Curing quake-weary Cantab kids

23:35, May 18 2014
STEEP CLIMB: The kids make the most of their morning tea break.

Around him, children are excitedly settling into their temporary home; rushing to check out their new bedrooms, swinging on monkey bars in the playground, and forging crucial friendships.

But Donovan Brown, 11, remains at his mother's side. Tears roll silently down his cheeks.

He's come to the new Stand Children's Services village, formerly the Glenelg Health Camp, so he and mother Stacey Jones can learn to get along again.

"We don't have the best relationship, " Jones explains. "It isn't where it should be. We clash."

Jones, Donovan and Donovan's brother Jayden, 7, had visited the village a couple of times in anticipation of his stay. He had been looking forward to it, until it was time to say goodbye.

"He was doing really good until we just arrived. He's a bit scared about leaving home, " Jones says.


The brothers have "quite a bond", she says. "They don't like being apart for too long."

Donovan speaks through a succession of shrugs and vacant stares. His only audible response comes when he speaks of his dislike for school, and his love of Pokemon.

When the April 30 intake of children are taken upstairs for morning tea, Donovan is inconsolable.

A social worker assumes he will return home with his mother later that night. No one is forced to stay at Glenelg Village.

After 18 months operating out of a large house in West Melton, the opening of Stand's new purpose-built facility at Glenelg Spur last month marked the final stage in a new era for the former health camp.

Sitting perched atop Murray Aynsley Hill, the new $9.5 million facility evokes images of a health camp as much as a brand-new Porsche resembles a 1989 Toyota Corolla.

The unparalleled views of Christchurch from Southern Alps to sea, the playground overlooking the city, and the relative calm that comes with being removed from the central city makes it more akin to a castle in the clouds.

But few know it even exists.

Despite a few headline-making incidents over the years - including sexual abuse allegations against a doctor at the camp in 2004, and uproar over the Ministry of Education's decision to close its nearby school in 2011 - Stand has been happily operating under the radar for most of its existence.

Thus, when Te Puna Whaiora Children's Health Camps rebranded to become Stand Children's Services a year ago, chief executive Fiona Inkpen envisaged the village being brought into the 21st century.

Stand no longer wants to be known as a health camp.

The service is attempting to remove the dismal connotations that come with being sent to a health camp, instead placing renewed focus on their role as guardians, and "standing strong for vulnerable children".

Staff know the city is a much different place than it was half a century ago, and with the complex issues of post-quake Christchurch, they are hoping their reinvigorated approach will cater to a new wave of needy children.

"This is a place for children and families to recover and feel safe, and where they can find ways to trust, hope and dream again, with each new day, " Inkpen explained when the village re- opened.

The facility's new moniker - Te Ao Marama, "the new dawn" - seems fitting.

Glenelg Health Camp opened its doors at Glenelg Spur in 1945, 26 years after New Zealand's first health camp was launched at Turakina, near Whanganui. There are seven camps across New Zealand, and two in the South Island.

While initially focusing on malnourished and pre-tubercular children, the camps moved to increasingly target social and emotional problems.

The issues they now tackle are wide- ranging. Among the children in the latest intake are those who are being bullied or are bullies, need help with their education, or have living circumstances that mean they no longer feel safe at home.

In what may be one of the more interesting signs of the times, while undernourished children were once sent to the camp to put on weight, in 2008 Glenelg hosted an obesity camp for children desperately needing to lose it.

But gone are the days of the nurses in white aprons, "military-style" schedules and out-dated treatment plans, including whole days spent sunbathing in search of a tan and a dose of Vitamin D. A stay at a 21st century camp is much different.
In an attempt to cajole her son into staying, Jones recalls her own time at health camp disdainfully.

"When I was younger, I went to the health camp in Roxburgh, " she says. "This is much different. I'd be happy to come here."
Her mother had six children, and sent them to camp for "a bit of a break". But camps in those days were unenjoyable, and kids were put through their paces, she says.

"People are friendly here. Back in those days they were grumpy old ladies. It was like a military camp."

She rubs shoulders with her son, and reminds him she never had a pool or a gym during her time at health camp.

He had so been looking forward to using it, she says. When that fails to elicit a response she points out the treat waiting for him in five weeks time.

"At the end of it there's a pack of Pokemon cards, " she coaxes.

But her persuasion does not work on Donovan; his tears only fall faster as he lifts his glasses to wipe them away.

Stand focuses on providing specialist home and school social services in a "wrap-around system" that includes therapeutic care and education, to children aged 5 to 12.

A camp stay lasts about five weeks, and is mostly Government-funded.

The service's social workers - in both the community and schools throughout Christchurch - identify and refer children who would benefit from a stay at the village, but recommendations can be made in a variety of ways. Public health nurses, social workers and other independent agencies can all refer a child to Stand.

The children are still pegged as society's most needy and vulnerable, but the care approach is different.

The intake of April 30 begins with a powhiri overseen by Koro Pete Mason, where the staff introduce themselves and sing waiata to welcome the children. The word "fun" is uttered no less than a dozen times.

Parents and children are encouraged to contact each other as much as they like, and since the earthquakes the children are allowed cellphones with them at all times. The children make their own meals, and attend an on-site school during normal school hours.

After operating first out of a marae and then the West Melton house after their century-old quake-damaged building was demolished. Staff and children alike were ecstatic at the opening of their new lodgings.

Funded by a $3.5m insurance payout for their old building and community and board fundraising, the new village is state-of-the-art.

It has a large gym, and the indoor swimming pool was donated by the Glenelg Children's Health Camp Charitable Trust.
The "dormitories" include separated rooms which accommodate no more than three children each. Sensors above each room notify staff when a child rises in the night. An integrated sound system at the gym means music can be filtered through the bedrooms after dinner.

Many parents say it is harder to get their children to come home than to convince them to go. Many return for a second time.
Felecia's* 10-year-old "mildly autistic" son Sheyn is back for his second stint at the village.
After being bullied, Sheyn was pulled from mainstream school and is now home-schooled. Stand was the last in a series of organisations Sheyn has been involved with, and the only one that has stuck.
"He's been involved with a couple of other organisations before and refused to go back, " Felecia says. "He loves it here - and if he's happy, I'm happy."
Round two will involve working on his social skills and integrating him back into mainstream schooling.
"We're moving to Nelson to make that happen, " Felecia says.
There is also a growing trend of siblings being enrolled for a stay.
Jodie's* son Eli, 8, was in the village's last intake, and her 7-year-old son Matthew is in the latest.
"It's just a bit of fun and to give them a break."
The pair have had it tough recently, she says, following a nasty split with her husband and a history of domestic violence. "They've been so much happier since coming here.
"It's just another way to make more friends and make them realise they're not the only kids with problems in their home."
But behind these success stories are the staff who have watched a vastly different group of Canterbury children emerge since September 2010.
A meeting of Stand's Social Workers in Schools programme addresses how stretched resources have become to confront the knock-on effects of the earthquakes that are only now becoming clear.
"Children aren't school-ready any more, " one social worker muses.
"Parents are wrapping them in a little too much cotton wool, and rightly so; it's been three years and they still want to protect them, but it's stopping them from their own personal growth."
Children who were toddlers during the earthquakes are now starting school "way behind", they say.
There are toileting issues. Children wander in and out of classrooms aimlessly, and they do not understand the concept of sitting on a mat.
An alarming number of children do not know how to follow basic instructions. Many do not know how to use scissors. They are wound-up, anxious and worried.
"We're now doing whole classroom interventions, rather than the one or two individual ones we used to have, " another says.
Residential Services team leader Jocy Barnes says it is a changing time.

"Our families are living in trauma, but that has spread to the mums and dads who are working and the families who are in the hill suburbs. It's always been whole families, but the socio-economic levels have changed. The issues are wider."
Shane Whitfield, team leader of the community social workers, agrees.

"The families that have always lived in crisis tend to deal with it in an OK way. It's about the families where, when a traumatic event happens, their ability to cope is really tested."

Stand does not offer respite care, akin to the services offered by the similar and perhaps more well-known Cholmondeley Children's Home in Governors Bay. Whitfield says the children's time at the village is a "family journey", one that may take some time.

Social workers will check up on a family about six months after a child's stay, and then when is necessary.

"The success of the child is often linked to the success of the parents, " he says. "The reality is that we can't take away all those bumps in the road, but what we can do is make those bumps more manageable."

A week from their first day at the village, while the rest of the city was dealing with the fallout from the latest round of flooding, the children of Stand Children's Services Christchurch remained above the city's problems, in their castle in the clouds.

Many had made friends, and were making noticeable improvements in areas where they had once struggled. As they share morning tea on the morning of May 7, they laugh freely together. The atmosphere, tense and uncertain a week ago, is now lively.

Donovan is still at the village. And while he was upset at night for the first few days, he is now "getting better", Barnes says.

His shrugs and tears have transformed to wide smiles and animated sentences as he shares orange slices with the other boys.

And how has his first week been? "It's OK, " he says, beaming.

He misses his mother and brother, but he talks to them every second night. On the other nights he talks to his Dad.
He doesn't know what his favourite part is just yet, but he says school here is "fun". He has made some friends, and he is enjoying himself "a bit".

No-one in the intake has decided to go home yet.

However, Donovan thinks he still might not stay for the full five weeks. He says his Mum might come and pick him up in a fortnight, and take him home for good. But then again, maybe not.

*Did not want their last names used.

The Press