Three Rivers by Aunty Lorraine Brown and Aunty Narelle Thomas, Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation

How children can help Aboriginal Elders during lockdown

8 July 2021
Caring responsibilities shield against social isolation
Mutual caring between Kinship and foster carers and the children in their custody emerged as a silver lining during last year's lockdown, a new report finds.

Pandemic-induced lockdowns have yielded stories of both hardship and resilience. This extends to the Kinship and foster carer community, which has weathered unique challenges as children are physically (and sometimes virtually) cut off from their biological families.

A new report by the University of Sydney Research Centre for Children & Families sheds light on these experiences. Researchers surveyed organisations working with foster and Kinship carers in NSW throughout 2020, and found that various positives for Aboriginal communities emerged:

  • Having children in their care protected Elders against social isolation during lockdown and vice versa
  • Seeing care as a cultural obligation and having Kinship networks could be a buffer against otherwise potentially stressful individual caring responsibilities.

One Aboriginal worker said:

The government’s telling everyone to isolate away from Elders. Ours was the complete opposite where our families join together. Family is the most important. Family is what keeps us together and keeps us going.

Yet, there were also negatives for carers, including First Nations carers, such as:

  • An increase in mental health issues among both carers and children, directly related to COVID-19 health measures like lockdowns and physical distancing
  • The exposure of a crippling ‘digital divide’ in terms of access to computers, internet, and low technology literacy, especially for older carers.

In general, out-of-home care services painted a grim picture, with over 220 carers contacting the statewide carer support line throughout the year. Many of the state’s accredited out-of-home care service providers reported that carers were struggling to cope with the loss of children’s normal routines like school, therapy and visits with family members.

One organisation explained: "Overall stress levels appear higher for some carer families which has impacted the capacity to deal with existing complex issues."

Having already faced significant trauma and loss, children in out-of-home care need predictability even more than other children.

The uncertainty of COVID-19 often led to increased anxiety levels and emotional imbalance for children and left many foster carers stressed and in desperate need of time out from caring responsibilities.

“Despite existing financial stress and social disadvantage, the self-reliance and resilience of Aboriginal communities emerged as a strength that helped Kinship carers cope during 2020,” said Dr Susan Collings, Research Fellow and Program Lead, Disability and Child Protection, Research Centre for Children and Families.

Pandemic offering learning opportunities

Yet Dr Collings noted that the report’s findings suggest there is much room for improvement for all out-of-home carers: “The main areas of carer support needs related to keeping children in contact with their families, schooling from home, and coping with the impact on children’s behaviour of losing everyday routines.

Research shows that Aboriginal families were already doing it tough before the pandemic, with many of their Kinship carers live on the wrong side of the digital divide.

For some carers, there was no working computer at home, and they were based outside big cities without reliable internet. Some older carers also have low technology literacy. These factors all had the potential to become critical barriers when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“As New South Wales is enduring an extended lockdown and the latest COVID-19 outbreak spreads to other states such as Victoria, lessons from Aboriginal communities should be heeded to ensure lockdowns do not cause further harm to our most vulnerable children and families,” Dr Collings said.

About the report

The researchers drew on four data sources to provide a snapshot of foster and Kinship carers’ experiences in New South Wales during 2020. The data collection for the study included: 222 telephone support requests to My Forever Family carer support and training provider; 36 online surveys of registered Out of Home Care organisations; nine semi-structured interviews with workers at services that support Aboriginal families; and 30 case summaries from specialist therapeutic services for children in care.

Declaration: The Research Centre for Children and Families receives core funding from the NSW Government through the Department of Communities and Justice.

Hero image: Three Rivers by Aunty Lorraine Brown and Aunty Narelle Thomas, Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation.

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