection Week in 1997 and offers prevention programs, training, counselling, support and advocacy services for survivors.
In 2003 Governor-General Peter Hollingworth faced condemnation for his cover-up of child sexual abuse during his time as Archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Brisbane in the 1990s.
Johnston featured regularly in the media as the face of Bravehearts and as a representative of those who had been violated as children.
That same year Ronken was as an Associate Lecturer in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Griffith University.Following the tragic loss of a friend to suicide, who had been a victim of child sexual assault, Ronken contacted Bravehearts to offer her services a short time later she was offered a permanent position with the organisation.

Bravehearts released their first position paper, which argued for a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in Australia.

At first, the support gathered for the commission seemed enough to encourage Prime Minister John Howard to act, but pleas from organisations such as Bravehearts and the gathering of public sentiment was not enough to convince governments to fund investigations, as they argued it was a waste of money.

“It was a massive backflip, very disappointing,” Ms Ronken said.

“Governments are reluctant to spend money if there is no immediate result.

“A Royal Commission is a long term investment.

“We may not see the benefits for a generation-or-two.”

Ronken credits the media and its reports of child abuse cover-ups for pressuring governments into more significant action.

“The media plays a massive role,” she said.

“Organisations like Bravehearts can take an issue to governments and try and get their attention but often it’s not until the media run a story that governments will act.”

In 2004, it was revealed that a number of ex-foster children came forward and claimed they had been abused while under State Government-care in the 1990s.

Months were spent lobbying Queensland Ministers for an investigation, in-which evidence that the department had been aware of the violations was exposed.

The Courier Mail then published an article where the story got traction, which led to an investigation and the Department of Families was subsequently shut down.

Bravehearts released a position paper in July 2012, reiterating the need for a Royal Commission.

The paper opposes the argument that a Royal Commission would be too expensive and too ineffective; and provides evidence that the social cost of child sexual abuse is too detrimental to be ignored.

Ronken believes the media’s attention of the Catholic Church and the New South Wales Police whistle-blower Peter Fox, were the tipping-points for the Royal Commission.

Six-member commission. Souce:

Since Gillard’s announcement, Bravehearts have been at the coal-face of the investigation.

The Royal Commission has delegated funding to Bravehearts to allow them to assist in offering support services and training for organisations, as well as to collaborate with the commission.

“We worked with them on the terms of reference.

“Trying to ensure the terms of reference were strong enough – to capture what we believe it needs to do – to be an effective commission of inquiry”.

It is the duty of the six-member Royal Commission to ‘inquire into how institutions with a responsibility for children have managed and responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse.’

The commission has been contacted by thousands of victims and people with information; with private sessions being conducted within Australia annually.

The first of four public case study hearings was held on the 16–19 September: with the focus on the Scouts Australia, and its Hunter and Coastal Region; the Department of Community Services in 1999-2001; Department of Community Services in 2003; and Hunter Aboriginal Children Services Corporation.

Ronken said it is an anxious time for all, as in the following months it will be revealed to what extent organisations worked to suppress information and discourage victims.

Rankin said however it is an opportunity for organisations to assess risk management strategies to prevent child sexual assault with the implementation of child protection policies, stricter employment and disclosure policies.

In the three remaining public hearings this year, the public will hear accounts of child sexual abuse and instances when such crimes were reported, within institutions during 2006-2007 and 2011.

Bravehearts’ first position paper calling for a Royal Commission was released in 2003.  What crimes and violations, hence, suffering, could have been avoided if the commission had been implemented a decade earlier?

The hearings will begin on 21 October, 18 November and 9December.

The commission will provide an interim report by 30 June next year and report is expected to be finished by the end of 2015.

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