A story from the South Coast of NSW reflecting life in early 2020
Jack* is 10 years old and lives with his family in a small town on the South Coast of NSW with brother James (12), and sister Emily (6). During the summer of 2020, the bushfires burnt the areas around Jack’s home resulting in the children having to evacuate to their grandmother’s house further up the coast.
This was extremely distressing for the children, especially since their mother had to stay behind. The family were eventually reunited at home after travelling 11 hours through thick smoke - a journey that usually takes two hours. Once home, they were relieved to discover their house was not burnt, but it was full of smoke and ash, and they were without electricity for several days. The thick smoke lingered for weeks and the children could not play outside. Jack and his siblings were traumatised and scared. Jack seemed very quiet and withdrawn and would startle easily. His teacher said he was struggling to concentrate and he was quiet with his friends. Jack’s younger sister had become very ‘clingy’ and she was scared whenever she heard or saw a fire truck. A local social worker provided information to Jack’s mother on resources and services that could help the children. As part of UNICEF Australia and Royal Far West’s bushfire response program, Jack benefited from seeing a care team - this included sessions with a psychiatrist, paediatrician, dietician, occupational therapist, and social worker. Between appointments, he enjoyed fun activities at school and a recreation program. He particularly loved dodgeball and boxing. Emily enjoyed the crafts and getting messy with shaving foam.
Through this program, Jack’s mother Katie received extra mental health support and was given information on the impact of natural disaster trauma on children, along with resources and ideas how to best support them. This included the importance of re-establishing and maintaining routines, opportunities for special time together and child led play, shared reading, emotion coaching and the vital importance of also taking care of herself. Just as the family were slowly recovering from the fires, the COVID-19 restrictions hit, bringing further fear and uncertainty. Home schooling has been hard for Jack as he misses his teacher and he needs his mother to supervise all lessons. In addition, he has not been able to see his grandmother and worries about her because she is not well. The bushfire response program team will attend the local school to offer support to Jack’s teachers and his friends once COVID-19 travel restrictions allow. In the interim, Jack and his family receive tele-healthcare remotely from the program team.
His mother Katie is now feeling more hopeful about Jack’s recovery due to the continued support. Occupational Therapist Emily Barton explains how her telecare sessions are making a difference for Jack. “Due to a number of factors, including the recent bushfires, family disruptions and home relocations, Jack has experienced increased difficulties. This has resulted in increased internalising of emotions, elevated stress levels and low overall confidence in abilities. Weekly 30-minute tele healthcare Occupational Therapy sessions, supported through the UNICEF Australia and Royal Far West Bushfire Response Program, have now been provided to help Jack.” The bushfire response program is making it possible for children like Jack to receive the best clinical care.
UNICEF Australia and Royal Far West partnered in January 2020 to support children and communities affected by the bushfires earlier this year. The program is delivering mental health and psycho-social supports to parents, teachers and children across eight regions and 25 communities and is helping children and families to recover and decrease the long-term impacts of the bushfires. The program team is also delivering training for existing local education, health, and community service providers to strengthen their ability respond to the needs of children and support recovery through this program.
The program has been delivered by mental health support teams deployed to reach children and their families in 25 small and regional communities prior COVID-19. Subsequently, the delivery mode has been adapted, where possible, to tele-health and online platforms as communities affected by the bushfires and now COVID-19 continue to need support.
The program team comprises of clinical professionals including an occupational therapist, a clinical child psychologist and social workers who are providing a range of essential services to help recovery. Through their interaction with this service, children may also be referred to a specialised residential therapeutic program. In order to leave skills in the community and to help increase resilience and capacity into the future, parents, carers, teachers and health professionals will also receive focused training and support to foster the ongoing healing, recovery and resilience of children.
The experience of Australian children and young people impacted by fire, drought and other hazards is different to those of adults. They are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of these disasters and are too often absent from the public conversation about appropriate solutions. Children are at the centre of UNICEF Australia’s response to the bushfire crisis and UNICEF Australia is focused on ensuring that their needs are prioritised.
*For privacy, the names of the individuals in this story have been changed.