Coronavirus: The lockdown struggles faced by sole-parent families

sad mum
COVID-19 measures - though necessary for public health - had been imposed without much consideration of their impact on sole parent families, the expert says. Photo credit: File

The Government has failed to adequately consider the needs of sole-parent families during the COVID-19 lockdown, says one public policy expert and legal theorist.

Penny Ehrhardt, a senior associate at Victoria University's School of Government, said many sole parents were struggling with extreme financial pressure, isolation, cramped living conditions and conflict over complex shared care arrangements.

COVID-19 measures - though necessary for public health - had been imposed without much consideration of their impact on sole parent families.

"For example, confusing messaging early on about whether children could be taken to the supermarket or not added to the stress of lots of people," she said.

"Every question that the government is looking at needs to have the lens of a single parent family put over it and the question asked: does that work? Will that work for these families?"

Practical support for sole parents could include widening access to home-based childcare for essential workers to include others under unbearable stress.

"People seem to hear about it through their networks at the moment - some people are getting it and some aren't, and the information is not consistent."

Sole parent families, who were most often living in poverty in normal circumstances, were now facing extra financial strain through losing their jobs or child support being slashed.

"Some who usually have shared-care arrangements now have their children 24/7, yet they may not have the money to cover those extra days.

"For example if they're on a benefit or the child support is split on the basis they're half the time in one house and half in the other, they've now got to provide food, power and whatever else is needed for weeks on end."

While some ex-partners were able to share a bubble and continue co-parenting, many others unfortunately could not, she said.

"They don't necessarily trust the other parent with the children moving between the two houses because they are not convinced the bubbles are being maintained.

"I don't know what the policy solution to that would be but it's certainly creating a lot of stress at the moment," Ehrhardt said.

"Some people are prone to dealing with stress in an aggressive or dysfunctional way, so if you're having to deal with someone like that because you have children in common, that can add enormously to the load you are carrying and make things very difficult."

While the Government and other agencies like Women's Refuge were reaching out to women trapped in abusive homes during lockdown, many sole parents were also in "untenable situations" and desperately needed help.

Children with disabilities or other significant health problems were more likely to live in sole parent households.

"So you have a lot of people in extremely vulnerable positions, and without easily accessible support, this kind of knock could be catastrophic for some families."

In addition to all these pressures, sole parents often had to put up with criticism.

"As well as poverty, and being in vulnerable situations and lacking resources, single parents are battling stigma and judgement."

Ehrhardt is currently in England, where she had intended to work on her doctoral law thesis on the international human rights of sole parent families at Oxford University. Instead, she is in lockdown at a friend's house in Somerset.

"She's a doctor with the NHS [National Health Service] who has now contracted COVID, and has been confined to her room for five days.

"Luckily there are two other adults in the house and the children are teenagers - but if you're a sole parent with young children, you're not going to have the option of staying in bed for five days or even one day.

"Many single parents are really worried about what happens if they get sick with COVID-19. What if one of their children gets sick and ends up in hospital - what happens to the others? How can you be there for that child?

"There needs to be low-cost or no-cost support in place for these families.

"All these matters needed to be carefully thought through from a policy point of view and communicated."