Responding to increasing and changing client needs in crises

Content type
Short article

June 2021



During natural disasters and crises, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities require support. Additionally, many other families and children may need assistance for the first time. The COVID-19 pandemic is a recent example of a population-level crisis, where practitioners have been required to manage increasing demand and case complexity, as well as support a diverse range of people needing services. This short article provides an evidence summary of the impact COVID-19 had on service delivery, and what may help to support children and families during crises.

What is the impact of a crisis on service delivery?

COVID-19 brought with it significant changes to family life, with many people needing more help than they had before.1 In Australia, service providers across homelessness, rental support, family violence, alcohol and other drugs, and children and youth experienced increased demand.2,3,4,5,6 Community service organisations reported an increase in families seeking support for the first time.3,4,6,7,8

In addition, a broader range of people sought care during the pandemic, with more temporary workers, migrant and culturally and linguistically diverse communities and the elderly needing support.3,6 Service providers noted a change in client needs, many with issues of increased complexity (e.g. clients presenting with co-occurring issues such as domestic violence, mental health issues and financial stress).2,3

What does the evidence say about supporting service users in times of crises?

Research is still emerging on what has been working to support families and children during the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, a broad review of the evidence was best to capture what helps to support families and children during various types of crises. There is limited peer-reviewed research on what works to support service users; in particular, new service users in crises in the child, family and community welfare sector.9,10 The following considerations are drawn from guidelines, frameworks, reports from not-for-profit organisations and government inquiries on what has helped to support the changing needs of clients during crises.

Responding to urgent needs

During a crisis, it may be necessary to respond to the immediate needs of families and children affected and prioritise these over non-urgent needs.11,12, This is an important part of psychological first aid, which is considered best practice psychosocial support in the aftermath of a crisis. It helps individuals experiencing a crisis to cope and reduces their chances of developing mental health challenges.11,12,13 There are examples in the sector of shifting resources away from usual services to providing food and emergency accommodation or making welfare calls for clients.4,14 However, delaying usual services may risk increased demand for usual services in the future.4

Engaging and maintaining connections with new users

First-time users accessing emergency relief services can often experience feelings of shame or embarrassment.15 It is considered helpful for service providers to step new service users through their options and to take the time to understand individual or family contexts and their difficulties holistically.16 Continuity of service delivery is important and often challenging in crises, and engaging new users may require more frequent contact to achieve this.15,17 New users may initially rely on word of mouth from friends and relatives or for case workers to communicate what support is available.9,18

Considering mental health and collective trauma

Practitioners have a role in understanding how crises can affect the psychological health of families and children. Guidelines exist on how to support families and children’s mental health during and immediately after a traumatic event.19 Supporting parents and caregivers of children to respond to and support children experiencing post-traumatic symptoms can be effective in reducing the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder.19,20

Collective trauma occurs as a result of an event that damages the ties that bind communities together. Therefore, promoting a sense of connectedness is important during crises.21 Proactive messaging to promote social cohesion during crises is considered helpful.11


Crises can result in increasing and changing demands on service providers in the child, family and community welfare sector, requiring them to adapt their models of service delivery. There is limited evidence of what works for users during crises. Further understanding about how service providers engage with new users, compared to existing users, and what methods are effective, would be useful to engage and support them in crises.

Further reading and related resources


1. Budinski, M., Baxter, J., Carroll, M., & Hand K. (2020). Families in Australia Survey: Life during COVID-19. Report no. 3: Help and support. Retrieved from

2. State and Territory Alcohol and Other Drugs Peak Network. (2020). Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol and other drug service delivery. Retrieved from

3. Cortis, N., & Blaxland, M. (2020). Australia's community sector and COVID-19: Supporting communities through crisis. Strawberry Hills, NSW: Australian Council of Social Service. Retrieved from

4. Equity Economics. (2020). A wave of disadvantage across NSW: Impact of the Covid-19 recession. Sydney: New South Wales Council of Social Service. Retrieved from

5. Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education. (2020). Alcohol use and harm during COVID-19. Deakin, ACT: Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education. Retrieved from

6. Public Accounts and Estimates Committee. (2021). Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Melbourne: Parliament of Victoria.

7. Youth Council of the ACT. (2020). Communique: Early impact of COVID-19 on the ACT Youth and Family Sector. O’Connor, ACT: Youth Coalition of the ACT. Retrieved from

8. Carrington, K., Morley, C., Warren, S., Harris, B., Vitis, L., Ball, M. et al. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic and Family Violence Services: Research report. Brisbane: QUT Centre for Justice.

9. Brookfield, S., & Fitzgerald, L. (2018). Homelessness and natural disasters: The role of community service organisations. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 33, 62–68.

10. Harms, L., & Alston, M. (2018). Postdisaster social work: Invited commentary. Australian Social Work, 71(4), 386–391. Retrieved from

11. Brady, K., Randrianarisoa, A., & Richardson, J. (2018). Best practice guidelines: Supporting communities before, during and after collective trauma events. Carlton, Vic.: Australian Red Cross. Retrieved from

12. World Health Organization. (2011). Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers. Geneva: World Health Organization.

13. Inter-Agency Standing Committee. (2006). IASC guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. Geneva, Switzerland: Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

14. Community Housing Industry Association. (2020). Responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Surry Hills, NSW: Community Housing Industry Association. Retrieved from

15. Frederick, J., & Goddard, C. (2008). Sweet and sour charity: Experiences of receiving emergency relief in Australia. Australian Social Work, 61(3), 269–284.

16. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). Client voice framework for community services. Melbourne: Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

17. Lloyd, C. C., Shaw, S., & Holder, N. (2020). Supporting clients in under-resourced communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends. Retrieved from:

18. Gruhn, R. (2014). ‘Can you please help me? How can we live?’ Uniting Care’s emergency relief and crisis support for asylum seekers living in the community. Melbourne: UnitingCare Victoria and Tasmania. Retrieved from

19. Emerging Minds. (2018). A guide for health and social service workers: Supporting children’s mental health immediately following a disaster. Adelaide: Emerging Minds. Retrieved from

20. Berkowitz, S. J., Stover, C. S., & Marans, S. R. (2011). The child and family traumatic stress intervention: Secondary prevention for youth at risk of developing PTSD. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(6), 676–685.

21. Price-Robertson, R., & Knight, K. (2012). Natural disasters and community resilience: A framework for support (CFCA paper). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from