For some New Zealanders, lockdown has been a nightmare – such as the mother of a suicidal child who, when she called for help, was asked if she had completed a parenting course. Bonnie Sumner  and Melanie Reid report.

In a middle-class Napier suburb on week two of the lockdown, a seven-year-old boy attempted suicide.

The following morning he tried to do it again. His mother says she called various social services for help. No one would.

Her son has ADHD and autism and is undergoing assessment for psychosis. He has been under the care of the Hawke’s Bay DHB’s Children and Adolescent Family Services (CAFS) since he was three years old – until his mother discovered two weeks ago he had been discharged from their services without her being told.

When she found her son attempting suicide for the first time, she immediately called the suicide prevention hotline Lifeline. They told her he was too young for their services, but to keep an eye on him. They also recommended she call her local DHB. His physical condition was not serious enough to warrant hospitalisation, so she called CAFS, but couldn’t get through. The following morning, after the boy’s second suicide attempt, she tried calling CAFS again.

The woman who answered said her son had been discharged from their services since their last quarterly meeting three months earlier, his file was closed and that she would need another referral from the boy’s GP to reengage their services. When the mother explained that her son had just attempted suicide and how worried she was for his mental health, she says the woman asked if she had completed their recommended parenting courses.

The mother was so upset she hung up. She says she was never informed her son had been discharged before then.

“It really felt like those services just shut you down, like we’ve been put on the back burner at the moment, and people who need this essential help are not getting it.”

The single mother, who also has a 22-month-old, says lockdown has been a “disastrous time”, but she tries to stay positive.

“Since this broke out, my son has wicked nightmares to the point he’s vomiting and shaking uncontrollably. You’ve got to put him in shower to bring him out, he’s bed wetting and soiling himself. But we’re trying to make most of this time. We do family cooking. He loves science so we do things like salt crystals. We try to have one on one time to take the focus away from the bad, but it’s just having the energy.”

To make matters worse, she is also going through cancer treatment, and her planned surgery has been postponed indefinitely due to the lockdown. All she wants is a little more support.

“We feel very isolated, I feel like I’m doing it all on my own. You wake up in the morning and think okay what’s going to happen today. It feels like we went from a hundred percent support to no support.”

The mother used to be able to call CAFS any time to discuss concerns and ask for advice, particularly to do with her son’s medications and their side effects, but feels like she is now not able to call them at all.

Support before and during lock down. Newsroom graphic.

She says when she contacted her GP to explain what had happened and get a referral back to CAFS, he was shocked to hear the response she had received. He referred her son back to their services but has been told the wait time can be up to three months.

She has also lost almost all of the regular help she relied on before lockdown, including the teacher aide support workers her son had at school, and face to face visits with a social worker.

Before lockdown, they had two in-person meetings a week with her son’s social worker through Stand Tū Māia*, an intensive wraparound social service for children. The social worker, who the family adores, still calls on the phone throughout the week and is doing everything she can for the family, but due to the lockdown they can no longer meet face to face. This social worker has also put in another referral to CAFS.

She doesn’t want to come out of lockdown early or do anything to risk the health of her family or anyone else, but says this time has been hard. The family lives in a home with no back yard, however on the times they have tried to go for a walk her son runs up the street licking letterboxes, saying he wants to “get the virus and die”.

“It’s been a massive challenge for a very, very active child being locked into a house. And just not having any services you can turn around and go ‘help’ to, even if it’s just somebody for him to talk to.”

Newsroom is also involved with another distressed parent of a seriously troubled young child who is struggling to get help during the lockdown.

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says, “This isn’t the time to increase barriers to access expert services like child and adolescent help services, it’s a time to reduce the barriers and make it much more seamless, and I’m saddened and frustrated to hear about these cases.”

CAFS, which is run by the DHB, told Newsroom: “It is very distressing you have been advised that children who have attempted suicide have been denied CAFS support. It is very important you share these details with us so we can investigate and ensure the clinical safety of these children. HBDHB is unaware of any child who needs acute clinical care being turned away and certainly no child who is suicidal.”

Newsroom has advised the mother of the DHB’s concern and she asked Newsroom to provide her details to the Children’s Commissioner, which we have done. She says she will try again to contact her previous case worker from CAFS.

Asked how a child would have been discharged without the parent’s knowledge, the HBDHB’s service director mental health David Warrington said this doesn’t happen.

“CAFS does not discharge patients without telling them, it is a collaborative process made in agreement with the patient and their families. All children under CAFS care have a dedicated care plan and checks in place to assure the person responsible for their clinical care that they are okay.”

In response to this, the mother is adamant she was not advised her son was no longer being supported by CAFS. “They’re just covering their own backsides because they don’t want the negative publicity. It’s amazing that once media are involved how quickly you got a response.”

Judge Becroft says this is not a time for organisations to make it difficult for people to get help. “In a time like this that’s exactly the sort of barriers and red tape we want to be avoiding, we want to ensure it’s a one stop shop approach to getting help and if somebody during Covid is crying out for help we want to make that more accessible than ever.

“What we’re talking about is a wider example of the lockdown shining a spotlight on issues that were stressed beforehand and services that too often pass the buck, and it was a labyrinth to get into the system. But I would have thought that, of all times, people would be bending over backwards to make it not so much of a maze to get into.”

“That’s exactly what we don’t need at a time like this and most New Zealanders would be horrified to hear about this.”

*Stand Tu Maia is a charity organisation that receives most of their funding through Oranga Tamariki and Ministry of Education. Their services help children suffering from trauma and other complex needs, and include camps, residential facilities and family therapy.

– Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO / 0508 828 865 (24/7)

– Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (24/7),

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7), text free to 234 (8am-midnight) or live chat (7pm-11pm)


* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Bonnie Sumner is part of the Newsroom Investigates reporting team

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