Tuesday 19 November 2019

The women who wait for a phone call when a child goes missing...

There to listen: Margie Roe, left, manager of the recently launched 116 000 Missing Children's Hotline, and Carol O'Reilly, one of the ISPCC staff who answers calls for the free service
There to listen: Margie Roe, left, manager of the recently launched 116 000 Missing Children's Hotline, and Carol O'Reilly, one of the ISPCC staff who answers calls for the free service

Graham Clifford

It's a parent's worst nightmare – the moment when they realise their child is missing. Last year, more than 5,000 reports of missing children were made to the gardaí, and while all but a handful of those cases resulted in the child being found, the anguish experienced by family members was hellish.

Now the ISPCC has set up a free hotline to provide emotional support for adults who might have a child missing, as well as active listening to children who are considering running away from home.

Missing since 1986: Philip Cairns
Missing since 1986: Philip Cairns

The 116 000 Missing Children's Hotline will be manned 365 days a year, with 24-hour assistance for those in need.

At the charity's offices on Lower Baggot Street, I meet Margie Roe, the manager of the service, and Carol O'Reilly, one of the ISPCC staff who takes calls on the Missing Children's Hotline.

Both are vastly experienced in the field of active listening, having worked for years with the ISPCC's Childline service.

Margie, who's also a mother to three and grandmother to four, feels that her own life experience helps her understand the pressures which exist in a home and which can result in a young person running away.

"I know how difficult it can be to be a parent sometimes and how things are said which aren't meant. But then I've never forgotten what it's like to be a child and a teenager as well – I think you need to be able to remember in order to empathise with young people and understand how emotions can run very high."

As Carol explains, the first task of an operator on the hotline is to assess if the child is at any risk.

If they are dealing with a missing child case, it must be reported to the gardaí in the first instance – support can be given through the hotline afterwards.

"We have to be prepared for every scenario, really, but the key is to make sure the child is safe.

"We'd have children who have already run away, those who are considering it, parents whose child is missing, others who fear their son or daughter is about to leave and so on. Some of the most difficult cases come where one parent has taken a child abroad leaving the other parent behind."

It's 27 years since 13-year-old schoolboy Philip Cairns disappeared on the afternoon of October 23, 1986, while walking to school in Rathfarnham.

The most high-profile missing child case in Irish history, his whereabouts are still unknown despite exhaustive investigations by the gardaí.

Six days after his disappearance, Philip's school bag was located by two girls in a lane close to his house. It had already been searched, but the bag was not there at that time. It's a case that shocked the nation.

Thankfully, though, in almost all missing children cases here, the young person is tracked down within 48 hours.

Carol O'Reilly and her colleagues do their best to gently encourage the young person on the other end of the line to find a different solution to their problems rather than leaving home. "If they're thinking about running away, we reality-check them. We find out if they have somewhere safe to go and we ask what their understanding of 'safe' is. Sometimes, some young people may have a bizarre idea of what safe is.

"They may believe that they will be safer on the streets but may not be aware of the risks out there. By listening and advising, we hope to get them thinking about their situation – sometimes they may decide that running away isn't the answer."

More than 100 operators have been specially trained to take calls on the Missing Children's Hotline, which is supported by the Department of Children and Youth affairs, and the ISPCC expects to receive about 2,000 calls in its first 12-month period.

Soft voices fill the call centre and those taking calls appear to be the personification of calmness.

"Sometimes, we might get a young person who's committed some act of bravado before running away and now they're afraid of going home with their tail between their legs," explains Margie.

"We never, ever judge them but unpack their worry and let them know their rights. It's vital we stay calm, positive and always supportive.

"If parents consent, a text message can be sent to a missing child's mobile phone informing them of the hotline number and the service it provides."

Margie adds: "Of course, there are times when a young person might be being abused or in a violent situation and, in that case, we do everything we can to make sure they know who to contact to get help.

"At the end of the day, the children who call us can be scared, and they might just need a calm and reassuring adult to speak with to help work through their problems."

Irish Independent

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