Childline could answer only one in five calls it received last year. But that was twice as good as in 2001, now the service is determined todo even better. Yvonne Gordon reports.
In February last year, Childline, the telephone service that listens to children, released statistics about the calls it had received. A new logging system revealed that, on average, more than 2,000 calls a day were made to the service. It also revealed that, of the 735,630 calls made to Childline the previous year, only 70,334 were answered. That it was answering less than 10 per cent of calls was described by Childline as "distressing for all involved" and "a real challenge".
"We always knew that we weren't taking all of our calls, because every time we put the phone down it would ring," says Áine Lynch, manager of Childline, which was set up in February 1988 by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "Children would tell us that they tried to ring for ages before they could get through."
So Childline, whose 24-hour freephone listening service, similar to that of the Samaritans, is manned by ISPCC staff and trained volunteers, announced a series of initiatives. It included commissioning an independent review of the service, trying to attract new volunteers and establishing regional answering stations. At the time, Mary Hanafin, the Minister for Children, allocated €45,000 to fund the review, which is being conducted by the Children's Research Centre at Trinity College in Dublin.
"We put resources into the service to recruit and train more volunteers," says Lynch. "As well as that, the new telephone system could tell us when our busiest times were, so we could divert resources to times when children were trying to get through." Its busiest period was each evening, when children were home from school. This was also the easiest time to get volunteers, as they had finished work for the day.
This year's breakdown of call figures showed that, on average, more than 1,250 calls a day were made in 2002, of which one in five was answered. Although Childline was heartened by how many more calls it had been able to answer, it admitted it was still worried about calls that had gone unanswered. It was committed, it said, to trying to answer all calls.
Lynch says recruiting volunteers and manning Childline more strategically have been the keys to answering more calls. Childline is also receiving fewer calls overall: now children are getting through more quickly, they don't need to call as many times.
So who is calling Childline and why? Last year, 90 per cent of Childline's calls were from under-18s, 63 per cent of whom were female. Of 2002's 53,632 answered calls, 31 per cent involved young people getting to know the service, and 18 per cent were young people talking about everyday issues. The remaining 51 per cent were from young people who wanted to talk about a specific problem. Of these, 9 per cent concerned sexual issues, 4 per cent physical abuse, 4 per cent sexual abuse and 4 per cent pregnancy.
When Childline Ireland started, it was modelled on Childline in the UK: a helpline for hurt children. Now, however, Childline in Ireland emphasises "active listening" and encourages children to ring and talk about anything. "Sometimes, children may feel that their problem is not big enough to ring with if we advertise it as a helpline and a problem line," says Lynch. "A child being bullied at school may think, well, Childline's for really serious abuse."
Lynch says a lot of children wouldn't pick up a phone and start talking straight away about something awful that's happening to them, but they might confide in someone after they've talked to them a couple of times.
So what happens when a child rings with a serious problem? Childline is confidential: if callers do not disclose who they are, Childline's volunteers will just talk and listen. If a child gives them identifying information, however, they aim to help them to do it in an informed way. "We'd empower the child to make that decision. It's not into tricking a child to give us the information."
Has the focus of calls been changing? "Over the last couple of years we've noticed an increase - not significant but it's slowly creeping up - on loneliness and depression with children. This fits into what you hear around other issues in society, around young people being isolated, the drink culture, the rise of suicides, that sort of thing. Last year we would have noticed a significant increase in alcohol use."
Childline says more children are calling to say that they or their families have problems with alcohol use: there were 125 calls in 2001 and 210 in 2002.
The figures also reflect a worrying trend of confusion, lack of information and premature sexualisation of young people. A marked increase in the number of calls about sexual issues, Childline says, reflects not only a lack of information and support but also an increase in sexual pressures on young people.
Lynch says this does not mean that younger children are having sex but that children ringing with queries about sexual activity are now as young as 10 to 13; previously they would have been from 14 to 17. "A lot of the information children are getting now about sexual activity would be from the media, and that's not a problem if it's done in a responsible way," says Lynch, "but if they're getting it from films and soaps, the problem is that it's a one-way street. They get the information but they've nowhere to ask questions."
Being blasted with information without being able to have a dialogue can cause confusion and misinformation, says Lynch. Often children ring and ask sexual questions that they don't understand or say they have been engaged in sexual activity that they don't understand. "We feel that's putting children in a very vulnerable situation, because they have the language but they don't have the knowledge behind it, and we would see that as a worrying trend."
Childline's approach to any type of call is to listen to the child and to find people in the community who the child could turn to, such as parents, a teacher or a youth worker. "Childline doesn't want to create a situation where, if a child is in difficulty, the only person they have to turn to is Childline," says Lynch. "We explore with them the different support systems that they have in their community. We would always go down the parent line first, but if the parent isn't available we would look for other support that the child may have in their lives."
Lynch is careful to point out that Childline's statistics reflect the children who ring Childline rather than children in general. "It wouldn't be accurate to say that these are trends of children in Ireland, because there are a lot of children that don't ring us," she says.
"Any figure we release we believe to be accurate. We don't try and turn them, to give us different messages, because at the end of the day they are real children ringing in with their issues, and we don't want to misrepresent that in any way."
Childline is organising a 450km fund-raising cycle around Ireland at the end of May and needs sponsors. Volunteers are also needed in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin; full training is provided. To sponsor the cycle, make a donation or get information about volunteering, call the ISPCC at 01-6794944.