Seen and not heard

I didn’t know it was the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  until our good friends at the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program wrote about it here. Like much of emergency management practice, children are as seen as a problem to be managed, a box to be ticked and then get on with the real work. This approach really doesn’t go very far towards meeting Article 12 outlined in the convention:

Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account

It is disappointing that children’s voices, other than a few notable exceptions, are not included in emergency management planning. They are, after all, the group of people most vulnerable to the impacts of disaster. They also stand most to gain from good recovery planning, after all, theirs is the future.

This was brough home to me when I heard Dr Carol Mutch from Auckland University recently speak at a seminar about how the Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction Authority decided that they needed to get children’s input in to the plans for the CBD, and brought them together for a fun day’s planning, only to ignore the kids input. Contrast this with Malcolm Hackett’s successful visioning work for Strathewen and his engagement with the local school kids. Is it because we suffer from the thinking of stand aside young man/lady, and the adults are in charge.

There is some great work being done though. Save the Children, through the passionate Susan Davies, has begun to make a difference in this area, through an advocacy report Don’t Leave Me Alone focussing upon planning for children in evacuation settings. Some of the issues highlighted in the report include

  • There is currently no standard practice in emergency management planning for the unique needs of children in Australia. This lack of standard planning leaves children even more vulnerable in the aftermath of emergencies.
  • There was no local area planning identified that focused on the most vulnerable children – those who are unaccompanied.
  • Children are most often included in plans in a generic statement that lists them with other vulnerable groups including the elderly, disabled and culturally diverse.
  • Of the plans that were available for analysis there was no detailed planning that focused on the unique needs of children in emergencies and disasters.
  • There is not a standard code of conduct for emergency management staff regarding working with children.
  • There is not a consistent procedure across Australia to undertake Working with Children Checks for staff and volunteers who work with children in emergencies.
  • There are no clear links between local emergency management plans to the emergency plans of preschools, schools and child care centres.
  • The needs of animals are considered in planning far more than the needs of children.

Kevin Ronan from Central Queensland University has published extensively in this area. His book, with David Johnston, Promoting Community Resilience in Disasters: The role for schools, youth and families is an excellent resource and the work that he leads through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC will be a major contribution to the area.

The Australian Emergency Management Institute hosts the Disaster Resilience Australia Schools Education Network . Again, another get initiative to get people together and share information.

However we see no systematic approach to schools education. While you can map disaster management education back to elements of the curriculum, (which is terrific), schools disaster education in my experience is predicated on the teachers having the passion and drive to run units of inquiry, rather than being a core competency we want kids to walk away from school with. Neil Dufty documents the approaches to integrating disaster risk reduction education into schools curriculum

Briony Towers at RMIT has focussed on child centred bushfire preparedness. When I heard her speak about her study about children’s knowledge of vulnerability and resilience to bushfires, it made me realise that there is a whole other world out there, and children need to be involved. In REDiplan, we focus upon household preparedness as being a family activity, so that everyone contributes, and everyone understands what needs to happen. Shared responsibility.

Involving kids in planning, of course, is not straightforward. The principal at our primary school gets the kids to set the directions on their fundraising activities. He says it’s tempting to step in and take over, but the kids work it out, and then because they have decided upon it, they are passionate about it.

The other challenge, I think, with involving kids in planning is current parenting practices. We read much about “helicopter” and “free range” parenting, which means parents who either hover over children and reduce their ability to take risks and make decisions for themselves or set no boundaries. By kids not being able to work things out for themselves and take risks, then I think it makes it hard for them to make decisions under duress. It also implies that we do not value their input.

Risk is an interesting concept in childhood. A program we run at our primary school is called play for life. When they presented to us initially, they talked about how the current kids grandparents would have roamed up to 15km from their home to play, our generation up to 5km, and kids now are lucky to roam 50metres from their front gate. We see childhood activities such as cartwheels banned in playground because they may cause an injury (not because one has been caused). Risk taking opportunities for kids are being minimised. And while we of course want our kids to be safe, what I think this potentially does is remove from the kids mind that the world is a dangerous place, and promotes the idea that someone will be there to sort it out.

Kids can be naïve about things, but they can also have a clarity of vision that we tired world weary adults don’t have. When I explained my work on disaster resilience capacities, and how it was different to how others were viewing the problem to my younger daughter, Amy, she looked at me and said, “but that’s just common sense, even I, as a kid, can see that”.

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