The ways that school-age children experienced the after-effects of the Christchurch earthquakes have been documented in a new University of Otago study.
Geography Associate Professor Claire Freeman and colleagues Megan Gollop in the University's Centre for Research on Children and Families, the Centre Director, Associate Professor Nicola Taylor, Dr Karen Nairn from the College of Education and Ros Herbison - set out to give voice to the children's' experiences of relocation and dislocation after the traumatic events.
They talked with 38 primary school, 38 Intermediate and 18 secondary school-age pupils – 94 in total – whose lives were disrupted as a result of the Christchurch earthquakes.
Interviewed six to nine months after the February 2011 quake, the children were living in Dunedin, Central Otago or Christchurch.
All but eight had experienced some form of relocation, having to leave their homes either temporarily or more long-term. Nearly half of the children had moved to Dunedin or Central Otago and were currently enrolled in schools there. The remainder had experienced relatively short-term temporary moves within Christchurch or to another location before returning to the city.
Researchers found that by far the majority of the children left their homes as a result of the February quake. Most of the moves were sudden, unplanned and occurred either the same day or one to two days after the earthquake. Reasons for leaving included their house or land being unsafe or uninhabitable, a lack of services, or for education reasons. Many children said the move was due to the stress of the earthquake and ongoing aftershocks.
Associate Professor Freeman says the preliminary findings show that the children who left Christchurch experienced a huge sense of loss, in some cases leaving family members, friends, pets, belongings, their homes, schools and communities behind. The suddeness of these moves meant that children had very little time to say goodbye to friends.
"What also came through was the sheer complexity of the children's situations; how they rarely experienced a simple A to B move.
"Some had to move multiple times, with members of their families going in different directions. We found this was particularly hard on families where living arrangements were already complex, such as for those whose parents were separated," she says.
The types of accommodation they moved to included tents in the backyard, camping ground accommodation, relatives (by far the largest group), friends, others' holiday houses and motels and rental accommodation. On only 28 occasions, the children eventually moved back to their original house. For the majority of the children who left homes one or both parents made the decision.
"For some families there really was no alternative but for parents to make the decision to move, but also we found that young people needed to have more of a voice when it came to talking about how the earthquakes and moving away from Christchurch were impacting on them," she says.
"The effect of the earthquakes was long lasting. Recurrent earthquakes kept the trauma alive for families, as did moving and changing scenarios with the state of their homes. Some children have had to deal with the fact that they didn't know and, in some cases, may still not know whether the move is temporary or not," Dr Freeman says.
The young people answered that the most difficult aspects of moving were leaving friends and family behind, the education differences in the new places they went to and adjusting to their new location. Many still thought of Christchurch as home and would like to live there again in the future.
However, the majority of those children who had moved relatively permanently had settled in well to their new communities and schools. They were relieved to be away from the aftershocks and enjoyed new experiences and making new friends.
"Without downplaying the impact on them, the children still showed a huge amount of resilience and strength," she says.
The team also talked to 20 teachers, principals and an administrator from schools where earthquake-affected children had enrolled, often at short notice.
The strong message that came from the school staff was that they saw their main job as keeping children safe and providing a 'normalising' environment while the parents sorted out their lives.
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