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A Brave New Role

25 January 2016 at 8:48 am
Xavier Smerdon
Careers as a police officer and a lawyer have led Angelo Venardos to his current role of CEO of a nationally recognised child protection charity. Venardos is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Xavier Smerdon | 25 January 2016 at 8:48 am


A Brave New Role
25 January 2016 at 8:48 am

Careers as a police officer and a lawyer have led Angelo Venardos to his current role of CEO of a nationally recognised child protection charity. Venardos is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Angelo Venardos has spent much of his life dealing with crime and the court system. As a former police officer and lawyer, he has experienced both ends of the justice system in Australia.

But it his latest role that will perhaps enable him to make the biggest difference.

Earlier this month Venardos, left his role as chair of Queensland-based charity, Bravehearts, only to step into the position of CEO.

In an unusual set of circumstances, then CEO and founder of the charity, Hetty Johnston AM, became chair of the organisation, meaning the two had effectively traded places.

As this week’s Changemaker Venardos talks about the challenges of replacing the founder of an organisation and how Bravehearts is working to reach its goal to make Australia the safest place in the world to raise a child by 2020.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

My first career was a police officer here in Queensland. While I was a police officer I studied law part time and all up I spent 11 years with the police and 25 years as a lawyer. In more recent years I joined the board of Bravehearts and towards the end of last year a conversation between Bravehearts Founder Hetty Johnston and myself evolved and it was decided that we would swap roles and I would become the CEO.

Do you think your career as a police officer made you want to work with an organisation that protects children?

Part of the time that I spent at the police I worked in an area called the Juvenile Aid Bureau and part of that role meant I was dealing with matters involving child abuse. That was only a portion of the 11 years that I spent in police, but has it stood me in good stead? I guess I’ve always been a person who, I like to think, is community-minded, and that’s what drove me to join the police in the first place. I’m also a father myself. I’ve got three daughters in their 20s now, so it is very important to me. I guess at this stage in my life, I’ve raised my children, it’s now about giving back. People in our society need a voice and I like to think that I can be one of those people that can act as that big voice that is Bravehearts.

How high is the demand for Bravehearts’ services?

Very high. We offer counselling to children and also adult survivors of child sexual assault. We also run an education program, Ditto’s Keep Safe Adventure, developed for kids aged 3-8 which equips them with personal safety skills and teaches them how to stay safe in a range of situations, from sexual assault to bullying. We have four programmes in which we deal with children from preschool age up to their early teens. We give them messages around what happens if they’re in a situation where someone is, as an example, grooming them to sexually abuse them. We go out to schools and preschools and we have educators who work with the children to teach them some of those keep safe messages. We also train adults in organisations including schools, childcare centres and sporting organisations that work with children and who have a duty of care to protect them. Bravehearts services are constantly working at capacity and community and government support is vital. We’ve also had a huge role to play with the Royal Commission, case-managing clients and supporting them to tell their stories in public hearings.

Bravehearts’ goal is to make Australia the safest place in the world to raise a child by 2020. How is Australia going in terms of achieving that goal?

Bravehearts aims to achieve its vision with its child protection blueprint – The 3 Piers to Prevention – Educate, Empower, Protect. The stats are alarming – one in five Australian children will be sexually harmed by the time they’re 18. That’s totally unacceptable. One of the messages we teach through our education of children is speaking out and breaking the silence, because one of the weapons that offenders use who sexually abuse children utilise is secrecy. There’s been a lot of abuse over the years, and I think that’s becoming evident now, where the victim has never said anything.

You never totally realise the magnitude of the problem. People might be saying that there’s so much more child sexual assault being reported these days, therefore it must be worse, well that’s not necessarily the case. It’s difficult to assess the impact that you’re having in terms of preventing sexual abuse because there’s a lot more people these days reporting it but that doesn’t mean that there’s a lot more people being sexually abused. In fact, with more people reporting this crime, the greater impact organisations like Bravehearts is having in communities right around Australia. We know that this crime is preventable, it’s up to the adults to stand up and prioritise the safety of our kids.

Can you explain how the decision to swap roles with Hetty Johnston came about?

Hetty founded the organisation nearly 20 years ago and since that day she has been the CEO. Over that time the organisation has evolved into a much larger one and there are now around 80 people working with us. Hetty, with all due respect to her, has been doing the job of two-and-a-half people for a long time, and that wears you down. When you’re doing the work of two-and-a-half people, there’s also a lot of things that you can’t get done, time is simply a finite resource, and there were a lot of projects that Hetty just wasn’t giving the time and attention to that she would have liked to.

One of the things that we do is lobby. We try to drive legislative change where it’s necessary, and one of the areas where it is obviously necessary for a lot of people that are going through the family law system, is when it comes to sexually abused children. That system is, in our view, clearly inadequate in some respects. We’re currently working on a project called Abbey’s Project. Abbey was only 17 when she took her own life following years of sexual assaults. The family situation was being played out in the courts and one of the deficiencies of the case was the state of the law. So through Abbey’s Project, a number of people that have been through the family court system will tell their stories and we will be consolidating the learnings from those stories and then making some recommendations to the Federal Parliament to change the law. The family courts are critical institutions that interact with and deal with issues of child sexual assault daily. Improvements to practices, policies and procedures within this institution will have a positive impact on a large number of Australian sexual assault survivors.

That’s one of the projects that Hetty will really be able to focus on now, to get that report finished and those recommendations made. It would have been very difficult for her to devote the time to that project that is needed if she was still in the CEO role.

Did you have any reservations about taking over the role of CEO?

One of the things that was going to be a challenge was that Hetty is the founder of the organisation, she’s the heart and soul, and the organisation has been very well supported over the years because of Hetty. She’s got a huge personal following. One of the things that I personally thought about was “is that a bridge too far to step into an organisation after such a high profile person and try and continue to attract the support that Bravehearts has received over the years?” It’s a bit like a new football coach coming in after a very successful and high profile one has left. It’s a tough ask to come in after someone who is seen as the face of an organisation, and that’s probably the only reservation I had. Having said that, I have been well supported by the board and the incredibly dedicated staff at Bravehearts and every day I go to work knowing that what I’m doing is helping to make Australia a safer place for kids. That’s extremely rewarding.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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