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LISA LACHANCE & DENNIS STUEBING: Pandemic leaves children in more vulnerable position

This stock image illustrates the despair felt by a child living in poverty.
Children First Canada released the third Raising Canada (2020) report. The statistics are particularly alarming this year: One-third of children in Canada do not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood, one in three Canadians report experiencing abuse before the age of 15, one in five children live in poverty, and perhaps most startling, suicide is now the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14. - Contributed

LISA LACHANCE & DENNIS STUEBING

We keep thinking we are running out of things to say about 2020, but month by month, it remains “unprecedented”, “unusual” and “catastrophic.”

Across our society, the pandemic and our collective response to this public health crisis has revealed deep cleavages and gaps in our society — in access to housing, food security, medical services and more. We have all been affected, but children and youth have faced specific and unique consequences.  

Children have seen their access to education impeded, from early childhood through to university. In Nova Scotia public schools, students with learning differences have reduced resource centre space, time and support. Young people who rely on schools for food have experienced increased hunger and food insecurity. 

Teachers, administrators, coaches and others who are working with children are also on the front lines of child protection. Outside of family, it is hard to think of anyone who spends more time with children, other than their teachers. Children not attending school or attending infrequently are more vulnerable to harm.  Professionals working with children in schools and other settings need to find ways to collaborate with one another to make sure the system of protection extends to all children.   

In some jurisdictions, reports of child abuse have decreased yet it is difficult to imagine that the rates of child abuse have also fallen; the abuse is simply less visible.  

Children are living in families under stress, with family incomes under threat or drastically affected. Children also feel the impact of spending more time at home with limited access to school, activities and friends.  They can bear the brunt of parental stress while already feeling constrained and isolated. Children and youth in care have had little access to family visits and specialized supports, with provinces only offering time-limited moratoria on aging out of the system mid-pandemic.  

Prior to COVID-19, food insecurity was increasing in Canada, but it is experienced differently across the country. Black, Indigenous and Nunavut households report the highest levels of food insecurity in Canada.  COVID-19 has made things worse, especially for families with children. Canada made commitments to children’s right to food security as a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is duty-bound to provide children with “material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.”    

We have all seen it, but the effect on children from the COVID-19 pandemic is more than anecdotal. Children First Canada released the third Raising Canada (2020) report. The statistics are particularly alarming this year: One-third of children in Canada do not enjoy a safe and healthy childhood, one in three Canadians report experiencing abuse before the age of 15, one in five children live in poverty, and perhaps most startling, suicide is now the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14. 

UNICEF Report Card 16 (2020), which measures the state of children and youth under age 18 in wealthy countries, ranked Canada 30th out of 38 nations, based on data from just before the pandemic.  

Each year, National Child Day (Nov. 20) is an important reminder of the commitment Canada made in 1991 to recognize and celebrate the unique rights of children. In the absence of effective rights-based curriculum in schools, National Child Day is also a chance to educate children about their position as rights holders.  

The flip side of having rights holders is that children’s rights also has duty bearers and that’s us — the adults who manage schools, health care, the economy, and all aspects that affect children’s rights and their well-being. This year, in 2020, it is us collectively as duty bearers who need to raise awareness, acknowledge the sliding status of children in our society, and commit to action. COVID-19 recovery needs to be child- and youth-centred, supporting our most vulnerable citizens and our future. An important step in Nova Scotia would be to create a Child and Youth Advocate who would be keeping an eye on what is happening to young people in our province. 

Lisa Lachance is a PhD candidate, faculty of health, Dalhousie University & president, Wisdom2Action Consulting Ltd. Dennis Stuebing, PhD, is an associate at Wisdom2Action. He has a background in children’s rights, child protection, international development and humanitarian assistance.

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