The ACT has supported kids well during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Territory’s children’s commissioner says they need a voice at the table earlier in response planning.
ACT Children and Young People’s Commissioner Jodie Griffiths-Cook has been talking to a lot of Canberra kids during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She was particularly affected by one story about a kindergarten student who had a birthday during lockdown.
“When the parents asked, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ this little kinder kid said, ‘I want to get vaccinated so I can go back to school and play with my friends,'” said Ms Griffiths-Cook.
“That really speaks to the level of understanding that even young children have had about what was going on.”
The empathy shown affected her deeply, but it was a familiar story.
Many other youths Ms Griffiths-Cook has spoken to express similar feelings.
“They weren’t just speaking for themselves, they were very much reflecting on their peers, their siblings and other children and young people,” she said.
“[They’re] saying if this is what I’m feeling, there’s other kids out there who are feeling that, too.
“I think that gets to the heart of what children and young people’s experience is, but also who they are.”
Stories of lost routine, struggles adapting to changing environments and missing their friends were widespread.
But the lockdown had deeper, more profound impacts on some ACT kids.
National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds recently addressed an Australian National University webinar in which she spoke of a rise in suicide ideation and depression in young people presenting to Sydney and Melbourne hospital emergency departments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Griffith-Cook confirms ACT youth were suffering the same.
“Certainly we were seeing those same things here,” she said.
“Even with all the great technology that we’ve got at our fingertips, some children and young people are still feeling really shut off.”
The youth of the ACT have told the ACT Human Rights Commission about their loneliness and social isolation.
They’ve missed being able to talk to their vital extended support network beyond their immediate family.
“When you’re stuck at home, picking up the phone to have a chat to someone isn’t the same,” said Ms Griffiths-Cook.
“It might not be something they want mum or their big sister or little sister or brother to hear.”
Ms Griffith-Cook produced weekly videos to reach out to ACT youth during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and the human connection was well received.
“The commentary we got from kids was things such as, ‘I love the way she waves at the end and says bye for now,'” she said.
“‘I know that means she’s going to give us another video, and she’s going to talk to me again.’
“It was really personal for many children. [In their eyes] that video was just for them.”
While young people can fly under the radar, Ms Griffiths-Cook has praised the ACT for counting youths in official vaccination stats as soon as they became eligible.
“Many of the other jurisdictions are still counting their rate from age 16,” she said.
“That speaks to some of that shift in understanding … As soon as the vaccinations became open to younger age groups, that was when the ACT [started] reporting from that age.”
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms Griffiths-Cook said there wasn’t enough understanding of the impacts on young people.
While she’s pleased that changed over time, there’s always more to do.
She pointed to a recent ACT Education Directorate forum asking young people what they needed to feel safe returning to school.
“We need to see more of those,” said Ms Griffiths-Cook. “We need to make sure those kinds of opportunities are happening sooner rather than later.”
The commissioner said now is a good time to reflect on how to put the needs of kids front and centre from the beginning of post-pandemic planning.
“That’s certainly something that I’ll keep flying the flag for,” she said.