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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 23 October, 2014

Opinion: Childline is at breaking point – who else will listen to vulnerable children?

Childline should be expanding. Instead we’re faced with the awful possibility that a child calling in desperation might have no one to answer their call.

Image: Alexander Trinitatov via Shutterstock

IN THE WAKE of the scandals last year about the behaviour of certain organisations in the charity sector, the already difficult fundraising environment soured even further as public trust in charities dwindled. As has been reported, this drop in funding from the public, if the trend continues, will inevitably hamper the ability of the ISPCC to provide the vital Childline service on the 24-hour basis that it has been proud to do for the last 15 years.

As a Childline volunteer, I see first-hand the necessity not only for a service like Childline to be provided to our country’s children—I also see the importance of the service being available 24 hours a day, given the nature of some of the calls that the 450 other Childline volunteers and I answer.

Children know they will be taken seriously

We get calls from children during school hours about bullying, needing to tell someone but not feeling like they can go to the teacher. There are calls when children have some good news, but their parents aren’t home to speak to them. We speak to children in the middle of the night when they’re too worried about the next day to sleep. In all of these cases the children get the message that they will be taken seriously and that there’s always someone at the other end of the phone to talk to.

Childline is special in that we don’t tell children what to do, but are there to listen without judgment and allow children to make their own plans. Childline volunteers express concern and inform children of their right to be safe if we believe them to be at risk, and can point them towards further information sources if they ask. In some cases, we facilitate reporting to a social worker or the Gardaí, either if the child wants to, or if we have reason to believe that abuse is taking place and we know who they are.

Many of the calls you get can have positive endings. I answered a call from a boy who has been self-harming. He has a loving family and ordinarily does well in school, but felt he couldn’t seek help without burdening his family who were experiencing other difficulties. He spoke frankly about his situation, explicitly saying the only reason he could was the confidential nature of Childline—if he told anyone else he was sure it would get back to his parents. In the end he decided he would seek help, and we discussed how and when he might broach it with his parents. Whether he did or not, I will never know. I do know that he hung up the phone reassured that he could call back any time to talk some more, if he was ready to seek other help or not.

Silent calls

We get lots of instant hang-ups. And we get silent calls, sometimes with a sob or a sniffle, and sometimes with nothing. I was trained to take the opportunity of a silent call to reassure the caller that Childline is completely confidential, non-judgmental and non-directive. I give them plenty of time to see if they’d like to talk, or can redirect them to the texting and online chat services that Childline also runs. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to remind them that they can always call back whenever they are ready to talk.

I got one call, silent for over three minutes before the girl spoke after I gave all those reassurances. Her mam had been hitting her regularly for a while, but that day had beaten her so severely that she had bruises on her face. She sounded like she was under her covers, and went quiet for periods when she thought her mam might hear. She thought her mam had the right to severely beat her. She thought that if she told her teachers they wouldn’t believe her. Before she hung up abruptly—I’ll never know why, or what happened afterwards—she heard that someone was concerned about her, she was told her rights to be safe and to be believed if she reported, and she knew that she could call again any time.

A child calling in desperation

Childline should be expanding. The service currently answers about two of every three calls it receives, which is good compared to equivalent services in other countries, but certainly shows room for improvement. There are a great number of people eager to volunteer their time, but it costs money to train them to the high standard required before they can answer calls and it costs money to keep the phone centres around the country open.

We should be looking at a situation where the text and online services, which currently operate from 10am to 10pm, are moving to 24-hour operation. Instead we’re faced with the awful possibility that a child calling in desperation—looking for someone to listen to them, looking for someone to believe them, looking for someone to help them—might have no one to answer their call.

John Hyland has been a volunteer for the ISPCC’s Childline service since the start of this year.

  • Childline can be reached free of charge, 24 hours a day at 1800 666 666
  • Childline’s free text service runs from 10am to 10pm, text “talk” to 50101
  • Childline’s online chat service runs from 10am to 10pm, accessible at www.childline.ie

You can volunteer at www.ispcc.ie/volunteer or donate at www.ispcc.ie/donate

Read: ‘We’ve told children we’re here for them 24/7 – if charity crisis continues we won’t be’

Read: Childline is at “breaking point” as donations continue to plummet

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