When years of drought, coupled with heatwaves and extreme weather conditions, led to the bushfire season of September 2019 to March 2020, 80 per cent of the Australian population was affected in some way.

The headlines were flooded with images of families sheltering in evacuation centres, or fleeing for their lives to the relative safety of local beaches, with nothing but the shirts on their backs. The trauma they were experiencing was palpable and with our own community suffering, there was no way we could simply stand back and watch.  

For children and young people, the consequence of trauma like this can change the trajectory of their lives, impacting mental health, education, and employment, in both the short and long term. For children in rural and remote areas, this comes in addition to the already significant disadvantage they experience, because of where they live.  

With our decades of experience caring for children impacted by natural disasters, and helping them to return to their lives, internationally, we knew we had to act. So, UNICEF Australia launched a tailor-made, three stage response with local partners to provide immediate relief and longer-term recovery for families. A critical component across all areas of work has been investing in research to better understand how we help children and young people to recover from the impacts of a natural disaster. 

This information has been captured in our recent report After the Disaster: Recovery for Australia’s Children produced in partnership with our local partners Royal Far West. The report has found that more needs to be done to support children from disasters and emergencies – before, during and after – in Australia and to protect them against long-term negative impacts.  
Burnt play equipment in Bairnsdale, VIC © UNICEF Australia/2020/Simons


Jack's story 


Jack*, 10, should have spent the summer holidays with his family, at home in small town NSW doing the things he loves, playing with his cats, building Lego and cubby houses and riding his scooter. Instead, summer last year left Jack and his siblings scared and traumatised.

The flames came close enough to burn the neighbour’s backyard. When Jack’s mum Katie sent him and his siblings two hours further up the coast to their grandmother’s house where she thought they would be safe, the fires followed them there.
 
Finding himself sheltering in a local surf club evacuation center, Jack was really scared. Had his family home burned down? Had his neighbourhood survived the flames? Was his mum, who had stayed at home, safe? What about their cats - did they find shelter from the flames?
 
Thankfully, everyone was physically safe from the immediate danger of the fire, but as the family travelled home through thick smoke, they were unsure of what they would find.  Though their house had not been burnt down, it was full of ash and smoke, and they had no electricity for days.
 
In the aftermath, the smoke lingered in their community for weeks meaning that it was impossible to play outside. When school went back, Jack was very withdrawn. He was quiet, struggled to concentrate and would startle easily. 
 
A child's toy is among the burnt remains of the fires that hit Clifton Creek, VIC. © UNICEF Australia/2020/Simons

“The bush is sprouting again
but the mental scars remain.”

- Katie, Jack's mum

As we know from UNICEF’s experience helping children recover from natural disasters all around the world, for a percentage of children, things do not just go back to normal once the danger has subsided.

Experiencing disaster can have a devastating long-term impact on a child’s emotional wellbeing. Some child survivors going on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder which often takes months to emerge and can have debilitating lifelong consequences.
 
Thanks to a quick referral from a local support worker, Jack was quickly being assisted by mental healthcare professionals, trained to help him process and recover, supported by Royal Far West – UNICEF Australia’s program partner. 

Today, despite the extra challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jack is on the path to recovery and his mum is feeling hopeful.

“It has been really tough this year and [your team] are my touchstone, my place to go with the kid to get heard, supported and refocused. I seriously couldn’t do it without you all,” says Katie.

*For privacy reasons we have changed the names of the individuals in this story.
Through a custom three step program with our local community partners, we are working to protect children like Jack.

Through a custom three step program with our local community partners, we are working to protect children like Jack. So what does our program look like? 

Phase 1: Providing relief and support in the immediate aftermath. We partnered with local organisations to help more than 11,000 children get back to school. 

Phase 2: Supporting psychosocial and trauma programs for children, families, and young people. More than 6,800 children and adults have accessed these services in 27 different communities.  

Phase 3: We have and will continue to lift the voices of young people to build back better. By listening and consulting with those impacted, we can deliver real change and take their views to our leaders.  
 
Read the report
UNICEF Australia, together with its partners, will continue to work to develop and enhance the resilience of hundreds of children like Jack, in rural and remote locations and to strengthen the support system that surrounds them where they live. Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of these emergency events and their consequences for communities in Australia.

Therefore, it is essential that UNICEF Australia continues to advocate for national level systems strengthening and child friendly policies that provide impact at the local level and ensure sustainable outcomes for children in the long term.  

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