A Message from the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Helen Connolly

These are certainly challenging times. It’s very difficult to take a ‘business as usual’ approach when it looks increasingly as though the long term impact of COVID19 will be profound. In times of uncertainty it’s how we choose to respond that makes all the difference.

Children and young people pick up on the fear that adults express around them regarding the possibility of shortages of food and essential items, alongside the need for self- isolation and restricted access to family and friends, school, work, recreation events and activities. They’re also being exposed to ‘big issue’ conversations about potential job losses, financial stress, and how best to care for those who are most vulnerable to infection.

Children themselves have their own fears about illness and death. They wonder what it will mean if they’re not going to school, missing out on learning and playing, seeing friend’s or being unable to attend parties, sport, dance, music and other recreational commitments and special events and activities that were part of their routine. They’re concerned about the impact extra stress will have on their parents and grandparents, their teachers and coaches, and they worry about what the changes will mean for other family members (including their pets), as well as for themselves.

At this time children and young people need their relationships with the significant adults in their lives to be loving, supportive and reassuring. They also need to be given information about what is happening in ways that they can understand and be involved in discussions about what can be done. They also need to be able to express their concerns and ideas without fear. These conversations need to be modified to suit younger children, who need simple ideas to be clearly explained and re-confirmed and it’s not ideal to have the news running 24/7 in the background while children are around.

Even in ordinary times, we know children and young people are rarely invited to share their ideas and opinions on issues that affect them, and that sometimes loving parents try and shield their children from matters they consider too adult. However, being supported to contribute ideas and opinions on what to do and how to behave now, will increase children and young people’s sense of importance and belonging, helping to allay their fears around the rapid change they’re experiencing during these uncertain times.

While our systems and behaviours re-calibrate, adjusting to the paternalism and control needed to minimise the impact of the coronavirus, we must also ensure that ‘voice and choice’ is not subsumed by safety and protection.

Children’s participation in society is a right enshrined in international covenants. They have an internationally agreed convention that gives them the right to express their views and be heard in relation to decision making on matters affecting them. This includes ensuring their views are given due weight. To not do so, means we fail to fulfil our international obligations to ‘act in the child’s best interests’.

In my role as Commissioner for South Australia’s children and young people, it is my responsibility to be vigilant to this. I am advocating for us to continue to bring the voices of children and young people into the conversations we’re having now. This involves considering their situations in relation to their rights, adopting strategies and planning decisions that reflect their best interests, and enabling them to have input into these solutions and strategies as they’re being devised. This is what making change at the systemic level involves. It requires us to listen to and speak up for South Australian children and young people, building a future that places their interests front and centre at all times.

To sideline this generation of children and young people at this time would be akin to abandoning them to our own interests – and we’ve already seen what that approach does to erode their trust and confidence in us, while forcing them to ‘grow up’ too quickly. This is a time when they need us to protect their childhood and their youth, while we involve them in shaping their futures – particularly given it is their generation who will be significantly impacted by whatever this new future holds.

Over the coming weeks I will be releasing several reports which summarise my most recent projects on youth justice, future skills development, careers education, work experience and barriers to learning. My team and I are also working on creating a platform for ongoing engagement, participation and information for children and young people.

I look forward to sharing this new online hub and my upcoming reports with you. I also look forward to working with you within this new environment, and with the broader community and government organisations you represent to bring about the changes needed. I hope together that we can find ways to implement the recommendations these reports contain, adjusting these as needs be to suit the new world we all find ourselves in. I am sure that together we can continue to bring about positive change for the benefit of children and young people during this uncertain time – it only requires us to have the will to do so.