Childline: ‘We get silent calls... after a while, we may hear a little cry or sigh at the other end’
As Childline marks 30 years of service, Celine Naughton speaks to volunteers about their experiences with the charity
For 30 years, it has been a safe haven for Irish children to turn to when they feel no one else is listening. And now, with Childline experiencing unprecedented demand for its service, averaging over 1,000 contacts per day, the charity is urging more people to join its army of volunteers and help children in need.
Mother-of-two Lisa O'Doherty became a volunteer six years ago.
"I believe that children have the right to be heard," she says. "Whatever they're going through, they need to be listened to and feel understood.
"I typically take about 20 calls in a four-hour shift. I take off my mammy hat and use the skills I've been taught. Some calls can be distressing, particularly those about neglect or sexual abuse, but there are always mentors and supervisors at work, so if I need support, I'll talk to them, then go home and give my kids a big hug."
Julie Dorgan, who is studying for a master's degree in psychology at University College Cork, has been a Childline volunteer for 18 months.
"I first heard about Childline at college and thought it was a very important service and wanted to be part of it," she says. "It's a privilege to talk to kids about the things that matter to them, and it's hugely rewarding work.
"We come across some harrowing cases of neglect, sexual and physical abuse, substance abuse and other serious issues. We can never predict what the next call will bring, but we're trained to be prepared for anything. Some kids call just to have a chat. Whatever they want to talk about is fine. They know that we believe them, we trust them, and their calls are completely confidential. Above all, it's a listening service, and that makes Childline a safe space for young people, 24 hours a day.
"We don't offer advice or tell them what to do, and that's very empowering for a child. Often they have the answers themselves, but they need to talk things over first before deciding how they want to move forward."
Since its first call in 1988, Childline has answered more than six million calls. Last year, it received over 400,000 contacts from children via telephone, text and online. And while the nature of calls remains largely unchanged, today's social media generation faces pressures unheard of three decades ago.
"Bullying used to be something that happened on the street or in the playground, and you could escape it when you closed your front door," says National Childline Manager Margie Roe. "Now it follows children everywhere. Kids can also accidentally come across violent or graphic adult content, or come under peer pressure to post things they wouldn't normally do. It can skew their sense of what relationships are about."
The ISPCC-run charity urges parents to be vigilant about monitoring their children's online activity. Parents need to set clear boundaries and stick with them, it says. Check the security settings on children's and family devices, block inappropriate content, and do not allow devices in the bedroom.
The move to text and online services is in direct response to a generation that's growing up more used to communicating on Snapchat and Instagram than speaking on a phone.
"We wanted to give children a choice of the medium they use to connect with us," says Margie. "With the support of Vodafone, we're developing a digital platform to deliver a faster service."
Of those who use the traditional telephone line, 69pc are boys, while 69pc of online users are girls. And across all platforms, almost one child out of every 10 (9pc) calls to discuss mental health issues, including self-harm, anxiety, eating disorders, loneliness and suicide ideation.
"Others may be confused about their sexuality, or feel under pressure to have sex before they're ready," says Margie. "We go to schools and tell children that they can talk to us about anything. It's an honour that they trust us, and when they get the reassurance they need, it often gives them confidence to go on to talk to mum or dad, a teacher or other trusted adult.
"Sometimes we get silent calls, in which case we explain very gently that whatever the caller says is confidential, and we're not judging, just listening. After a while, we may hear a little cry or a sigh at the other end, as the child tries to get up the courage to talk, but is still too scared.
"It can be tough work, and we have mentors and supervisors present, both for child protection and to offer support to volunteers. All calls are taken in our offices, with the team in place to give that extra layer of protection for everyone involved."
The process of recruitment starts with an information evening where potential volunteers can find out what's required, the commitment involved, and what training and support systems are in place. Those who wish to take it further are invited to an interview, which usually takes 30 to 40 minutes. The next stage is Garda vetting and references, following which the majority of candidates are invited to participate in a training programme. Those who complete training spend time shadowing existing volunteers at supervised sessions before they start to take calls on their own.
"Childline volunteers are very self-aware, and we always say 'remember your remit'," says Margie. "You can't wave a magic wand, but you can listen, validate what the child is saying and empathise. You're not a hero. You can't save a child from experiencing whatever he or she is going through, but you can support the child through a difficult time.
"It's not about what the volunteer needs. You have to leave your own feelings on the back burner and focus on the child.
"Like doctors and nurses who do a professional job, our volunteers have to switch off at the end of their shift and not take the work home with them. They can talk to one of our mentors or supervisors if they've had a difficult call.
"We also provide a counselling service for volunteers, whether they want to talk about work-related matters, or something separately going on in their own lives.
"We have six units in Dublin, Drogheda, Cork, Limerick, Mayo and Galway, and in every one there's a team working together, supporting the children and each other," Margie adds.
"Currently 75pc of calls to Childline are answered. Sadly, that leaves one in four children not getting through. It takes a lot of courage for a young person to contact Childline. The last thing they need is not to get through. We need more volunteers to make sure that every call is answered."
For further information, check out the Childline volunteering page on ispcc.ie/volunteer.