Save the Children Australia has called out a “systematic failing” of children’s needs in the immediate response to the devastating Australian bushfires.
The finding is contained within the organisation’s submission to the various inquiries into the unprecedented Australian bushfires, including the Royal Commission.
The child rights organisation, which responded to the emergency, argues that at the height of the disaster, children in bushfire affected communities lacked appropriate services, safe places to spend their time and much needed mental health support.
“While the level of support in the aftermath of the fires was incredible, the needs of children was one very important area that was largely forgotten,” said Matt Gardiner, Save the Children’s Executive Director of Australian Services
“Unfortunately, the bushfire response did not adequately cater to the unique needs of children, and as a result many suffered unnecessarily when appropriate and systematic support could have alleviated this.
“With more extreme and catastrophic events like this expected, we need to ensure that children’s needs are prioritised alongside other essential services in future emergencies.”
The submission also refers to “an enormous missed opportunity” to prevent children suffering undue harm and potential trauma in the aftermath of the bushfires.
“Children went through incredible hardship during the bushfires. Some were separated from parents who stayed back to fight the fires, others lost homes or pets. Many witnessed terrifying things and feared for their lives,” Mr Gardiner said.
“Lots of children also stayed in evacuation centres that were chaotic and filled with long queues and exhausted and overwhelmed people. It was distressing for adults, let alone children.
“We cannot underestimate the impact of this experience on a child’s emotional wellbeing, and the longer-term mental health impacts it can cause if not properly addressed.
“While the world is rightly focused on the global pandemic, we must not neglect the children who experienced the bushfires firsthand and may be suffering a compounding effect right now.
“In many ways the global humanitarian system – with specific agreed mechanisms and roles for child focussed agencies on education and child protection – is better geared to support the need of children than in our own backyard.”
In response to the bushfires Save the Children set up 10 Child Friendly Spaces in evacuation, relief and recovery centres in NSW, Victoria and South Australia reaching more than 1,000 children, parents and carers.
“Without this space and all that you wonderful people do for the children, we would not have coped. The children felt safe, they had things to do, they were a lot calmer and they were smiling,” said a caregiver of two children who attended Save the Children’s Bairnsdale Child Friendly Space.
However, a range of barriers prevented a much larger response, as outlined in the submission, such as the lack of a systematic mechanism, including funding, to ensure child-appropriate support was provided in all contexts.
Where Save the Children was granted access to set up Child Friendly Spaces, it was often done so several days after the centre had opened, without strong coordination with existing services, and on occasion, in parts of the centres that were not ideal for children.
The submission makes a number of recommendations, including:
- That all responses to future bushfires include establishing Child Friendly Spaces as an essential service in every evacuation, relief and recovery centre
- That all future recovery efforts are long-term, community-led and have children at their centre, and ideally include funding for specialised school-based programs that support children’s emotional recovery
- Calling for the development of a disaster risk reduction and resilience education strategy that focuses on school education and is informed by an expert review of bushfire education
In addition to its immediate bushfire response, Save the Children was due to roll out Journey of Hope in bushfire affected schools – a program first used in the US in response to Hurricane Katrina that teaches children social and emotional skill building to help them overcome traumatic events.
While the rollout has been delayed due to school closures, the program is being adapted to cater for the additional emotional impacts of COVID-19 when school resumes.