Arrested development: For children ‘it is like we pressed pause 15 months ago’

Children’s ombudsman says lockdowns have been ‘devastating’ for many young people

‘Every child who contacted us last year mentioned mental health issues, anxiety, depression, isolation.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Every child who contacted us last year mentioned mental health issues, anxiety, depression, isolation.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Children contacted the office of the Ombudsman for Children directly in greater numbers than ever before during 2020, a new report, Childhood Paused, has revealed.

In 2019, 3 per cent of all complaints were made by children. This doubled to 6 per cent in 2020. Parents accounted for 80 per cent of complaints made to the office, with professionals and organisations accounting for 8 per cent.

Much of the contact related to “a whole series of new issues that we’d never had before”, says Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon. “Things like the digital divide, things like calculated grades, supports for special education needs when they were off. A whole range of issues around education.”

The report flags that, as a result of the pandemic, the number and type of complaints differ in many areas due to many services being closed or offering only basic cover. Alongside the complaints relating to educational concerns, complaints were also received relating to family support care, health, housing and planning, finance and justice.

“Every child that contacted us last year mentioned mental health issues, anxiety, depression, isolation,” says Muldoon. “That was particularly as a result of the first lockdown. It really impacted them negatively.

“What it did was highlight the way we’ve set our children up. They spend 14 years focusing themselves towards the two weeks at the start of June to create the open door for their next set of ambitions. When they didn’t know what was going to happen during those two weeks, everything else became scary for them. On top of that, they had issues, concerns at home, whether there were illnesses or unemployment.”

Niall Muldoon, ombudsman for children, in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Niall Muldoon, ombudsman for children. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Muldoon says children felt “unheard”. “There were a lot of these suits in departments making decisions about their future, as they saw it, and not asking them what they wanted.”

He believes one reason the voice of the child struggles to be heard is that “we’re still playing catch up in our thinking about the role children play in society”.

“I remember the old type of schooling. It was about staying quiet and just doing what you were told. We now need to move forward. Most parents will listen to their children and negotiate and navigate with them as opposed to impose their mood. And those children are now expecting the same off our government, and that’s the way we need to start looking at it. Our services need to start hearing our children from the day they’re born.”

Last year was “devastating” for children, he says. “Children were demonised and considered to be the vectors and transmitters [of Covid] and had to be kept out of shops and supermarkets at certain stages. That was really negatively impacting on many children’s point of view of themselves.

“On top of that, you’re looking at, how does a child navigate and understand the world? They do it through the school. They do it through their friends. They do it through their hobbies. They do it through their relatives and grandparents and cousins and how they interact with them and how they interact with the world. And all those things were taken away from them, so their terms of reference were totally changed.”

No support structure

The new circumstances of having access only to the people who lived within their household, those they could see on computer screens, and confined to a 2km radius of their homes were “phenomenally drastic for any child to try and understand who they are”.

“Whether you’re a four-year-old or a 14-year-old or an 18-year-old who was due to take their graduation and go inter-railing or whatever they might do on the summer breaks … Those things have all gone. So your terms of reference are very, very narrow then, and you’re also in fear of your grandparents or somebody you know dying from this phenomenally dangerous disease.”

The most disproportionately affected children were those with special needs and those who were already socially disadvantaged. “For children with special needs, the real support structure came from schools. A lot of the time that’s where they got their therapy, it’s where they would have met the OT [occupational therapist]. They got routine there. They got learning. They got friendships. They got socialisation.”

Not only was it impossible for parents to provide all that is provided in school for children with special needs, but respite services for children were lost too, he adds.

“Parents and children with special needs were locked up literally for six months until the return in September and then again over Christmas until the return in mid-February. Children regressed terribly in that format and are still trying to catch up now. We have concerns about children who went back to school in February, March with seriously challenging behaviour as a result of the lockdown. The schools aren’t able to cope with them and now we’re talking about expulsion.”

When it comes to helping children catch up, Muldoon says “innovation and openness to new ideas” is needed, starting with a summer programme, which up to 80,000 children could access. The programme, previously known as July Provision, aims to help children catch up by supporting pupils in re-engaging with education, building their confidence and promoting wellbeing. This year the programme is opening up to all schools, and there is increased flexibility around eligibility criteria.

The options include two weeks of summer school, in July or August, for the children whose education has suffered most.

“But it’s dependent on teachers making themselves available and schools making themselves available. It shouldn’t be that way. Teachers are entitled to have breaks and they are entitled to choose to come in and out of it … We have fourth-year graduates who could possibly help out in that situation. We have young occupational therapists and speech and language therapists who may be willing to help out.”

“It has to be made available and practical. It can’t be just a token gesture that says ‘It’s available. However, we leave it up to somebody else to run it, and if it doesn’t work it’s not my fault’.”

Room for improvement

The Ombudsman for Children’s office will carry out a review to examine if it could have done things better during Covid, and Muldoon believes this is a question the Government and Taoiseach need also to ask themselves.

“I believe the Taoiseach could have done better in certain areas. The question is have they looked at it and said, ‘We felt that was the best we could have possibly done’. Who knows, this could happen again … Let’s be prepared for the next time.”

One area where Muldoon feels the Government could have done better is in education for the children most disproportionately affected. “If you had offered opportunities for children with special educational needs and vulnerable children to come into a school, it would have taken a huge amount of the steam out of it. You wouldn’t have children who regressed. You wouldn’t have parents who are afraid that their child will not get back into school … It also would have been eyes on the children who may have been living in dangerous or unsafe areas or unsafe family homes.”

Now it’s “crucial” for children to get back to a routine that enhances their lives again and that isn’t “built around avoiding death”. The opening-up of the playgrounds and sports facilities is key. “I will give credit to the Government for opening up the playgrounds after July last year … We need to get back to a consistent routine that is about more than just Covid.”

Avoiding another lockdown will be important for everyone’s wellbeing, parents included. He acknowledges how stressful it has been for parents to navigate the pandemic.

Now it’s important to make it as easy as possible for children to have their normal routine – the sort of things they used to do. “Be allowed to get together safely. Be allowed to gather in groups again without any hassle, any issue. Be allowed to do their sports. Gather and support each other. Interact with each other.”

He’s particularly conscious of teenagers. “Teenagers tend to gather in places. That’s where they start to learn about themselves, through groups, and that’s obviously been frowned upon for so long that we need to start letting that happen again in a safe manner.”

“It literally is like we pressed pause 15 months ago,” Muldoon says about the lack of opportunities for children to mature and develop in line with their chronological age. “Even if this summer goes well it will still be roughly 18 months of strangeness. They’ve missed out on those things that give you an extra understanding of yourself and the world.

“Just growing older doesn’t mean you necessarily grow more mature, so I think there are those things we’ll have to allow for. The pandemic years have been paused.”

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