Northern Ireland news

Many vulnerable children facing crisis this Christmas, charity warns

Extern service user Chantelle at the launch of the charity's Safe Haven Christmas Appeal. Picture by Conor Healy, Picture it Photography

MANY vulnerable children are facing Christmas in homes where alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence "are an everyday reality", a charity has warned.

Social justice charity Extern, which supports around 20,000 people across Ireland every year, said the Covid crisis has magnified many problems children are experiencing in the home.

The charity has four respite centres in Ireland: Kinnahalla Youth Village in Co Down; Roscor Youth Village in Co Fermanagh; Savannah House in Co Kildare, and newly-acquired The Haven in Co Roscommon.

The number of young people hosted at each site for respite breaks or overnight stays was lower in 2020 and 2021, compared to previous years, due to the need for social distancing measures.

Across the four sites, the charity offers around 5,000 overnight stays to young people in crisis annually.

More than 23,000 children in Northern Ireland were known to social services as a child in need by March of this year.

During 2020/21, more than 32,000 children were referred to social services.

One child, known only as Lucy, said Extern has helped her over the last year.

"Staying at one of Extern's safe havens gave me a break from what was going on at home," she said.

"It helped me see that life could be brighter because I was made to feel important, and that I mattered.

"I could have a bed to sleep in and my own bedroom.

"I could go to sleep, and stay asleep because I didn't have to be afraid."

The charity has launched its Safe Haven Christmas Appeal which aims to raise money for the respite centres.

Extern, along with Ulster Rugby, is also encouraging supporters to donate sportswear or sporting equipment to children staying at one of the safe havens.

Extern's chief executive, Danny McQuillan said many children are facing "significant crisis in their lives" this Christmas.

"They may be living in a home where a meal is never guaranteed, or where drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence are an everyday reality," he said.

"The Covid pandemic has made these kinds of issues so much worse, as every problem they have faced has been magnified greatly.

"Our safe havens will be open throughout the holidays to provide a place of welcome and a team to begin to care for them.

"With your help we can ensure they are welcomed into a warm and cosy environment.

"We'll take the time to help them relax and begin to talk, while ensuring they have the opportunity to have some fun being a child again."

All donations to the Safe Haven Christmas Appeal can be made through and by following @ExternCharity via social media.

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