Agencies rally behind parents on the domestic frontline
Lone parents, new mothers, children at risk, or families in financial trouble can consult helplines and websites for support in tough times
At this time, the issues potentially facing all families are the same, but the level it affects them depends on their circumstances
The metaphorical village it takes to raise a child has been boarded up during this phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those normal interactions with teachers, coaches, grandparents, aunts and uncles, playdate families, therapists and mentors that we perhaps used to take for granted are off-limits and parents are on their own with children at home.
Physically, at least.
However, many in that “village” are rallying around to support parents as best they can online, on the phone or, in some cases, talking face to face – from a safe distance.
“In this situation the issues potentially facing all families are the same, but the level it affects depends on circumstances,” says Suzanne Connolly, CEO of the children’s charity Barnardos, which has started running a support line for all parents during this crisis.
The “pressure-cooker effect” when families are cooped up together is determined by many variables, ranging from ages and numbers of children, the state of personal relationships and living conditions, to financial means and mental and physical health needs.
But help is out there for those who want guidance, practical assistance, information or a listening ear for consolation or a much-needed rant. Here is a round-up of how some of the agencies who work with families all year round are offering support and what they’re hearing from the parental frontline as we all weather the storm together, apart.
‘Parents are sad and anxious for their children’
“Never has so much been asked of parents,” says Aileen Hickie, the CEO of Parentline, the national helpline that offers support, information and guidance to parents. Its helplines are fully operational during the Covid-19 shutdown and most of the calls in recent weeks have been to do with issues arising from school closures and other restrictions to curb the pandemic.
Before the Easter “holidays” arrived – on the calendar at least – callers were saying that they were finding it difficult to ensure their school-age children were doing enough online classes and homework.
“Parents are worried about how children who should be taking State exams this summer will be assessed for the next stage in their lives,” says Hickie. “They are nervous about what happens to students who have worked hard for many years and are no longer certain of meeting their goals or attaining their ambitions.”
Parents need to vent about how hard it is trying to keep children indoors and how they are struggling to maintain a good daily routine that all the family can work with. “They are worried that their children are becoming isolated from their friend groups,” she says.
Parents also want to discuss how to deal with too much gaming and excessive screen time and how to give their children a sense of purpose at this time.
“But parents are also sad and anxious for their children,” she adds. “They are sad not knowing if their children will walk the halls of their schools again this academic year; they are particularly sad and regretful if this is their child’s last year in senior school or junior school. Parents are struggling to give as much support and love as they can to children who are confused and unsure of the future.”
Parentline’s team of trained and experienced volunteers are taking calls 10am to 9pm from Monday to Thursday and 10am to 4pm on Fridays, on 1890-927277 or 01-8733500.
‘Court orders still stand but so does public health advice’
The national support organisation for lone parents, One Family, has been “inundated with calls” from anxious parents about access arrangements.
“Some just want a black and white answer – particularly when parents are finding it difficult to communicate because they are in conflict already,” says One Family’s CEO, Karen Kiernan. However, there is no one template answer because various factors have to be considered.
“Court orders still stand but so does public health advice,” she says, recommending that health and travel issues be assessed case by case. “We’re also aware Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan has said that court orders are a priority and Covid-19 restrictions cannot be used as an excuse by either parent.
“What we’re saying is it is good for children to maintain contact where it’s safe to do so, and that is what we would be encouraging parents to do.”
Access arrangements may need to be altered “but ideally not end, unless there is a reason to end it. Certainly, unilateral decisions taken by parents to end it is really unhelpful. We are hearing of horrendous things.”
Where it’s not safe, technology needs to be used. “We are here as a resource to help parents think through all these kinds of things,” says Kiernan.
Child maintenance is an acute problem for some, if a parent has lost their job. “Where that suddenly stops, that has a very immediate impact on a family’s income.”
She urges parents to communicate and to let the other parent know if they are going to be unable to continue to pay maintenance “because that is a bit of a disaster”.
The Family Law Courts are open only for emergency cases, but you can apply to be heard for breaches or orders and they will consider it, she says.
Another big issue is lone parents worried that if they become ill, what will happen to their children? “You need to think about it and think on a practical level where that child could go right now, in the short term,” she says. Grandparents may be ruled out at present, so perhaps a group of parents need to have an agreement.
“If something does go wrong, Tusla will step in and make a decision for a child,” she explains, so it might be best to have an alternative, better solution in place that can have been agreed informally or through nominating a temporary guardian (form 58.32, courts.ie).
One Family has also extended its professional counselling support telephone service for parents to try to meet the demand and is taking new short-term clients. “So many people are anxious,” adds Kiernan.
Access to food and shopping is another common topic being raised on the helpline because shops don’t want people bringing children with them.
The askonefamily helpline lo-call 1890-662 212 (from landline) or 01-662 9212 and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘We are ringing daily to give emotional support’
The children’s charity Barnardos, which is working with almost 1,600 families who require intensive support, is continuing to operate through phone calls and online connections. But, after the pandemic shutdown was announced, it also set up a support line for all parents.
At the time of writing, nearly half of the callers were seeking information, while others needed practical help or referral to services run by Barnardos or other agencies. Topics raised on the inquiry line have included activities for children, how to manage children’s behaviours and sibling dynamics, and how to deal with parents’ own anxieties.
The morning we talk, Barnardos CEO Suzanne Connolly says staff had told her of assisting a teenage mother with a two-year-old and a child under one who had become homeless the previous day. “This was outside Dublin. We were able to get her into a hub and help her, practically, with getting nappies and food.” A local shop owner donated a microwave.
Early-years services have a pivotal role in the work of Barnardos and many of those children have been missing the company of peers and educators. Connolly has heard how one member of staff at a centre has driven around to houses, with puppets they use in the preschool waving to children from the car.
As well as reacting to individual crises, “we are also trying to keep spirits up”, she explains. In some cases, they are ringing people daily to give emotional support as well as offering practical help. Meals are being cooked at some of its centres and delivered to homes where they are badly needed.
On the positive side, some parents have told staff that they are enjoying being able to have more time with their children.
The charity is continuing to take new, urgent referrals from Tusla, the family agency, and is also working with some families in direct provision.
Barnardos’ new support line for parents is running Monday to Friday, 10am-2pm, on 1800-910123.
‘Challenges for the most vulnerable’
The Child and Family Agency, Tusla, continues to provide key services across core areas such as child protection and children in care; emergency out of hours services, and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services, in conjunction with the agencies it funds.“Staff around the country are continuing to provide essential frontline services that cannot be delivered remotely. However, in line with public health advice . . . the majority of our 3,800 mobile-enabled staff are working remotely,” it says in a media update.
“Social work teams are working exceptionally hard to ensure that all concerns and referrals received about the safety or welfare of a child are screened and assessed in line with Children First, and responded to in line with normal practice,” says Tusla CEO Bernard Gloster. “Anyone with a concern about a child’s safety or welfare should contact their local duty social work office.”
He adds: “We are particularly cognisant of the additional challenges that changes in daily life have on some of the most vulnerable in our society including children who rely on school as a place of comfort and nutrition, and survivors of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.”
‘Family relationships top concern’
The ISPCC is running a support line for parents and carers as well as its 24-hour Childline and Teenline listening services for children and young people up to the age of 18.
Childline can be reached by live online chat, phone and text. Over the past month there has been a 25 per cent increase in the numbers contacting Childline’s online chat service. The most common topics raised have been family relationships, mental/emotional health, online safety and the coronavirus, according to an ISPCC spokeswoman.
The number of users of childline.ie rose 143 per cent during that time.
The ISPCC support line can be contacted 9am-1pm daily. Childline is on 1800-666666, while Teenline is 1800-833634, and both operate 24/7.
‘No fear of toxic breastmilk’
Public health nurses are continuing to offer a home visit to all mothers with newborn babies after their discharge from maternity hospitals. There is also the option for mother and infant to attend a clinic-based service.
Families with newborns and small children can also turn to the parent-to-parent voluntary support charity Cuidiú.
Each of its 25 branches is offering antenatal and postnatal support as best they can to local members through phones, social media, websites and video calls. Guidance and reassurance are particularly crucial in the early days of breastfeeding.
No matter what the concern, “If we don’t have the answer, we will find someone who does,” says Sue Jameson, a breastfeeding tutor with Cuidiú.
New mothers who are unwell with possible or confirmed Covid-19 are still encouraged to breastfeed as normal, says the HSE. But they must wash their hands well before touching the baby and any equipment, such as pump and bottle, and wear a face mask during feeding.
There is no fear about the breastmilk being “toxic”, says Jameson. If the mother feels too unwell to feed the baby herself, she should continue to express milk, she suggests, as that milk can be given to the infant by somebody else. Expressing also ensures that the mother will still have a milk supply when she’s feeling stronger and able to resume breastfeeding.
Jameson also advises parents to choose the source of general child health information carefully at this time, recommending the HSE website mychild.ie.
One silver lining of the crisis for new parents coping well with a healthy newborn is that “cocooning” for the first couple of weeks is a great start. Covid-19 is the perfect excuse to keep visitors out of the house and an opportunity to enjoy peaceful bonding.
Cuidiú is not all about newborns, Jameson points out, and those with “demented toddlers” to cope with might benefit from the listening ear and advice of other parents. “Keep talking,” she adds.
If you are not already linked up with a branch you can find contact details for your nearest one on cuidiu.ie.