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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

We wore black... Now help Childline...

The Trinidad Guardian has an excellent article on this social support service, Childline, in their archives. Written in 2005 by Avalene Harris, the article synopsises an interview with the Line's current supervisor, Ayanna Gellineau.

A further search on the web for "Childline" in Trinidad & Tobago raises a web page hosted on the NALIS site. The information there still holds in large part, but for one major difference. That dufference is that Childine no longer enjoys the comfort of corporate sponsorship. This I was made to understand in my own interview with Ayanna before I embarked on my brief hiatus.

Although Atlantic LNG is indicated as main and full sponsor on the NALIS site, this was only so for the first two years of the Line's operation, 2002 and 2003. Since then they have received small grants from the Community Development Fund and the National Gas Company (NGC). At present, it takes hope and prayer to accumulate the $35,000 minimum that they need to keep the Line alive every month.

Ayanna reiterated the fact that Childline remains the only service in the country that caters specifically to children and young persons. The Line is a safe place that provides them with needed encouragement and guidance, and allows children to share ideas, ask questions and solicit advice without judgement or ridicule.

The Line is staffed by Ayanna herself and approximately 50 trained volunteers. Volunteer listeners are rostered two at a time to man the lines for eight hours in the day, from noon to 8:00 PM, Monday to Saturday. Ayanna, as the Line's only trained and experienced supervisor, works every shift, overseeing the volunteer's activity, and stepping in when a call becomes complex. From time to time, when things are busy, Ayanna also takes calls herself. However, it is really best that she remain available to assist and support the two volunteers.

Not all calls are difficult though. Some of the regular customers of the toll-free service at 800-4321 just reach out to chat for a while, to tell the Line's listeners about their own day, or to hear a story before bedtime. And the service does have regulars. In 2005, when for lack of funding, it was announced that the plug may have been pulled on the Line, they found themselves inundated with calls, begging that they do whatever they could to remain open. All of these calls were from children. In fact, such is the size of their client base, as it were, that Childline now has to use a caller database so that volunteer listeners can pick up quickly with a caller where another volunteer would have left off.

Sadly not all calls are for storytime or idle banter. Childline is there to listen when no-one else will hear or can hear a young person in trouble. Children call the Line for any number of difficult issues. The NALIS site lists several including separation and divorce, exam stress and other school issues, homelessness, pregnancy, issues of sexuality, relationship probems, financial issues, HIV/AIDS, and sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

Calls about child abuse though may come from both children and adults. Sometimes the child may know of the Line's existence and call for help themselves. Other times, a neighbour, family friend or another child will call out of concern. And the calls, or sequence of calls if it takes more than one, can be harrowing. Ayanna herself recalls that her very first call was from a terror-striken teenaged girl that had been raped by her father. He was soon to return home from prison and she feared that he would hurt her again. With seeming no-one else to talk to, she called the Line and through speedy intervention saw the matter referred to the Police. The young lady was further able to seek counselling from the Rape Crisis Centre.

That young girl included, when a child calls for help, extreme care is taken to counsel the child and guide them to sources of help. WhileChildline listeners counsel, the Line does not have the power to remove a child from an abusive situation themselves. As such, whether a trouble call is received from an adult or a child, the Line applies a multi-faceted approach to getting help for the aubject of the call.

In the case that a child calls, the first step is usually to get the child to also talk to a trusted adult, whether family or family friend. Once the Line has ascertained some degree of veracity in the call, the Police are contacted to report that a crime has been or is being committed. National Family Services are contacted to report that a child is in trouble and in an abusive situation. Further, contact is made with the child's school, as it is the responsibility of teachers to act on cases of suspected abuse in their charges. Further, the line works directly with a number of social support agencies, like the Rape Crisis Centre and Families in Action. As such, when a child needs help beyond what the Line can offer by listening and counselling, there tends to be an agency to which the young person can be guided and referred.

One significant, and scary, sign that the Line is making a difference is the odd threatening call that they will receive from abusers whose victims have reached out for help and are seeing assistance. This though is a major concern for Ayanna. It is one of the main reasons that the location of the Line's call centre is kept a secret.

While Childline has done yeoman service over the years, Ayanna's wishes though are to be able to do quite a lot more for the children and young people in the country. In order to be able to do that, some critical needs must be met.

Childline needs to become a 24-hour Operation

At present, Childline operates only eight hours a day, for six days a week, from noon to 8:00 pm. One might argue that children and young people should be in school or bed outside of those hours, but the fact is that children and young people can find themselves in crisis at any time and may need the Line outside of those hours. A toll free call to 800-4321 can be made by a child in trouble from any cell phone or pay phone at any time of day, and it is important that someone be there to hear their cry. In order for the Line to run for longer hours, key requirements will include:

  • Additional staff - To carry the service for longer hours, additional trained supervisors and listeners will be required to manage the available lines. One might think that the existing 50 volunteers is enough to manage the Line, but one needs to remember that the volunteer listeners are not recompensed for the work that they do, likely outside of their own salaried working hours, and that Childline has no real claim on their time.
  • Secure facilities - Security is right now a cause for concern for Ayanna and her team. The hope is that someone in corporate Trinidad & Tobago will extend a hand and provide access to either square footage in their secured premises, or to an existing call centre to which Childline's calls can be routed.
  • Help with the phone bill - One of the Line's major costs is for telecommunications. The toll free line has a cost. That cost mounts when they themselves must call in order to follow up on troubles calls that they've received. The less that the Line has to worry about this critical component of their operation is the more that they will be able to do for children and young people that reach out to the Line. Frankly, given the incumbent phone provider's ability to paint town green and queue up entertainers, beauty queens and sportsmen to speak on their behalf, I'm surprised that Childline still has this particular need.
  • Help with other operating expenditure - While the phone lines represent major expenditure, the Line has other expenditure items with which they need help. Rent is one. Further, something as simple as paper is another. Ayanna indicated that training for a class of new volunteers requires generation of training material, including a minimum 20-copies of a 50-page manual. That's two packs of letter-sized paper. The next training class is scheduled to take place in June 2006. Hint-Hint.

An Internet presense is required

Childline Online is more than just a whim; it is a necessity. With so many of our children and young people accessing the information superhighway, communicating via email and instant messaging, Childline needs to be where young people today are most comfortable interacting with others. This would require a web page presence, email access for the Line, and instant messaging or chat room services for young people to communicate with Childline's pool of listeners. Again, corporate sponsorship and volunteer assistance would help with development of this communication vehicle, including provision of the web presence, provision of computers with the required services configured and installed, and ongoing technical support to keep the electronic channel open.

Childline needs to be a household name

Childline has saved many a young person. And even more can be done if Childline were as widely known as, say, CrimeStoppers or the Rape Crisis Centre. If every child in Trinidad & Tobago knew that 800-4321 was the number that they could call if they were scared or in trouble, we know not how mamy more could be saved. On top of everything, Childline needs exposure. All that they need is one ad agency doing a charity job to pull together a compelling campaign, and the youth-focussed media sponsoring a few square inches of newspaper column space or some air time.

Any help is still help, no matter how seeming small... Their office number is 624-0402

Call and find out where they need. Pay for two reams of paper at your nearest stationery shop on their behalf, and call them to pick it up. Ask for their account number and commit to deposit your lunch money once a week. Corporate Trinidad & Tobago, stop paying lip service and show that you really do care about what is happening to our youth. Make partial payment on their phone costs. Offer them a room and three or four desks so that they have somewhere else to answer the children's calls. Stop yammering about needing guns to shoot the children and do something to keep them from reaching for guns themselves. By our inaction, we all condemn the next generaton of young people to doom. Childline stands in the gap to keep that from happening, and to save as many as they can from lives of abuse, crime and condemnation. Help them to help the rest of us, especially the children.

And again, if anything at all, just spread the word.

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