Parliament: Parliamentary Initiatives

Professor Dr Freda Briggs

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I move:

That this council—

  1. Notes the passing on 6 April 2016 of child protection advocate, Emeritus Professor Dr Freda Briggs AO;
  2. Recognises the extraordinary body of work Dr Briggs undertook to become an expert in the field of child protection;
  3. Recognises the role Dr Briggs played into her 86th year of life working towards the welfare and safety of children; and
  4. Call s on the South Australian government to establish a research scholarship in Freda Briggs’ name at the Australian Centre for Child Protection to honour her name and her dedication to this work.

Dignity for Disability is pleased to move this motion to mark the remarkable life of a remarkable woman. Freda Akeroyd was born in Yorkshire, England, and she left school at the age of 15. At her first workplace, she made history when she reported the chief engineer of Imperial Chemical Industries for sexual harassment due to inappropriate comments he was making to her and other employees.

After five years, she left that job to join the London Metropolitan Police where she undertook additional training to work in the child protection unit before studying an accelerated teaching course as a mature age student, first at Warwick and then Sheffield universities where she graduated with a junior primary education degree before going on to a graduate degree in education and postgraduate qualifications in psychology and sociology before completing a Masters in research.

With her husband she had two children and they were also a foster care family. The family emigrated to Melbourne in 1975 to take up a pioneering position as Director of Early Childhood Studies at the State College of Victoria. Later, Freda Briggs made Adelaide her home, starting with a post as Foundation Dean at the newly established de Lissa Institute. She was a champion for quality early childhood teaching and resisted moves to have the specialty absorbed into general teaching degrees. She rose to the position of Emeritus Professor of Childhood Development at the University of South Australia. Freda Briggs was also the recipient of the inaugural Australian Humanitarian Award, an Anzac Fellowship Award, the Jean Denton Memorial Scholarship, and the Creswick Fellowship Award for work for disadvantaged children. She was also made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2005.

My personal relationship with Freda Briggs began 2010, when I organised a session for parents of children and adults with disabilities on the topic of how to respect people with disabilities and keep them safe from sexual abuse. This session was necessary, unfortunately, because, depending on which research you read, people with disabilities are statistically between two and seven times more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse than our non-disabled counterparts.

Being abused and successfully reporting abuse are unfortunately two very different matters. Freda Briggs made it her life work to research, investigate and champion the rights of children and adults who are mistreated, neglected or abused. That session I invited her to present was informative and, rightly so, explicit. It made the point that it does not pay to skirt around the issue when it comes to discussing appropriate behaviour, and touching in particular. Freda Briggs was prepared to bridge her academic expertise with the everyday language that parents need to be equipped with to talk to their children. At our session she, I think again quite rightly, exploded the myth of ‘stranger danger’ and detailed explicitly the types of behaviours adults can use when grooming for sexual abuse.

The people who attended the session were not only parents but also service providers. At the time, there was an incredible thirst for this information, and it shocked me that it was so, or still so, back in 2010. For if what Freda Briggs was presenting was new to the service providers, then who really has the duty of care for the people with disabilities that they are providing services to, and what training had they had before?

Freda certainly did not believe in tiptoeing around the issue, because she understood that such an approach is feeble to ward off perpetrators. Freda knew that in talking to parents, and in this case service providers, in a comprehensive, explicit way, she would be arming them to be alert to the behaviours of people that could indicate potential abuse. It is difficult to come away from a session like that with any skerrick of faith in human nature left, but there again Freda was able to put it into perspective.

Freda described some potential grooming behaviours, explaining how would-be or could-be abusers, as she said, make themselves very popular with potential targets. Alarm bells should ring when an adult engages in immature rough-and-tumble play at the child’s level. She particularly implored parents to stop tickling before it goes under clothing and, I think most importantly, to not ignore your sense of discomfort or, perhaps even more importantly, the sense of discomfort of your child. Intervene and stop contact, even though this person may be popular with you, your family or your child. In providing that description, she was empowering us to protect others by trusting our own instincts.

I think one of the things that I admired most about the approach of Professor Briggs in her work was that she always tried to afford children and young people a tremendous amount of respect and agency. In some ways, unfortunately, I think we can look to our British heritage to explain the way that we often shirk or talk about issues of bodily safety, or even relationships, in very roundabout ways.

Freda was, as I have become, partially informed by her work as a very strong advocate for changing that. I think it is very important that we teach children and young people about bodies, personal safety and relationships in a very straightforward manner, and that information should suit their needs, not only because this may help minimise susceptibility to abuse and perhaps even lead to the early detection of abuse, but also because it is, I believe, a simple and fundamental human right.

I am often frustrated when I hear children and young people described with terminology such as ‘future leaders’. It may well be true that they are learning how to become informed and assertive leaders in their future, but I think being a true leader means that you are always learning. Of course it is important that we talk about what the future may hold for children and young people, but sometimes I think we do this to the detriment of actually talking about the present. Often we talk about children and young people being future citizens and future leaders, and I think that dismisses the role that they have to play now and the people that they already are.

Although they may or may not be able to fully explain or understand it in the way that we might as adults, children and young people are still experts in their present, expert in their own feelings, and they are incredibly insightful about this and incredibly intuitive. In many ways, we as a parliament can demonstrate that respect to children and young people through changes in legislation and policy such as the Disability Justice Plan, making it easier for children in court, and also, of course, by continuing our long journey toward a state children’s commissioner. We also, I would argue, do not need legislation to start respecting people, validating their experiences and realising that they are the experts in what they are experiencing, the experts in their own lives, and that with the right support every person is able to work through that experience, whatever it may be.

Freda Briggs was unstoppable, or so it seemed. At the age of 85 she was still working, having campaigned against compulsory retirement for 65 year olds, and thank heavens for that because we can only imagine the amount of work and passion we may have missed out on if people like Freda had been forced to retire much earlier than they themselves would have liked.

A week prior to her death, Freda gave a presentation on child protection to a consortium of international schools in Indonesia. She applied determination and rigour to her quest to remove the scourge of abuse, and particularly child sexual abuse, from not only our community but the many communities around the world in which she has worked.

Freda Briggs’ work, of course, remains unfinished. The scourge continues and so does the vigilance by parents, support workers, teachers and all others who will protect children and young people as well as adults who may be particularly susceptible to abuse, including people with disabilities. The need to provide comprehensive and explicit education for children and adults that meets their needs, including their literacy needs, is as important today as it was when Freda first worked in this important field of child protection.

Her legacy should be that we all continue to become more and more armed with the knowledge and information we require to protect all people from abuse and also to prosecute abusers in the fearless way that she pioneered. I think it is fitting to let Freda have the last word here, so I will finish with a quote that she gave to the ABC, as I understand it. The quote reads:

My energy probably comes from anger. I get very angry with the way that people, governments and courts treat children. It makes me angry that governments can waste millions of dollars advertising their own policies while departments fail to investigate child abuse cases because they don’t have sufficient resources.

I think that is an anger that we in this chamber do, and should, continue to all share, and may we in this parliament and in our community of South Australia continue to maintain that very justified rage. Vale Freda Briggs.

Debate adjo urned on motion of Hon. T.T. Ngo .