We have all been impacted by this pandemic. For some of us it is the burden of working from home while managing crisis schooling, for others it is the worry over lost income and businesses we’ve built up over years. Our frontline families face uncertainty and anxiety as they wait for the approaching wave of patients while for others it is their very physical health that is at stake. We are all in a storm, paddling furiously to keep our heads above the water. We acknowledge this but we know too that we are not all in the same boat. Our work at Arise as well as continuous ground level research shows us that this pandemic is set to have long-term consequences particularly for the children in our marginalised communities.
Global research shows that 1 in 4 women experience violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime and 2 out of 3 children are exposed to trauma and violence. Since the lockdown started at the end of March, we have seen a massive increase in gender-based and domestic violence, nationally as well as internationally. There has been lots of discussion about how we keep adult partners safe during lockdown but little has been done to help our children who fall victim to abuse. Children who do not have a phone to pick up and call for help, who are no longer able to access a teacher or a neighbour who might otherwise intervene are especially vulnerable. We know that the low numbers of child abuse reports that have occurred during this lockdown are not an accurate reflection of what is going on behind doors. Children continue to be abused and neglected, potentially at increasingly higher levels now that the adults in their lives are experiencing so much stress. These numbers simply mean that this abuse is going unreported and undocumented. It is without a doubt that the pandemic will continue to increase statutory social workers’ caseloads in days to come and we are worried that our systems are not prepared to cope with the complex trauma that our children are facing.
In light of this, we are trying to upskill ourselves further and prepare for the work that is to come. We are seeking out opportunities to learn and grow and develop. We are writing new material and preparing for the families we know will be coming to our centre soon. We are preparing for how we propose to support the schools and teachers as children return to school while stories of hurt, hunger and helplessness are told. We don’t do this alone. We are acutely aware of the many organisations who are preparing and readying themselves too. Yet still we worry.
We worry because our country has failed to provide adequate protection for our children in other systems long before this crisis. Failures that continue to be highlighted and the effects deepened because of this crisis. One example is exactly the debate about education and when to open our schools. Many of the children we work with have already fallen through the gaps of our education system. For every statistic you read about our literacy rate, or school dropouts, gang shootings and the difficulties faced by under resourced schools, we see faces of children we know and have participated in our groups.
During meetings, our Arise staff voice the fears and concerns that we have for the families in our communities while dealing with impacts such as food insecurity, educational responses and others that widen the socio-economic gaps in our country. We are increasingly aware of the profound effect it is having on children’s mental health and social development. We are mindful of the families we serve in the community, as their anguish continues to grow – anguish linked to economic concerns as well as a lack of choice when it comes to whether to choose to work or stay at home where this choice exists. We worry about the children we know who are increasingly vulnerable in this time – for children living in marginalised communities where there is over-crowding and social distancing is not possible and where their privacy and safety has been adversely affected by the very decisions being made to protect them. Children may not be viewed as high-risk in terms of contracting COVID-19 but it is increasingly evident that this pandemic will have deep and long-lasting consequences for them, despite our best preventative efforts.
The decision to reopen our schools is not an easy one and there are many things to consider. The challenges faced by our education system has been a source of ongoing debate. A debate that recognises the difficulties children from marginalized communities face in accessing data or electronics to receive their school work; to the fact that many of our children find in our schools a place of safety, a place where they can escape from the arguments and fights at home; to acknowledging that the closing of schools has restricted access to the only meal that some children receive a day. All of this has been held in tension with the need to protect our children against this virus. We ask ourselves, how many will drop out as a result of the loss of class time this year? How many more will be recruited into gangs, or sink deeper into addiction to escape and to belong? With the projected number of deaths due to COVID-19, how many of the children we work with will lose their parents or caregivers before the year is out? How many more will be entering the foster care system or become child-headed households? There are no easy answers, only the knowledge that while it is true that returning to school may not be ‘safe’; for many of our country’s children, it may be safer than staying home in their home or community.
It can all feel too much and full of despair. Our grief is appropriate, but so is our action. Like so many of the families we work with, we are choosing resilience and strength. We are advocating for our children and we are calling on our society to prioritize child-centred services, focusing on equity access. We are calling on society to ensure that our statutory service is operating at full capacity, to protect our children at risk of violence and abuse. We need to provide practical support to parents and caregivers despite the physical distance and, now more than ever, we need to work together to ensure the safety of our children. All departments – social development, health, and education need to start providing a holistic approach to working with children and families and be in discussion together so that children are not being forgotten.
We need to work together for children and thriving families.