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Churchill Award to investigate a fair deal for widows and families

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August 2003

Kirstin Ferguson, 30, of Brisbane, has been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to investigate how the Australian Defence Forces’ provision of non-financial support to service widows and families compares to that of the US military and civilian organisations. This issue is also of vital importance to Police widows and families and Kirstin is hoping to include Police conditions in her research. Kirstin believes that the experience of Police widows and families is vital in understanding what can be done better in future.

“I believe that the Police Service, like the Government, is genuinely interested in improving the conditions for widows and families and that they have learnt many lessons from the experiences of families in the past. However, there is always scope to do more and I hope to investigate innovative strategies as part of the Churchill Fellowship” she said.

Kirstin Ferguson graduated the highest ranked Air Force cadet from the Australian Defence Force Academy in 1993 and went on to serve at one of Australia’s F-111 Squadrons. She has since left the RAAF and qualified as a lawyer in NSW and QLD and is currently the National Operations Manager of a top national law firm.

Kirstin is married to a serving RAAF officer – an F-111 Navigator – and knows all too well the risks associated with such a profession. Kirstin Ferguson lost close friends in the last F-111 fatal crash and has seen the impact of the accident on the families first hand.

“All too often we see widows and families being forced to take action in the media and the courts. This happens in both the military and civilian sectors” she said.

Kirstin Ferguson states that this is an issue which arises time and again – she lists the Black Hawk disaster, HMAS Westralia fire and recent F-111 crashes as just some examples of military accidents which have seen families having to fight for justice. In the civilian sector all too often widows of miners, police or emergency services workers are also forced to take their claims to the courts.

“Whilst monetary compensation is vitally important for day to day survival for bereaved families, it is also important to look at non-financial support since all too often there are inadequacies at this level which prompt families to seek justice however, and wherever, they can” Ms Ferguson said.

Kirstin Ferguson cites the US military as an example where the compensation paid is relatively small compared to Australia, however there appears to be much lower level of litigation and adverse public comment.

“I will be travelling to the US as part of this Fellowship to investigate the levels of non-financial support and how it is integrated into the procedures of the US military services, as well as non-military organisations such as the Red Cross, NASA and the major US airlines” she said.

Kirstin also sees this research as having a wider benefit for the Australian community.

“The benefit of this research is that it is applicable to any organisation which has a moral responsibility to care for the families of an employee who dies – this may include such groups as the police, emergency services or even mining companies. Each of these groups operate in a high risk environment and organisations need to consider not only the financial support they will provide families, but also non-financial issues. Tackling these issues can prevent resentment and suspicion building amongst affected families. That can only help everyone involved.”

Kirstin hopes to be able to consult with the Police Force to see what lessons may be taken from the experience of the Australian Defence Force and applied elsewhere.

Kirstin would like to speak with any families affected by the death of a Police officer and hopes that their experience can help others in the future. This includes families who have lost loved ones in a police work related accident, or through another cause of death whilst serving in the Police Force. All contact will be treated confidentially.

“The experience of families who have been through such a tragedy is invaluable in providing help for families in the future” she said.

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