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Need to put children at centre of disaster support

March 29th, 2021

As floodwaters rose in parts of NSW and Queensland last week, a new report was released that recommended the nation’s children needed more support to protect them against the long-term impacts of natural disasters.

The report, produced by Royal Far West (RFW) and UNICEF Australia, was commissioned after the Black Summer bushfires that burned 18.6 million hectares and claimed 34 lives. In the week the report was released, flooding rains meant that some areas of the country were experiencing their fourth natural disaster in just over a year.


While there is no way of accurately gauging the full toll such an accumulation of natural disasters has on communities, the report identifies how susceptible young people are to the impacts of such events. It also calls for an urgent review of policies and frameworks across all jurisdictions that guide disaster planning, response and recovery to ensure children’s needs are identified and included.

The report, entitled After the Disaster – Recovery for Australia’s Children, urges government, non-government and philanthropy to invest in research, policies and programs to strengthen children’s resilience after natural disasters while ensuring emergency responses specifically protect children.

Jacqui Emery, Executive Director, Business People and Culture, and Bushfire Recovery Program lead at RFW, said there was often a discussion about the physical impact of natural disasters, but it was the emotional toll that could take some time to reveal itself. And children often responded to trauma differently to adults.

“Some adults assume that if children aren’t talking about, they’re not worried about,’’ Jacquie says. However, there were often good reasons for the reticence. Research shows that children aged up to 12 are often slow to show signs of trauma: and that could reflect that the children were too young, and their language not sufficiently developed to express how they felt.

A separate report from RFW and Charles Sturt University – and commissioned by the Spinifex Network – found that children exposed to bushfires may be at increased risk of poorer well-being outcomes. The children most at risk were those who might have other compounding factors that characterise a vulnerable background and limit their capacity to overcome bushfire trauma.

In a broader sense, the impact of natural disasters often exacerbated pre-existing inequalities between city and country children.

“For many families, they haven’t rebuilt their physical home after the natural disaster, let alone their mental health,’’ Jacquie says. “And we have to remind people that bushfires are increasing in ferocity and frequency.’’

The report advocates for more programs and interventions that are:

  • Evidence-based and addressing the needs of children and young people through all the stages of their lives.
  • Co-ordinated and collaborative with local communities
  • Multidisciplinary with a balance of clinical and non-clinical support, including health and allied health professionals, educators, parents, caregivers and children.
  • Community-based and community-led.
  • Support for children in the aftermath of these natural disasters is vital to help reduce the future impact on the health, education and justice system. And evidence points to better outcomes for early, rather than later, mental health interventions with young people.

The impact of fires and floods on local school communities can be significant. Many children in flooded areas of the country would have not been able to attend school, but flood waters recede – bushfire-damaged schools can take a long time to be rebuilt. And stories from Black Summer show that schools couldn’t get in touch with some students because their home had been affected by the fires and the school had lost contact with the families.

The UNICEF Australia-RFW report focuses on engaging children to help provide a research base that is the basis of appropriate support for them in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Tony Stuart, CEO of UNICEF Australia and Chair of the ACNC Advisory Board

It also recommends: “Take action to mitigate the broader impacts on children’s wellbeing including climate change, intergenerational trauma and the multi-determinants of disadvantage.’’

The report also recommends establishing a preferred panel of providers that are “fit for purpose’ to respond to disasters, including giving support for children, young people, their parents, caregivers and communities before, during and after such events.

The recommendations are the result of a partnership between UNICEF Australia and RFW known as the Bushfire Recovery Program, which provides psycho-social and learning program for children across 35 bushfire-affected NSW communities. Philanthropy will fund the program, until this June.

UNICEF Australia CEO, Tony Stuart, said funding should be provided for programs over an extended period because research showed trauma could often present in children after the event.

“[T]he experience of trauma or a large-scale emergency event interrupts childhood, affecting mental health, emotional wellbeing and childhood development through to adolescence and young adulthood,’’ he says.

RFW Lindsay Cane highlighted the need for recovery efforts to be community driven.

“Recovery from natural disasters is a long journey. And for many rural and remote communities already dealing with disadvantage through developmental vulnerabilities and limited access to services, the journey can be even longer,’’ she says.

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