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The people who help NI children face the ordeal of giving evidence in court

Taking the stand can be daunting for young people who have been victims of crime, but they are not alone. As the NSPCC appeals for volunteers for its Youth Witness Service, Stephanie Bell talks to two women who support the youngsters in the courtroom

A unique service which supports young victims of crime facing the ordeal of having to relive their trauma as witnesses in court is calling for volunteers.

The NSPCC is launching a drive next month to persuade people to sign up as volunteers for their Young Witness Service which supports children and young people when giving evidence in court.

The charity recognised many years ago that going into court can be distressing for anyone - and even more so for children who have been through something as horrific as sexual abuse.

The service was piloted in 1999 to support young witnesses in Belfast Crown Court cases only. It has evolved over the years to cover every court in Northern Ireland including Crown, magistrate and youth courts.

Trained volunteers support children and their families throughout the court process from start to finish, helping them through the often traumatic experience of having to give evidence.

The service is also the first in the UK and Ireland to use an assistance dog to help put the children at ease. Connie, an adorable black labrador, is Northern Ireland's only 'Court Dog' and was provided to the service by Assistance Dogs NI who train therapy dogs for children with autism.

Billy explains: "Connie has been working with us for about 18 months. There is a lot of waiting about in court, particularly in big crown court cases, and Connie sits with the children in the waiting area.

"She is especially helpful for very young children or children on the autism spectrum as she takes the focus away from the child and allows the child to relax.

"She doesn't go into the video room with the children but the children know she is there waiting for them when they come out."

Last year alone volunteers supported 549 children across Northern Ireland and have worked with almost 2,000 children and young people in the last three years.

Volunteer co-ordinator of the scheme Billy Eagleson explains its significance. "For young people who have been victims of crime, going to court to talk about what happened to them can add to the trauma they've already suffered," he says.

"We support all young people under the age of 18 who give evidence via video link.

"Our volunteers stay with them throughout the case, supporting them and trying to advocate on their behalf so that they are not further damaged by the case and it is also about making sure their needs are provided for.

"It can be a demanding role and is not for everybody, which is the challenge for us in recruiting volunteers.

"We are putting a call out for volunteers - people who could be available during court hours which are 9am-5pm.

"It is a role that especially suits retired police officers, social workers, teachers and people with great interest in the welfare of children."

The volunteer recruitment process takes the form of a written application form and interview. Volunteers will take part in eight days' initial training followed by an induction and shadowing period that forms part of the recruitment and selection process. All volunteers are fully supported by a named supervisor when undertaking the role and receive regular one-to-one and group supervisions.

Training will take place in November. If you think you could be there for a child through this challenging time, you can find out more by visiting or calling Billy Eagleson on 028 9448 7568

'We are there to try and put the children at ease'

Worthwhile work: Barbara Carlisle

Barbara Carlisle (68), a retired nurse from Belfast, is a widow with two grown-up children and five grandchildren. Barbara worked at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children for over 40 years.

She says:

My nursing career started in 1966 and I worked in a lot of areas in the Royal, spending most of my time in paediatrics and the last 20 years in the children’s cancer unit. I retired in 2009 after about 43 years in nursing and then worked for 3fivetwo Healthcare for six years at Kingsbridge Hospital.

It was my hairdresser who mentioned the Young Witness Service to me, as she thought it would be something I would be interested in. I felt I needed to do some voluntary work and, with this service, I thought I could use my experience working with children and their families.

The training was very thorough and informative, and I think if anyone is thinking of volunteering and is unsure, the training will help them to decide if it is something they could do.

I try to be available to do three or four days a month at the magistrates’ court in Belfast, from 9.30am until about 3pm.

When you are nursing in the children’s cancer unit you are not just caring for the children but also the families — and with this service you are also supporting the children and their parents.

You are there to try and divert the child and family from what is going on. You are only given basic information about the case, which is all you need, and I don’t know until I go into the video room with the child what the details are.

You are conscious that these children have been through an ordeal, and the court case is another ordeal, so we are there to try and put them at their ease and we play games with them.

You get a mixture of children — some are very nervous and some are quite confident.

I do get satisfaction from it and have found it very rewarding. Just to be able to help people and sit alongside them and make things easier for them makes me feel I am doing something worthwhile.

I’ve been in the caring profession all my life and it is lovely when people say thank you and tell you that you have helped them. It has made me feel that I can still be of use and give support to people going through a stressful experience. I am not ready to sit in the corner yet.

I would definitely encourage others to think about it and I have persuaded a few friends to volunteer.

The staff at the NSPCC are fantastic and really make you feel welcome and appreciate everything you do.”

'It is very interesting and challenging work'

Rewarding role: Jennifer Hobson is a volunteer

Jennifer Hobson (65), a widow from Dungannon, was awarded an MBE in 2015 for her work with the NSPCC. Jennifer, a retired English teacher, has been a volunteer with the Young Witness Service for seven years. She is also chairperson of the NSPCC Dungannon fund raising committee.

She says:

I am passionate about the charity. I attend the regional forums and also the Central Task Meetings in London representing Northern Ireland. I was an English teacher and taught for 35 years in the Boys’ Model in Belfast, Drumglass High School and the Royal School in Dungannon.

My late husband was a GP and when we moved back to Dungannon from Belfast in 1980 it was the done thing then for GPs’ wives to get involved with the NSPCC. I joined the local committee and it was all very different then. There would have been one man in the area working for the charity who was known as ‘the cruelty man’. The work then was focused very much on child cruelty and neglect.

The charity has changed tremendously from then and is now a massive organisation. When I retired at 58 I wanted to do something voluntary and I’ve always enjoyed pastoral care. I was the designated protection teacher in school and so the Young Witness Service appealed to me.

I found the training very good and my role has been to support young witnesses in courts. It is up to yourself how much or how little time you give it and I try to do several days a month.

For Crown Court cases you have to allow three days, whereas a magistrate’s case will be dealt with in one day.

I find it very rewarding. You go in and you are focused on the young person and trying to establish a rapport with them and talking to them and trying to advise them on giving their evidence.

You are trying to keep them calm and focused for when they go into that TV link room to give their evidence.

It is horrendous in the sense that very often the assault or event has taken place one-and-a-half to two years before the court case and the young people have to relive that awful event.

Some are naturally very uptight and emotional and find it very intense while others just know that the attack was wrong and they just want to give their evidence to protect other people and that goes for young people from the age of eight years right up to 17. It gives you a great sense of pride in our young people.

For anyone considering volunteering I would say that, firstly, they will find it very interesting and it does challenge you but you will be trained and well supported.

There is a wide variety of people it would suit, not just retired people but young people who want to be able to put it on their CV.

You are supporting a young person who is going through a very scary experience and it is gently rewarding to be able to do that.

It has given me an insight into the justice system and allowed me to try and help a child at what is a very stressful time. I would definitely encourage others to sign up.”

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