One of the greatest challenges in making change, in giving and receiving support is accepting that there is something wrong. Nobody sees themselves as vulnerable. Nobody wants to admit they need help.
To understand where people are struggling, to understand what is happening that is creating this struggle and to begin to put together the tools to support change to overcome those struggles requires that we get right up close. That we listen, learn and work with those who are being challenged.
When the pandemic hit, we were suddenly pulled apart, held far away from each other in a most unprecedented way. It hardly needs explanation to explore how isolating it has been as we all try to navigate lockdown after lockdown, stuck in the place wherever the pandemic found us.
In the work we do as parent advocates at IPAN, with ATD Fourth World, within the wider International Parent Advocacy Network of which I am the Director, we have had so many of the tools we use to support parents and families taken away – reaching out and hugging someone, squeezing a hand, meeting up in person to listen, smile and cry with them.
And yet, out of the most terrifying and limiting situation, we have seen a new and – for some, more inclusive – way of reaching out. Across the gaps created by seas, by mountains, by stretches of rural lands. Across the gaps created by disabilities and gender roles. Across the gaps created by language and dress codes. We have created support groups for support, research and development, held meetings to build and unite communities, and foundling organisations have been born – online!
We have reinvented connection and the behaviours that support connection. To come together: refusing to let a pandemic keep us apart.
It is incredible, really.
Yet, yet, yet – there is a gap, a very big gap, where anyone without the technology and the infrastructure to freely access the internet has been shut out. Their life opportunities have been horrifically limited.
In the United Kingdom, we wrongly take for granted that everyone has access to the internet, the skills to navigate it and the tools to use it. In our work with children and families who have children in the care system or on the fringes of the care system, we realise that the gap for families is incredibly far-reaching. During the pandemic, many parents living apart from their children went months, some nearly a year, without any direct contact with their most precious and beloved children. For many parents, such as those of the 80,000 children in the English care system, they may only have been able to see or speak to their child by phone or computer, if they had a phone or computer and the financial stability to pay for it. Some parents lost all contact with their children due to poverty in a pandemic.
The PFAN – Parents Families and Allies Network – ran focus groups with parents who had experienced family court hearings during the first lockdown, and the experiences which these families shared were harrowing.
As the courts moved online, families told us of the challenges that they faced trying to participate in the legal processes that could affect their families forever. Many of the parents we spoke to had to make do with accessing their court hearings over the phone. This left them trying to participate on a very small screen. These parents told us how hard it was to follow along and understand who was speaking. It made it almost impossible for them to know where and how they could contribute.
One of the many upsetting revelations that came out of listening to these parents’ experiences was the knock-on effects on legal support. Unlike in court where a parent could ask their solicitor a question, have a brief exchange, feel they had access to legal advice – parents accessing hearings on their phones were completely cut off for this basic aspect of support. They had no way of quickly and easily communicating with their solicitor, if they had a solicitor. Many of these parents were representing themselves, which is a significant challenge for anyone in the most ideal circumstances. Parents expressed their concerns about the challenges they faced submitting and accessing documents, and the grave consequences for those who received important documents late due to the delayed post. While some parents had chosen to represent themselves of their own accord, others did so because accessing legal support became more difficult as law firms closed their doors and began working from home.
With schools closed, some parents had children at home. Childcare became virtually non-existent for those who required it for attending hearings. Parents shared with us the unimaginable strength that it took to sit alone in their bedroom hearing life-changing and distressing news online and then have to make dinner and pretend to their children that all was okay. For other parents receiving devastating news alone, isolated, with no opportunity for human contact, for support, for even daily routines and normal coping skills… virtual hearings greatly affected mental health. Across all the experiences shared there were numerous examples of how technical problems impacted hearings. From internet connections cutting out, screeching and background noises were both challenging and, in some cases, far more than simply a distraction.
Parents living apart from their children spent the pandemic alone while trying to jump through hoops to meet the needs of their children, sometimes to impossible heights. Some were required to attend support groups that closed or moved inaccessibly online. Courses inexplicably ended without offering parents the final assessments needed to fulfil their court-ordered responsibilities, leaving them unable to continue taking the steps needed to achieve the best outcome for their families. This has in some cases led parents to lose their children forever.
Many parents separated from their children are in poverty. Support services have been closed through years of austerity measures, and then as the pandemic shut down businesses across the country, parents who were rebuilding their lives, trying to claw their way out of poverty to regain their children, had their opportunities shattered. This has made reaching out and supporting these families both challenging and essential.
As we move forward, it is essential that as we advocate for advocacy, we be activists for activism. We must enable everyone in our countries and communities to participate. Moving online has built bridges across some serious barriers to entry for many, many people.
Now, we must ensure that everyone is equally able to access the online world, for themselves, for their families, for our future.
Taliah Drayak is a care experienced parent advocate from ATD Fourth World.
Socially Distanced Activism: Voices of Lived Experience of Poverty During COVID-19 by Katy Goldstraw, Tracey Herrington, Thomas Croft, Darren Murrinas, Nicola Gratton and Diana Skelton is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £5.59.
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