Belfast Telegraph

25,000 young people turn to ChildLine each year... and experts warn it's tip of iceberg

By Victoria O'Hara

The number of calls about child cruelty or abuse received by NSPCC counsellors in Northern Ireland jumped by more than 8% in the year after the Jimmy Savile scandal broke.

The Belfast Telegraph can today reveal that 25,000 children – some as young as six – contacted the charity's ChildLine operators here for counselling between 2012 and 2013.

In shock figures released to this newspaper by the charity, which campaigns to end child cruelty, the NSPCC revealed that the calls it received from the public reporting possible cases of serious abuse or child cruelty jumped by 8.5% in the 12 months after Savile's crimes against children were exposed.

The statistics also showed that:

* ChildLine counselling sessions between 2012 and 2013 about self-harm jumped by 75%, while calls about suicide rose by 45%.

* Counselling about online bullying spiked by 88%.

* The NSPCC's own helpline logged 750 calls from the public fearing for the safety of children in 2012/13 – an increase of 8.5% over the previous year.

* There were 424 calls involving 713 children which were deemed so serious by ChildLine they were referred to the PSNI or social services. This was a jump of 20% compared to 353 cases in 2011/12.

* A quarter (27%) of callers who suspected incidents of cruelty waited over six months before raising concerns about cases which were so serious, they ultimately had to be referred on to children's services or the police.

The charity has warned that the cases reported are "just the tip of the iceberg".

The NSPCC has two call centres in Northern Ireland, which are staffed by counsellors trained to deal with serious problems.

The centres, in Londonderry and Belfast, take calls from all over the UK, although efforts are always made to put a child or caller through to someone in their own region. The charity also runs a service centre in Craigavon.

The Belfast Telegraph is this week running a series looking behind the scenes of the NSPCC's work here.

A further breakdown of the research showed that ChildLine counsellors in 2012/2013 handled 25,820 sessions in Northern Ireland– 25,030 of these were with young people.

But a further 790 young people contacted the service with concerns about another child.

The majority of the cases that led to referrals were from members of the public concerned about the safety of children – not family members or professionals.

ChildLine said the top concerns dealt with by counsellors in Northern Ireland were firstly relationships, then depression and unhappiness, followed by bullying/online bullying, then self-harm and suicidal issues.

The majority of calls come from children aged 10 and older – but children as young as six and seven have used the helpline.

Caroline Holloway, manager of NSPCC's Craigavon Service Centre – which provides direct help to children and families across the region – said it was vital that people report their fears of children being abused.

"Noting that recent news stories have brought the issue of sexual abuse firmly into the public consciousness, nothing surprises staff who work with local children," she said.

Ms Holloway referred to revelations about Savile, the BBC presenter who used his fame to exploit hundreds of young and vulnerable people. He is believed to have been one of the UK's most prolific paedophiles.

She also referred to a PSNI investigation launched into claims that 22 vulnerable young people in care were abused.

"While every revelation comes as a blow to us all – and is emotionally harrowing for staff working in this area – the actual prevalence and under-reporting of sexual abuse is an unpalatably familiar truth," she said.

The new figures are due to be published in the full report – NSPCC Helpline In Northern Ireland April 2012-March 2013: A briefing Paper – next month.

The NSPCC's ongoing Changing Childhoods appeal, which aims to protect and safeguard children, says that abuse is much more prevalent and under-reported than most people acknowledge.

Ms Holloway added: "It's important when we see news stories about particular pockets of abuse, that we recognise that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

"The vast majority of child abuse goes unreported, meaning that how we respond to these scandals has a huge impact on victims who fear to break their silence."

Head of NSPCC for Northern Ireland, Neil Anderson, said it was vital for people to make the call.

"People want to act but, despite increasing awareness of the prevalence of child abuse, we are finding that members of the public are still hesitant.

"Most callers to our helpline are members of the public, but no matter who you are I would encourage you to contact us with any concerns.

"Don't wait until you're certain to make that call."

'Sometimes I wished I was dead'

Tyrone man Shane was first subjected to sexual abuse aged nine after his family moved back to Northern Ireland:

"I moved to a small, clannish school where they all knew each other. I didn't really fit in and I was bullied," he said.

"There was one person who was friendly – my cousin. He was older, by five or six years, and he took me under his wing. He was the only person that really accepted me, and he babysat me a lot, too. There was a bit of what I now know to be grooming at the start. He'd just be really friendly, claimed to share my music interests and that sort of thing.

"When it started, there were so many things I didn't understand about life here, that I didn't really know what was happening or that it was wrong. I hate to think that now, but then I just accepted it.

"I didn't see him for a couple of years because my parents didn't need him to babysit. Then I hit my teenage years and I was just really angry. I was being aggressive to my parents, running away from home, smoking, drinking and doing occasional drugs. Then, when I eventually saw him around more, I began thinking about it and I started to remember.

"I knew by then that what he'd done was wrong, but I was too afraid to say. It's what everyone thinks – 'Will anyone believe me?', especially when you've been a horrible teenager.

"I probably thought about it for another year before I said anything – during that year I spent the whole summer from school getting drunk and having screaming arguments with my parents. It was after one of those fights I went down to the river one night and sat there for a few hours, thinking about it all. Then I came home and wrote a letter to my mum, explaining everything that had happened and apologising for the way I'd been."

With his family's support Shane took his case to the PSNI, which secured convictions, with gross indecency and indecent assault among the charges,

"During that time my parents came across an NSPCC leaflet and asked could they help me. It took me a while to go there too, because the more people you talk to the more real it becomes.

"I'm so glad I did. I couldn't have done it without the support of the NSPCC therapeutic team. There were times I would rather have been dead than breathing. Talking to somebody – that's a big part of the reason why I'm still here."

Now a father himself, Shane is emphatic that anyone suffering should reach out for help.

'The kids saw awful lot of my abuse'

Marie began a relationship with partner, Darren when she was 16. The relationship lasted six years and they had three children together – the first when she was 19.

"Three days before my 17th birthday was the first time Darren ever hit me, and it wasn't a hit – it was a headbutt on the nose. He left me with a big cut and two black eyes.

"Sometimes it was the drugs that set him off, but not always. One time, when our first baby Paul was just a few months old, we were in the car and he was crying. I pulled over to try to settle him, but when we got back in the car and drove off he just punched me in the face. It was because I'd looked at another man on the road.

"It was a couple of days before my 21st birthday and I was pregnant with my second baby, Lauren. He beat me, wouldn't let me go to bed, and wouldn't let me put Paul to bed or even feed him. On the fourth day my mum ended up phoning. This time I said 'I've had enough'.

"She turned up, saw me standing in my dressing gown covered in bruises, with the child's yoghurt thrown all over my leather jacket, went round the corner and phoned the police. That was him taken away.

"He'd been out one night with his mates and I came down the stairs the next morning and saw blue tablets all over the floor at the back door. I asked him to pick them up, so he started beating me with the hoover and threw my head against the kitchen floor. My mum phoned, I told her what had happened, and the next thing the police came through the door. He attacked six police officers and was taken away. That was the end of it for me.

"The kids saw an awful lot, even since they were babies. My eldest used to climb up on me and crawl over me when I was getting hit, to try and stop it.

"The NSPCC helped my eldest work through the difficult memories and experiences he had suffered since he was a baby. They knew when he did and didn't want to talk. The work they did with him was really good. I think it all helped him – and us – to understand and deal with what all had happened. They give advice, but at the end of the day respect that I know my children best. For anyone who's living with this all I'd say is 'get out' – there's lots of help out there."

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