Sydney researchers have been taken by surprise at the profoundly protective effect Aboriginal community and kinship ties have against the isolation that comes with COVID-19 lockdowns.

A new report by the University of Sydney’s Research Centre for Children and Families has brought to light stories of hardship and the incredible resilience afforded to Aboriginal people in caring roles by informal social networks.

Darug woman and research assistant Irene Wardle said interviews with staff in Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) revealed a strong sense of empowerment in communities.

“When I started to listen to their stories, their stories were about … a celebration of how communities come together,” Wardle said.

Lead researcher Dr Susan Collings said concerns about the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on vulnerable families was the impetus for the project.

“We realised from our research that this was going to be a particularly challenging time for families [caring for children in out-of-home care] because many of them were already dealing with sick children with significant additional needs, and many of them were our older carers,” Dr Collings said.

The study focussed on Aboriginal families in Sydney’s Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury areas that were looking after children in informal arrangements.

“These accounts are really hidden because they don’t fit into the typical pattern of how we see families in out-of-home care,” Dr Collings said.

“[These stories] are about families that aren’t necessarily receiving a carer payment, but they know that parents are doing it tough so extended family have taken on care of the child or children.”

Their research found surprising differences between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal carers.

“There were examples that we heard about where older non-Aboriginal carers were feeling very nervous having children in their care, because they were worried that if children went outside the home, they might bring the virus back.”

“Often what we were hearing was carers calling on these agencies saying ‘I need a break, I’ve got these children here 24/7 now, I need respite.'”

“And in contrast, what we heard was that children [in Aboriginal families] stepped up … it was very obvious how mutually beneficial the caring was because the children were in the houses with older family members.”

The report shows that for many older Aboriginal carers, having children in the household was deeply protective against the negative impacts of social isolation.

“It meant that the older family were connected to that extended family network, because the children had specific needs related to their learning and meant the carers were then receptive to or asking for help from those community organisations to care for the children.”

Another surprising finding was how quickly families found ways to keep Elders who weren’t normally carers from becoming socially isolated.

“As soon as [government directions] said Elders had to be left alone, [the question was] which of the older kids — and the oldest child in that family could have been 10 — was going to be told, ‘You’re going to go live with Nan and Pop, because Nan and Pop aren’t going to be left alone, and you’re going to have to do some errands for Nan and Pop.’”

Kinship and community ties also enabled local ACCOs to be extremely effective in supporting families in the community.

“It’s not to say that families weren’t doing it tough. They … started out doing it tough, tougher than many other families in the community,” Dr Collings said.

“But because their community organisations knew them well and intimately and knew exactly which Elders in community were looking after the grandkids, or somebody else’s children, they knew where the help was needed,” she said.

Community based services were able to be agile in a way that government departments could not, and informal cooperation between services quickly sprang up.

“Community were actually able to find out within their own networks, [which organisations] could go pick up food hampers, or you got to ring this organisation to get to the doctors,” Wardle said.

“Not only is there so little technology, up in the Mountains and Hawkesbury, there’s very few phones and if they do have phones, they don’t always work, so all this information was coming through community networks.”

The researchers said the research draws out lessons about the increased effectiveness afforded to organisations embedded in community.

“They were fluid and agile, and that’s what [larger service providers] weren’t,” Wardler said.

“When you’re planning the strategic plans of these little NGOs, the people on the board are actually Aboriginal people working in other areas of community.”

“Government departments, policymakers within those departments can sometimes get very caught up in a business as usual approach that makes it very hard for them to change quickly, to redirect, to be nimble and adapt,” Dr Collings added.

“That’s what we saw last year, and I hope we don’t see it again, where big, funded organisations really struggle and scramble on the ground to change to a new environment.”

By Sarah Smit