In every Australian classroom sits a child who's been sexually abused. Kayleen was one of them.

This article contains mentions of sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers.

In an interview with Mamamia, Chair and Founder of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston, said “in every classroom and in every preschool there’s a child who has been sexually assaulted… there are more kids in a year than could fill the MCG. One in five kids will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18.” Her daughter, Kayleen, was one of them. This is her story. 

I am Kayleen Johnston, the youngest daughter of Ian and Hetty Johnston, and when I was seven years old, I broke my Dad’s heart.

As a child I was your typical little girl. I loved playing with dolls, playing ‘Hairdresser’; I loved horses and koalas and having sleepovers at my friends. I had a wonderful, normal life with my parents and older sister, but I was keeping a secret.

That secret came out when my Dad and I were on holidays visiting my grandparents in New Zealand.

When we left home, I was filled with dread and I begged Dad not to take me. He couldn’t work out what was wrong. On the first night, I vividly remember Dad telling me it was time to go to bed. It should have been exciting, I had my own special room at Nanna and Poppa’s house. Instead, I broke down. I absolutely refused to sleep in that room.

I desperately wanted to stay with my Dad, so he patiently took me to his room and sat with me until I calmed down. He then asked me the question that would change our lives forever: “Has anybody ever touched you down there?”

My answer: “Poppy.”

This is the story about child sexual assault you need to be aware of…

Video by Bravehearts

This one word was all it took to change our whole world. Telling the truth was terrifying, but Dad was amazing. I don’t remember exactly what he said but I remember feeling safe. He told me I didn’t have to hug anyone else goodnight, and promised me no one else would come into the room and I believed him. He rang Mum that night to tell her and then Dad and I left early the next day.


After we got back home to Australia, my Dad rang his sister to tell her about my disclosure. My Mum wrote a letter to the whole family, as well as close family friends, to tell them and to ask for their support.

From the phone call and the letter, we discovered that my grandfather had been sexually assaulting girls in our family for over 40 years.

One brave seven-year-old exposed the biggest secret in our family, sent a shock wave through the community, and instigated a court case that led to a conviction. Just one girl.

Giving evidence was probably one the most confronting experiences for me. I remember sitting in a police interview room with the awful two-way mirror staring back at me. I was in a room, with a person I didn’t know, being asked give detailed information about some of the most confusing and terrifying things that I’d ever been through. I knew Mum was behind the mirror, but when I looked to see her, I only saw my reflection. I wanted my mum and my safety blanket, but all I got was a stranger and my own reflection.

Mum and Dad made the decision to seek counselling; for me, for them individually, and as a family. I remember very clearly Mum trying to find an organisation that could help us, but it was so difficult. An agency would give her a number, then they would refer her on to someone else, and so on, in a cruel never-ending cycle.

Eventually, Mum found a counsellor in Brisbane who could help. We made the hour and a half round trip each week, at a cost of $150 per session, which wasn’t covered by any health care – public or private – for about six months.

I can’t tell you how important counselling was for me. It’s hard to explain, but before counselling I just felt ‘heavy’. I’d kept this secret for years and when I finally told someone, my whole world changed. Things were happening, people wanted to talk to me about it, most of my family were sad, and some of my family were in trouble. I thought it was all my fault. It was confusing and scary and I felt like the whole world was staring at me.

Counselling helped me sort through those feelings. By the time I left counselling, I felt confident about myself and my place in the world. I didn’t feel like what had happened was my fault. I guess I felt empowered. I was given permission to be a child again. Without that support, I truly don’t know how I would’ve managed those feelings. My life could have turned out very different.

Despite all that happened, I actually consider myself very lucky. The reality is that one in five children will be sexually harmed before the age of 18. That statistic is shocking.


What makes me one of the lucky ones is that I have a Dad that supported me and believed me. I have a Mum who stopped at nothing to make sure I was getting the support I needed, and I am extremely lucky that my family could afford to provide me with that support.

So how did this result in the Bravehearts we know today?

Well, my parents didn’t want any other family to feel as alone as ours did when I first made my disclosure. No organisation existed that they could turn to for help, and getting the help they (and I) needed was extremely difficult. Yes, eventually they DID find help, but only with great effort and cost.

Mum and Dad thought – what about all the families who need help but CAN’T afford counselling? What about the all children who are being harmed but are afraid to speak out? WHO is helping THEM?

So they bought a little house and started Bravehearts with a handful of volunteers. These amazing people provided free counselling and support to as many children and adult survivors as they could and it grew from there.

Bravehearts is now Australia’s most trusted child protection charity, has educated close to one million children in personal safety, and helps thousands of families each year to rebuild their lives after the trauma of child sexual assault. I have grown up alongside this amazing organisation, and am proud to say I’m still very much a part of it; as of course is my Mum, and my Dad through his support.

But that’s not the end of the story…

Bravehearts started because of my disclosure, but it continues now for the thousands of children and families each year in Australia that need the services we provide. It continues because supporters like you truly believe that together, we can make Australia the safest place in the world to raise a child.

Just as my own parents did for me when I was only seven years old, Bravehearts is not afraid to stand up and speak out for the protection of children.

Bravehearts will never back down and will always act in the best interests of the child. As a result, we can’t rely on government funding. Why? Because we are loud and we challenge Government and those in power when they are failing to protect children. Of course we could just take their money, do the job and work within the confines of what makes the government happy, but that doesn’t go far enough to protect children.

This is why YOUR continued support is so important – so Bravehearts can always be that independent, strong voice for the children of Australia.

Bravehearts 777 child sexual abuse
My dad Ian, my mum Hetty, and me. Image: Bravehearts.

You are part of the story too...

I am truly grateful that you have taken the time to read my story – the story of Bravehearts. Thank you for any donation, any share on Facebook or any opportunity you have taken to contribute to the prevention of child sexual assault.

I hope that by sharing with you this story you can better understand why this organisation does what it does and how your support makes a world of difference.

I hope today you will consider making a donation, because it’s not about my family – or me – anymore. It’s about you, your family, and the millions of children your support educates, empowers and protects.

Thank you,

Kayleen Johnston

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Leading Australian not-for-profit, Bravehearts, is calling all Australian’s to get running, with the launch of its annual 777 campaign, challenging 23 national runners to seven marathons, in seven days, over seven days.

In its sixth year, Kayleen Johnston, a sexual assault survivor who’s personal experience drove her parents to start the child protection charity, will this year join the national running team alongside her dad, Ian Johnston, to help raise funds to create awareness of the importance of children’s safety.

To donate to the cause or to register as a state runner, visit this link here.