Niall Muldoon: The hidden heroes of Covid-19 pandemic

Niall Muldoon: The hidden heroes of Covid-19 pandemic

Carers, both young and old, perform a vital role in our society, and never more so than during the current crisis as they cope without much of the support they need, writes Niall Muldoon.

The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in many realisations for us as a society.

Among these is an understanding of the vital role played by many workers in the fight against this deadly disease and the provision of services needed to keep us all going. 

From making decisions in the national interest to the provision of basic essential services, we have many people to be thankful for. Among these are our ministers, health staff, teachers, gardaí, food providers and shop staff who have, rightly, been cheered as crucial at this important point in our history.

However, as Ombudsman for Children, with a remit to protect the rights of all children in Ireland, I feel that there are a large number of others who deserve to be recognised as heroes during this pandemic.

They are the carers, including many children, up and down the country who have had to settle into lockdown with their children, parents, siblings or other family members.

They are now coping without much of the support and respite options that allow them to do the best for, and get the best from, their families.

There are over 5,500 children in foster care in Ireland. 

These children live with and are looked after by approximately 4,000 families. Around 4,000 of these children live with foster families with whom they have no blood relationship.

These foster mothers, fathers, and siblings all help to support children who, for different reason, cannot live at home with their parents.

Kinship carers are a little known and often forgotten group of family relatives who step in when a close family member cannot cope with raising a child. These include grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. In 2019, one in four foster children was in kinship care.

Many foster children maintain close links with their own family. However, this contact may be limited due to current restrictions, making life even harder for them. 

Foster carers will step in to fill this additional gap in children’s lives. The support network that is vital to all foster families and their foster children, whether related by blood or not, includes social workers, youth workers and therapists who are now restricted to engagement via phone or video. 

Respite services are essentially non-existent at present. These foster families, both adults and children, unrelated and kinship carers, will muddle along and offer the warmth, love and caring of a true family.

They are, for many foster children, their only support and resource at this time of uncertainty, anxiety and stress. These families are hidden heroes of the battle against Covid-19.

Family Carers Ireland estimated that they supported 355,000 carers across the country in 2018 and that these are saving the State €10bn annually.  Many of these carers look after children who have long-term illnesses, disabilities or health problems. 

Services such as school, day care, home helps and respite are vital not only to the children themselves, but also to their carers in balancing care giving with other aspects of daily life and their own health and well-being.

Most of these services have had to be all but suspended in the current crisis and family carers have had to assume much greater levels of responsibility for those they look after. These family carers are hidden heroes of the battle against Covid 19.

Although estimates vary considerably, it is safe to say that there are many thousands of children in Ireland who provide essential care for a parent, sibling or other family member.

Known as young carers, these children provide many hours each week of invaluable support for someone in their family who has an illness, disability, mental health difficulty or addiction problem.

Many of these children are often happy and proud to contribute to the care of a family member. However, they also need to be allowed to be children: to go to school, to play sport, to have fun with friends, and to learn through positive and challenging experiences.

This time away from family caring responsibility, where they are simply children, is like a respite from the heavy responsibility that many of them carry. 

In the current circumstances, with schools closed, social distancing in place, and the unavailability of many support services, reliance on these children and the level of care they provide will have undoubtedly increased. 

They will likely be taking on the added burden of protecting the person they care for from the virus and isolation and cocooning will weigh heavier on them than on many of their peers. These young carers are among the hidden heroes in the battle against Covid-19.

There are approximately 140 Special Schools in Ireland where many of our children with disabilities (physical, medical and intellectual) are catered for by a professional and dedicated workforce of teachers, SNAs, nurses and other therapeutic staff.

These schools offer invaluable services and are a constant reminder that children with disabilities, like all other children, have the right to an education commensurate with their abilities and needs.

These children and their parents are now into their twelfth week of lockdown without the support, personal contact, therapeutic and medical assistance and the respite they need. 

Many parents will now be coping 24 hours a day with children with challenging behaviour or a life limiting medical condition, alongside the added fear of Covid-19 and what infection may mean for their child’s care or child’s life. These parents are hidden heroes in the battle against Covid-19.

Many people will contribute to how successfully Ireland deals with the current pandemic. Many will be visible, many more will be hidden. 

One of the key principles of children’s rights is that when economies are in trouble, the State should prioritise children’s needs and services. 

Therefore, when we start to emerge from our cocoons, quarantines and isolation, it is important that we remember these hidden heroes and the children they care for.

We need to keep them to the fore of our plans for our undoubtedly changed, but also hopefully braver and more caring new world.

Niall Muldoon is  the Ombudsman for Children

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