Pioneering bushfire program shows how to build children’s resilience after disasters

Elevating the specific needs and voices of Australian children in disaster recovery responses will help build their resilience in the long-term, a new report released today has found.

Bushfire Recovery – The Children’s Voices”, produced by charities Royal Far West and UNICEF Australia, also found that children are particularly vulnerable to the trauma of emergencies, such as bushfires, and governments must invest in evidence-based programs that improve their wellbeing.

Royal Far West CEO Jacqueline Emery said its Bushfire Recovery Program (BRP), launched in the aftermath of the Black Summer blazes, pioneers an effective, evidenced-backed approach to disaster response and preparation for children in local communities throughout Australia.

Over the past 12 months, the BRP has improved the wellbeing and resilience of about 3,000 children in more than 30 bushfire-affected communities through the targeted provision of therapy and learning programs. The BRP, provides an effective, multidisciplinary model (social work, speech pathology, occupational therapy, and psychology) that involves working with the specific needs of children (aged 0-12 years) and key adults supporting children (parents, carers, educators, and service providers) to support their mental health, wellbeing. This community led skill and capability will help them prepare for future disasters.

“We know from research that children are particularly vulnerable to the trauma of natural disasters, especially those with underlying mental and development health and behavioural challenges. This trauma, as well as the resulting changes can affect the trajectory of their lives, negatively impacting education, employment, and psychosocial outcomes immediately and over the longer term. And yet the voices and needs of children are still missing from policy and planning for natural disasters,” she said.

“With the right help at the right time, these children can get back on track, providing significant costs savings to both governments and society in the long term.”

UNICEF Australia CEO Tony Stuart said: “Australian children have endured multiple crises over the past few years, from bushfires and drought to flood and the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, their recovery from these traumatic events is a long and difficult journey. This report highlights that we can best support children’s long-term recovery from natural disasters by listening to their voices and putting their needs at the centre of disaster planning.”

An independent evaluation of the BRP by Charles Sturt University found that children’s wellbeing, confidence, and resilience significantly improved after participating in the program. Specifically:

  • Two-thirds of parents said their children’s problems improved since being a part of the program

  • Children were better able to understand and manage the changes they had experienced as a result of the BRP, and have developed strategies for coping, problem solving and building stronger networks

  • Children were more aware of their emotional reactions to the bushfires

  • Parents and educators were more aware of trauma in children and strategies to better cope

  • 96 per cent of parents and teachers said the program had helped in other ways, like providing information or making the problems more bearable.

Informed by these findings, the report released today recommends that the Australian Government:

  • Elevates children’s voices, priorities and experiences in disaster frameworks and includes their specific needs in all aspects of disaster preparedness and planning

  • Establishes a directory of agencies and expert providers to ensure a skilled and community-led rapid response in local communities

  • Provide long-term investment in proven programs and transparent funding pathways across the sector

Ms Emery said: “Programs like the Bushfire Recovery Program are essential in rural areas struggling from bushfires, drought, floods and COVID. The skills learnt by children, their families and teachers help build resilience and wellbeing and foster stronger rural communities – which is essential at a time when mental health in these communities is struggling. We must and can do better in the future in preparing these communities for disasters and life beyond.”

Royal Far West won the Resilient Australia 2021 Community Award for the BRP, which aimed to ensure children were not forgotten in recovery efforts.

Read the full Bushfire Recovery – The Children’s Voices report.