My life: Freda Briggs
My life: Freda Briggs
In 2000 Freda Briggs was named Senior Australian of the Year in recognition of her enormous contribution towards improving child protection services and education. Now in her 70s, she is emeritus professor at the university of South Australia and her huge list of achievements includes publishing more than a book a year since the age of 60. Here she reveals how the events of her extraordinary life have given her the drive to keep on pushing for a better world for children.
Published Selector Spring 2007
I was born in England during the Great Depression and lived in the industrial town of Huddersfield, Yorkshire. My mother didn’t work and we were poor but she was a good manager. She grew veggies, kept chooks, preserved eggs in Isinglass, made jam, bottled fruit, salted beans, knitted and made clothes, washed on Monday with a gas boiler, a rubbing board, tub and mangle. She ironed on Tuesday, baked bread on Wednesday, made pies on Thursday and shopped on Friday.
Dad, an office clerk was the dour disciplinarian. He didn’t believe in showing affection or giving praise because it might make his children conceited, a sin in the strict Northern English culture. We had to show respect (deference) to our superiors, keep opinions to ourselves and never contradict. The irony is that now I’m known for being forthright, pro-active and quite the opposite to his vision.
Village social life revolved around the village Methodist Chapel. I attended Sunday School, Bible Classes and sat Christian Endeavour exams. Looking back I sense that my interest in social justice was developed by the Methodists. However poor we were, we were constantly reminded that there were others much poorer than ourselves. We were brain-washed with “Do unto others as you would be done by” and “God helps those who help themselves and each other”. Despite its conservatism, the church taught me to relate well to people who are disadvantaged and not to be judgemental.
My first protest about injustice was at the age of twelve when, for talking in class, a prefect ordered me to learn all 171 lines of Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot” over the weekend. I protested that the punishment didn’t fit the crime and, for my audacity, the principal added “The Ancient Mariner”. I can still recite both!
Dad said that if I didn’t get distinctions in my School Certificate I’d have to work in a woollen mill. Although they were noisy, smelly and had notoriously poor working conditions, I decided that a mill would be better than my parents’ nagging, so I left school to work for Imperial Chemical Industries at 35 shillings a week.
My mother took all of my pay except for one shilling a week, which was totally inadequate to buy lunches, hygiene goods etc. Other girls could afford bras, deodorant, fashionable clothes, make-up and handbags while I was resentfully still wearing my Clark’s lace-up school shoes.
I made history at the age of 15 when I reported the chief engineer of ICI for sexual harassment. To their credit, management acted and moved the engineer elsewhere. I was also moved into an office where my job was to check typed orders to make sure they were correct.
I realised that it was time to move on when I failed to spot two additional zeros in the quantity column of an order for nuts and bolts from Guest Keen and Nettlefolds. GK&N must have thought that all their Christmases had come at once and nobody said anything until a train came into the factory carrying one hundred years’ supply of nuts and bolts. As I was the only person laughing I decided I had to do something more useful with my life.
What could I do at the age of twenty with only a school certificate and several others for achievements in foreign languages? Nursing was out of the question because the pay was a mere ten shillings a week and student nurses needed family support. And then I saw an advertisement for women police in London – the real “Bill”. It was the perfect solution; it offered free accommodation, free food, free uniform, seven pounds a week and the opportunity to leave my overly restrictive home for adventure. I was invited to attend for interview which involved overnight accommodation in a police hostel near Piccadilly Circus; a bed with a straw mattress and a horsehair pillow. I thought I’d blown it at the interview when, after addressing the whiskery Chief Inspector as “sir” several times, I looked down and saw that, beneath the table “he” wore a pair of black lisle stockings and was a “Ma’am”.
After the interviews, all the applicants went to the cinema in Leicester Square. When I reached the ticket office I had to disappear quickly because I didn’t have enough money to pay for a ticket.
In 1952 I married Ken, a craft bookbinder at the British Museum who I’d met seven years earlier at Sunday School. We had a quiet wedding at a church in Surrey followed by lunch in a pub. Our wedding photo appeared on the front page of the evening newspaper because, by coincidence, press photographers were in the park next to the church following the finding of a murdered girl. Afterwards, we giggled all the way to Piccadilly Circus as we sat opposite a row of train passengers reading newspapers with the headline, “Policewoman marries museum man”. No-one recognised us.
Our one night honeymoon at the Regents Palace Hotel in Piccadilly Circus cost 35 shillings. Our noisy room overlooked the kitchen and at around 6am the door opened and two women walked in saying, “Housekeeper checking up”. I hadn’t been in London long enough to know that the Palace was used by prostitutes and staff checked to see how many bodies were in the room.
I trained to become a specialist in child protection in a multi-professional team. I prosecuted child abuse cases in the Magistrate’s court and was rostered to organise the South London Juvenile Court. The Magistrates were professors in child development assisted by a legal officer. I took care and protection cases to the court, often befriending and becoming an “aunty” to the kids taken into state care. I recognised that they didn’t have much of a chance in life because of their family backgrounds. So it was an easy step to become foster carers and move into residential social work after Ken and I had had two children of our own. Inspired by my younger brother who had gained a degree, I completed Year 12 by correspondence while the children had their naps. I then went on to teacher training as a mature aged student.
Given my very strange background, I was appointed to one of the toughest schools in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. The school principal leaked my history and on day one the parents at the gate chanted, “I hate coppers”. I grinned and said, “So do I, that’s why I left”.
During my time there, two parents were murdered, a girl’s naked body was found in the school yard and children’s parents included prostitute mothers and jailbird fathers.
I began to realise that teachers were the most important professionals in child protection because victims over the age of four are usually in school and give signs of abuse that informed teachers can recognise. I found I could spot abused children throughout the school. Parents knew they could talk to me about their problems without shocking me and they came for help when their children were sexually abused.
We had to find ways to clean up children without offending parents. I gave them finger painting and other messy activities early in the morning so that we had an excuse to wash them and their clothes. They loved being clean and came back to the classroom beaming. I’d pretend I didn’t recognise them when they returned and they’d say, “Look Miss Bricks, it’s me…I’m Brian. Come and smell me, I’ve got talcum powder on”. You can relate well to the most troubled children if you have fun with them.
Continuing university studies, I became a lecturer and senior lecturer in child development and in 1975 I was offered the position of Director of Early Childhood Studies at the State College of Victoria. When the offer came, we had just experienced two winters of coal miners’ strikes. Miners barricaded the power station and we had no electricity to drive the central heating. Even the gas cooker needed electricity. The children used paraffin lamps for homework and there was no TV. Ken suffered because he was trying to run a business with 400 employees. He would be told that power would be on at 6am and arrange for everyone to work, then he would have to pay them and send them home again. Frustration was sufficiently high for us to emigrate (i.e. this was just before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister).
I flew to Australia alone as our son had to complete university entrance exams and the house had to be sold. Our daughter quickly tired of male company and, at the age of 14, she flew out to Melbourne alone. My work as an advocate for children became more serious in 1980. I established the first university level multi-professional child protection course in the world and assisted others to establish them in Brazil, Germany and New York. Everyone thought I was crazy; child abuse didn’t happen in Australia, they said “or if it does it only happens in Sydney”. Academics denied that human service professionals needed to be informed (and some are still in denial!). Administrators argued that child abuse isn’t an academic subject but they lost that argument when I was able to show that there had been a great deal of research in American universities. Unfortunately, the course was one of the first to go when funding was cut.
In the early 80s I realised that stranger danger information delivered to schools was not only inappropriate but dangerous. I researched with parents and found that, at best, they only taught their children to avoid strangers in cars and 75% of parents said nothing. Furthermore, children under nine years didn’t understand what a stranger was. I collected school child protection programs from the US and Canada and shared them with Victoria Police who adopted a Wisconsin program and introduced it to education departments Australia-wide.
New Zealand rejected it on the grounds that it was too American for their culture, too complex and at the same time, too simplistic. New Zealand took the more difficult and expensive course of writing a curriculum for each age group with videos for parents and children and resources for teachers. I was curious to compare the effectiveness of the two programs and interviewed Australian and New Zealand children using pre and post testing. This had to be self-funded because, for many years there was no money for research in this field. New Zealand Police were so pleased with the results they invited me back to evaluate their Intermediate School program, then secondary and finally, special education. In short, I have been advising New Zealand Police since 1985 and researching for them with children since 1990.
In Australia we still have a long way to go to create a safe world for children. We have no national laws, definitions or standards; services for victims are fragmented and mainly provided by charities with little or no funding. In 1990 the Federal Government signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, promising to provide legislation and a legal system appropriate for protecting children, but seventeen years later we are still waiting for the fulfilment of those obligations. My greatest wish is to have inquisitorial (not adversarial) courts for child sex abuse cases staffed by specialists with a professional knowledge of children and abuse.
People often ask, “Where do you get your energy?” and “When are you going to retire?” 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. (And I would be hopeless playing bowls or golf or taking a caravan around Australia).
While constant cries for help delay retirement, I like to escape when I can. During my time off I do crazy things like climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge and parasailing. When I was Senior Australian of The Year I met a wonderful 91 year old who had been abseiling in the Blue Mountains. She said, “Freda, when you reach my age you can do all the things that you wanted to do when you were young but daren’t because, with a family, you couldn’t take the risk. Now, if I kill myself falling down the Blue Mountains, it’s better than dying in a nursing home”.
I’ve adopted that as my philosophy!
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.