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Tick For Kids Calls For Greater Visibility Of Children In Government’s Response To Covid-19 Crisis

Tick for Kids, a coalition of leading children’s organisations, has written to the Prime Minister and key ministers to request that specific focus is given to children and young people as a priority group in the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and recovery. The letter is supported by 35 organisations and individuals committed to ensuring the rights and wellbeing of New Zealand’s children and young people are upheld.

In the past month the virus has had serious social and economic impacts in New Zealand. Impacts we have already seen include a rise in children feeling anxious, isolated, and uncertain about their futures and an increase in reports of suicidal ideation by children and young people. Increased reports of family violence are extremely concerning given New Zealand’s already high rates of family violence.

Our government has been quick to respond to the impact of the virus and has put the wellbeing of New Zealanders at the heart of the response. Positives include reducing the transmission of the virus, the education package, family economic support, and wage support to help keep people in their jobs. In response to the letter Minister Martin has stated the government will continue to take a wellbeing approach to support children and families as part their crisis recovery plans. Tick for Kids would like to see the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy being used as the framework to guide all policy decisions. Tick for Kids would also like to see more information from the Government on how the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy is being used to guide policy decisions during this crisis, and what portion of funding is being specifically allocated to support children through the pandemic and recovery.

Although children’s health has been less impacted by the Covid-19 illness, the corresponding crisis presents many challenges for children due to the impact on children’s everyday environments, their homes, schools, and social and leisure environments including access to playgrounds and the ability to join together and play.

These challenges will be amplified for children and young people with diverse needs, such as children living with disabilities or with existing health conditions, living in families with low incomes, living in crowded homes with limited resources including adequate and nutritious food, or whose parents may have lost one or both jobs due to the serious economic impact of this crisis. Migrants and refugees, particularly those that are very new to New Zealand, will be trying to come to grips with settling in to a new and foreign land as well as coping with living in our currently restricted environments.

As we continue in Alert Level Three and subsequent recovery phases, a specific focus on children will ensure that policy decisions consider the positive and negative impacts of these decisions on children. It will also mean we can prepare to mitigate and allocate resources to issues that arise for children due to the crisis, for example an increase of young people not in employment, education or training (NEETS). We must ensure that young people have access to factual information and adequate resources to support their sexual and reproductive health, adequate mental wellness supports to deal with an increase in children and young people presenting with mental health issues, and ensure that maternal, infant and newborn health is not a casualty of redirecting health resources to accommodate the Covid-19 crisis. To date, little has been heard from children about how they are affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Hearing directly from children and young people about their experiences of the crisis, will further support the government’s ability to make policy decisions that will uphold their rights and ensure their wellbeing.

The recovery also presents an important opportunity to restructure our environment so that our impact is more sustainable and supports people and planet with a significant reduction in consumerism and transport emissions. This approach aligns with the asks of children and young people in the climate marches. However, to be successful, it will need specific support from our government in prioritising funding for sustainable business projects that support these long-term goals.

Supporting organisations have said: Jacqui Southey, Director of Child Rights Advocacy and Research for Save the Children said, "We are concerned that poor understanding of the impact of the virus and related environment on children, will cause or amplify problems for children, including increased mental health issues, higher risk of family violence in their home, and negative impacts on educational achievement.

"As parents are needing to return to work, we must consider the impact this will have on older children that are required to learn from home without the presence of a supportive adult. Some parents may be struggling to manage returning to work if their younger children are unable to attend their ECE centre. Greater flexibility may be needed to continue to support adults to work from home until the school environment is safe enough for children to return to school."

Dr Claire Achmad, General Manager Advocacy for Barnardos said, "We know from our work together every day with children and their families and whānau that the pandemic is having a big impact on their lives, despite the great collective efforts across Aotearoa to stay home and save lives. For example, high numbers of children and teenagers are contacting Barnardos 0800 WHATSUP helpline confused about COVID-19, and some are experiencing loneliness from being away from friends and school, stress at home among parents and caregivers, and significant mental health struggles. Some are experiencing violence and abuse at home, bubbles are not safe and happy places for all children and young people. There has been an increase in family violence in the communities we work in, and emergency food and warmth needs among families and whānau with children have spiked.

As Aotearoa continues dealing with the pandemic, and against the backdrop of the deep inequality, family poverty and mental health crisis that existed pre-pandemic, we encourage the Government to prioritise children’s needs and rights, through holistic support for their families and whānau. Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child will be essential treaties and frameworks to guide the Government response when it comes to protecting tamariki and rangatahi. Listening to the views of children and young people and their families and whānau, and ensuring their experiences inform government approaches is also critical."

Dr Prudence Stone, Chief Executive of the Public Health Association said, "As we celebrate New Zealand’s public health approach to Covid-19, we must consider how children and young people are affected by the changes our response has had to their learning frameworks, family incomes and social networks.

Anxiety levels will be high as young people try to decipher what adults and the media are discussing, including global case rates, rising death rates, and the social distancing rules. But while anxiety might be universal, the inequalities in health and mental health outcomes that were already evident for children who live in material hardship, related to the poor quality and over-crowded conditions inside their homes, will be amplified by the lockdown. Such impacts are for a lifetime, and government has a responsibility to ensure they are mitigated."

Trish Grant, Director of Advocacy for IHC said, "IHC holds concerns for intellectually disabled children and their families. Intellectually disabled children are less likely to be able to undertake online and distance learning. They are also more likely to need specialist support and targeted learning that is provided by professionals at their school. The access to these needed services means that intellectually disabled children are likely to fall farther behind their peers, not only in relation to learning, but also in relation to language and social skills. There are already stories of intellectually disabled children losing months of improvement in language and social skills within a few weeks of being unable to attend their schools.

The families of intellectually disabled children are under intense pressure at the moment. Intellectually disabled children are likely to develop challenging behaviours when their schedules are disrupted. This means their families have to work and teach, like most other families, but they must also manage these challenging behaviours and try to provide expert support that would usually be provided by professionals. They also have to do this without the respite or external support they normally have. The real distress felt by intellectually disabled children and their families in this lockdown is very hard to accurately capture.

Intellectually disabled children, already New Zealand’s most vulnerable group of children, may be severely disadvantaged by the lockdown measures and it may take them years to catch up. IHC hopes that the government is aware of these disadvantages and has plans in place to ensure that these children can catch up."

Lia de Vocht, president of OMEP Aotearoa, said, "OMEP Aotearoa asks that children, including those under the age of 8, are respected as citizens and that they are included during the Covid-19 crisis as active participants. For example, giving young children the opportunity to talk to the Prime Minister, to ask questions or to write to her about their experiences."

Emma Bolwell, National Programme Manager for Variety the Children’s Charity said, "As an organisation whose programmes support children living in financial hardship with basic essentials, we’ve seen how already disadvantaged families are struggling more than ever in the wake of Covid-19, and how difficult it is for them to access the support they urgently need. There are significant immediate challenges but the medium and longer-term investment that is needed in children and families to support their basic needs, and importantly their mental wellbeing and educational attainment, remains a concern for us.’

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