“There was a systematic lack of understanding of children’s specific need for adequate mental health and psychosocial support in the immediate aftermath, to support their longer-term recovery and their resilience and ensure their uninterrupted psychosocial, emotional and cognitive development,” it says.
Matt Gardiner, Save the Children’s executive director of Australian services, said while the level of support in the aftermath of the fires was “incredible”, the needs of children was one largely forgotten.
A 2014 report from the organisation found a lack of consistent emergency management planning for the unique needs of children in Australian emergency management plans.
“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.
“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,” Mr Gardiner said.
He said with extreme and catastrophic environmental events forecast to become more frequent, children needed to be prioritised alongside other essential services in future emergencies.
The submission said children often stayed in evacuation centres that were “chaotic” and filled with long queues and exhausted and overwhelmed people and needed to have been provided with play-based activities to assist them to process their experiences.
“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,” Mr Gardiner said.
“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 response to the bushfires Save the Children established 10 child-friendly spaces in evacuation, relief and recovery centres in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, reaching more than 1000 children, parents and carers.
It said a range of barriers had prevented a much larger response, such as the lack of a systematic mechanism, including funding, to ensure child-appropriate support was provided in all contexts.
It said where the organisation 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 commission, which began public hearings earlier this month, is examining coordination, preparedness for, response to, and recovery from disasters and the role of the Commonwealth in responding to national emergencies.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra