Belfast Telegraph

Victims and Survivors Service gets 500 calls a week - and has only six staff to deal with them

During one month alone this year phone calls from people seeking help and support totalled more than 4,200
During one month alone this year phone calls from people seeking help and support totalled more than 4,200

By Noel McAdam

The Victims and Survivors Service is currently handling around 500 telephone calls every week, its new boss has revealed.

And during one month alone this year phone calls from people seeking help and support totalled more than 4,200.

Despite the level of demand, there are only six members of staff to deal with the flood of calls, an Assembly committee was told.

The calls range from simple requests for information to distressing cries for help, which can take several hours for staff to deal with.

In many cases callers dropped out of the system because their call could not be answered immediately.

People are not immediately accepted as victims and survivors when they present themselves. They are each given a formal assessment.

When new applicants arrive, staff explain what support is currently available. The callers are not required to give details about why they have not come forward before now, but they are asked to submit a brief application form and any supporting documentation.

They are told any support they might receive will depend on the budget for the 'individual needs programme', which is limited at present under the Stormont budget cuts.

All applications are checked to ensure the eligibility of the applicant, who will have to provide supporting documentation such as confirmation they are in receipt of a carer's allowance, or a letter from their GP to confirm that their injuries are conflict-related.

The definition of 'victims and survivors' is outlined in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The legislation says they must be "someone who is/has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of a conflict-related incident; someone who provides a substantial amount of care for an individual physically or psychologically injured; or someone who has been bereaved as a result of a conflict-related incident".

VSS interim chairman Oliver Wilkinson told MLAs: "We have approximately 500 telephone calls per week. That could be someone who is making a quick telephone call to say 'can you send out some information', but equally it could be someone who is very distressed and needs very careful handling on a lengthy telephone call.

"In addition, and what people often miss, is that at least 50 people each week walk in from the street. We have not met maybe 60% of those people before. We do not know who the individual is or what level of distress they are bringing with them.

"In a certain month we dealt with over 4,200 telephone calls that came into the centre. We have six people dedicated to dealing with those. There were occasions when we simply were not able to deal with the call, so we were having people ring and then drop off."

All those who come forward are required to undergo an individual needs review. It was being reported by part-time assessors in Londonderry that they were carrying out 14 individual assessments a week at one point.

Many people were reportedly being put off seeking help in the past because of the nature of the review system, and last year the Victims Commission acknowledged concerns over the possibility that the assessment process was discouraging victims and survivors from coming forward.

The VSS opened its doors in April 2012 as part of a major shake-up in the victims' system, but subsequently came under severe criticism from former Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who said it was "not fit for purpose".

The VSS was then given a major overhaul and figures showed that 1,400 individual needs reviews had been completed by July last year - with betweeen 20-30% requiring specialised psychological interventions.

In relation to incidents directly related to the Troubles, individuals can receive payments of up to £1,500 for a range of measures, such as injections, counselling, physiotherapy, heating and electricity, and home decoration and adaptations.

Normally VSS accepts invoices directly from the suppliers of goods or services and pays them back. Only in exceptional circumstances are payments made to individuals.

People can also receive a £200 one-off support payment towards disability needs and chronic pain relief, but funds for this are limited at present.

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