Ask the expert: How the Nanaimo Child Development Centre is supporting children with complex needs during COVID-19

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Children’s Health Foundation is committed to supporting Island families. This post is part of our Ask the Expert blog series in which our CEO Veronica Carroll interviews experts across Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands on issues affecting children’s health and how families are adapting during these unprecedented times.

Veronica recently connected with the Executive Director of one of our community partners, Dominic Rockall of the Nanaimo Child Development Centre (CDC). They spoke about how the Centre has adapted its services during the pandemic, the biggest challenges faced by parents with children with complex needs, and what inspires Dominic most in his work.

Can you tell me about the programs offered by the Nanaimo CDC and the organization’s impact on the community?

Our mandate is to provide individualized services for children with developmental needs and their families that promote optimum child development. We have a team of therapists and consultants that work with children and their families to support the development of their children – ranging from speech therapy, to physical development, to cognitive development.

The Family Navigator program helps families find the support they need in the community and navigate through the systems of support available. We also have a drop-in playgroup, a preschool, and education and support groups for parents.

One of the positions that Children’s Health Foundation’s donors fund at the CDC is the Family Navigator. Can you tell us what you have heard from families over the last couple of months? Any common questions, concerns or challenges that families have identified in seeking support for their kids?

Many families are worried about the unknowns of this time, including the financial impact, whether social programs will be cut, and how this will impact education. The Family Navigator has also heard from families with children with special needs that they are having a particularly hard time, as these children are at home dependent on their parents for all of their needs.

On the positive side, many children who were struggling with bullying or self-esteem issues at school are doing better at home with distance education.

The Nanaimo CDC offers a range of therapy to support children with complex needs. Have health care practitioners been able to continue this vital work virtually despite physical distancing?

Fortunately, we had existing virtual service methods pre-pandemic to serve remote communities, so it has been an easy transition to offer our infant development program online, as well as occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy. We’ve heard from families is they’re very happy that those services have continued uninterrupted.

What unique challenges do families with children with complex developmental and behavioural conditions face during this time?

Children with complex needs, including developmental and behavioural conditions, need more attention and support – it’s constant for some children. It’s all the time. That’s the challenge – now the parent is the only one providing it. That parent is supporting the children every waking moment of the day, and many are becoming burned out and exhausted.

You can’t even bring in respite workers because you’re home by yourself, and you can’t  bring in extended family, so you are on your own. That’s the real problem.

Has the organization learned anything during this challenging time that you will carry forward into your work after the pandemic ends?

We moved everybody to work remotely, and now that we have the technology and hardware for our team, it’s an option for the future.

A conversation we’ve been having for a long time is about our space issues at the CDC. As our team and demand for our services grow, we might eventually need a new building or to add a new wing onto our building. But now we’re thinking that we could have a portion of our staff working remotely, or even half-time, maybe sharing an office. It’s really opened our eyes to the fact that space doesn’t have to be top of need all the time.

Can you share a story of a family served by the Nanaimo CDC that gives you hope?

There are inspiring stories all the time in our work. I believe that every time a child overcomes a challenge in their learning and development, and they’re able to learn, grow, or improve in some way – no matter how small – that is a success for that child and family. If we’re able to be part of that, that is a success for us as well.

One story that comes to mind was featured on Shaw TV Nanaimo. When one-year-old Amy was missing developmental milestones, her parents grew concerned after waitlists for diagnosis and services dragged on for months in their area, the Lower Mainland. When Amy was one and a half years old, the family moved to Nanaimo to receive help from the Child Development Centre.

Amy participated in individual and group physical therapy, speech therapy, and attended the Centre’s preschool. Finally able to stand on her feet, Amy hasn’t stopped moving since and was named BC Athletics Junior Female Roadrunner of the Year in 2016.

What inspires you most about your work at the Nanaimo CDC?

My belief is that all people, regardless of ability, psychological disposition, or experience, have the right to learning, self-development, and social inclusion. I also believe that the primary role of a helping professional, whether it’s a counsellor, therapist, educator, childcare worker, is to foster environments that will allow learning and development to happen.

I’m grateful to work at an organization that helps so many children to do this. The fact that I’m part of an organization for which that is our mandate is very inspiring for me.

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