Australia — SCHOOLS in Victoria’s bushfire-affected areas are treating some students as if they have autism or ADHD as children struggle to cope with the devastating psychological impact of Black Saturday.
A report commissioned by the State Government has found children in areas devastated by the 2009 bushfires are falling behind in school and suffering experiencing behavioural issues.
The report found:
CHILDREN who were toddlers when the fires hit were typically behind peers in language development and motor skills;
BED wetting, separation anxiety and severe hypersensitivity to weather changes are common among primary school children, with some reporting they had lost hope in their future;
SCHOOLS are managing some children as if they have autism or ADHD, because they lack adequate coping strategies; and
THERE is a widening gap in the academic performance of fire-affected children, who are now teens, with double the number of students repeating the year at some schools.
Faced with inflexible funding criteria and red tape, principals and youth workers say they have needed to establish a non-profit fundraising body, the Smouldering Stump, to fund specialist services vital to their children’s recovery.
“People think it’s been four years, houses are built, you should be over it,” said youth worker Lesley Bebbington.
“But the concentration of trauma on young people is unprecedented. Responses were done with the best of intensions, but there is a lack of understanding this trauma has a 10-year life span.”
Smouldering Stump chairman Darren Scerri said they aimed to raise $500,000 in the next 12 months, and will ask the State Government to contribute financially.
“Victorians helped raise almost $400 million through the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund, but the criteria have been so stringent it’s been difficult for schools to tap into,” Mr Scerri said. The final $16 million not yet spent from the appeal has already been allocated to other projects.
Mr Scerri said the Smouldering Stump model, using local knowledge to direct funding, could be a template for other disaster-affected areas. It will fund services such as literacy and numeracy support, family counselling and mentoring, which schools say they are struggling to access.
Kinglake West Primary School principal Mark Portman said the school had needed to employ an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and to increase the hours of aides to help children with stunted speech and motor skill development to catch up.
“We’re finding with a lot of the younger kids, whose parents have been rebuilding lives and homes. haven’t been available mentally or physically for them,” Mr Portman said. “The parents aren’t at fault, they’ve just been too busy rebuilding.”
Middle Kinglake Primary principal Janette Cook said for some children it was as though “their social and emotional development has stopped, and needed to be restarted”.
“We could be really crude and say if we don’t fix things up now, socially, mentally and academically, then we’ll have to fix it up in the penal system. That’s my real concern,” she said.
Department of Education spokesman Stuart Teather said fire-affected schools continued to be provided with targeted supports, including welfare officers, school nurses and therapists.
Minister for Bushfire Response Kim Wells’ spokeswoman Emily Broadbent said the government had “been careful to ensure” people were linked to ongoing supports, including free counselling and case management.
She said while the Minister’s office had not been asked to contribute financially to the campaign, it had helped establish the Smouldering Stump as a non-profit organisation.
Kinglake youth group leading frontline recovery
SHELBY, 18, said she had no one to talk to about what she saw on Black Saturday.
“One day I just broke down. I threw chairs at the teachers and I kept drawing black and red on everything,” she said.
It is a similar story for Georgia, 17, a former A-grade student, who for 12 months after Black Saturday remembers nothing she learnt at school.
“It wasn’t that I lost the motivation for school work, but other things seemed so much more important,” she said.
The Kinglake Youth Group has helped teenagers like Georgia stay connected and engaged in school or employment. But money from the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund has run out.
This is the first week a purpose-built youth drop in centre has not opened.
Youth worker Lesley Bebbington says it is still needed.