Flood, bushfire trauma in children sparks call for renewed disaster plans

10 May 2022: Australia must overhaul its natural disaster plans and responses to better protect young people from long-term trauma, according to world-leading children’s charity UNICEF Australia.
 
The call for action under the Vote4Kids Federal election plan comes as the recent floods, fires and droughts consistently highlighted the service gaps for young people when catastrophic events occur.
 
UNICEF Australia’s Chief Advocate for Children and Director of Australian Programs Nicole Breeze says disaster services that are tailored to the distinct needs of children and young people, and designed with them, will pave the way to a stronger recovery after extreme weather events.
 
“Emergencies affect everyone in the community but it’s children and young people who can be most vulnerable to long-lasting impacts, especially to their mental health, education, job opportunities and wellbeing,” says Ms Breeze.
 
“When disasters strike, it’s essential children and young people get the right support at the right time. This means tailoring responses to the needs of young people within these devastated communities, during and after disasters, so they can readily access support services, continue their education, receive mental health counselling, have a safe place to stay and play in the immediate aftermath, and be heard.”
 
Recently UNICEF Australia spoke with young people in flood-affected Lismore in NSW, who said some of the issues they struggled with in the emergency response there included:
forced to move far away for temporary housing; schools that took in students from flood-affected areas were not adequately resourced; limited transport options for families who had children at multiple schools; and lack of youth spaces in emergency shelters and recovery centres. 
When the Black Summer bushfires struck in 2019-20, two in five children were impacted. Ms Breeze pointed to the Bushfire Recovery Program, launched in the aftermath, as an effective approach to disaster response and preparation for children.
 
The partnership program between UNICEF Australia and Royal Far West has so far provided about 3,000 children in more than 30 bushfire-affected communities with targeted therapy and learning programs to help build resilience and wellbeing.
 
An independent survey of parents, teachers and educators about the Bushfire Recovery Program found 77 per cent felt it had a positive impact on children, 68 per cent said their child’s problems were better since attending, and 96 per cent of parents and teachers said the program had helped in other ways such as through providing information or making problems more bearable.
 
“Community-based programs that bring together physical and mental health, education, and housing support services, all in one place, are a gamechanger for building disaster preparedness in young people and their families,” says Ms Breeze.
 
Twenty-two-year-old UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador Amber Anderson was 11 when the 2011 bushfires in Western Australia threatened her family’s farm in Margaret River and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
 
“Young people often rely on their families, teachers and people close to them, for information during disasters, but their specific needs can often be forgotten. Elevating children’s voices and offering clear, accessible information is the first step in protecting young people in a crisis,” says Ms Anderson.
 
As leading advocates for children and young people, UNICEF Australia’s Vote4Kids platform also calls for:
  • Creation of a National Youth Advisory Council to shape policies affecting young people;
  • Funding of local and targeted mental health support to help with recovery from impacts of natural disasters; and
  • Funding to fully implement the National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy released last year. 
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