Hero Story | Lynne Cawood & Childline Gauteng provide 8 million services to support children

By Marinda Weideman

Hero Story | Lynne Cawood & Childline Gauteng provide 8 million services to support children

In 2018, the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town reported that almost all South African children (99%) are exposed to violence at some point in their lives. Most children experience multiple forms of violence. By the time they are teenagers, 80% of boys and 87% of girls have witnessed violence in the home. Furthermore, 93% of boys and 98% of girls have experienced violence excluding sexual violence, while 32% of boys and 22% of girls (between the ages of 14 and 17) have experienced sexual violence. Trauma also results from widespread socio-economic deprivation and poor service delivery. In 2021/22, 63% of children in South Africa were living below the upper-bound poverty line.

The experience of trauma, in the absence of mitigating factors, can negatively affect neurological development. This may result in learning disabilities (i.e., poorer educational and economic outcomes), or life-long struggles with mental health (including higher rates of suicide) and relationships (including intimate partner violence).

The unmitigated impact of trauma on the developing brain (especially if prolonged) can include overwhelming the amygdala, resulting in a fear-based and anxious approach to life; a smaller hippocampus, which may make memory and learning more difficult; or a compromised pre-frontal cortex, which can result in impulsive and aggressive behavior and low levels of empathy. These factors contribute to intergenerational cycles of violence, including sexual and gender-based violence and trauma.

Research indicates that prevention and early intervention are effective for protecting children, reducing exposure to violence, and interrupting intergenerational cycles of gender and other forms of violence, if they include the following aspects:

  • Enforcement of laws;
  • Positive parenting programs;
  • Life skills and education programs;
  • Support services such as counselling;
  • Income and economic strengthening;

These are precisely the methods that Childline Gauteng, under the leadership of Director Lynne Cawood, has implemented over the last three decades.

DevelopmentAid author, Dr M Weideman, interviewed Lynne in August 2023. Excerpts from the interview and content from various Childline reports and documents are presented below.

Q: Before we discuss some of Childline Gauteng’s extraordinary achievements, could you give me a brief account of the values and experiences that led to your appointment as the Director of Childline Gauteng on the 16th of March 1999?

Lynne describes herself as a spiritual person whose experience growing up in the small Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet sensitized her to the fact that human beings are highly dependent on, and connected to each other and the natural environment.

“This experience enabled me to develop a deep connection to the earth and the people around me”.

This awareness exacerbated the “profound pain” Lynne experienced as she witnessed the extreme suffering caused by the Apartheid system.

“I then decided to do something to change it . . . I went to study social work [completing her Masters in Clinical Psychology] and I joined the National Welfare Movement, the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee, the Detainees Parent Support Committee, and other United Democratic Front aligned organizations that sought to end Apartheid and bring about justice”.

Lynne’s career included working as a child protection social worker at Child Welfare, working in a private practice to maximize time with her sons, joining the Family Life Centre, and becoming the Director of the renowned feminist and women’s rights organization, People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA). POWA was part of the National Network Against Violence Against Women. The network was a powerful, effective, national collaboration that influenced policy and legislative developments, including the promulgation of the Domestic Violence Act of 1996, and the creation of National Women’s Day in South Africa.

Q: What motivated you to accept the position at Childline?

“I was hugely grateful for the appointment. I have always had an affinity for children and their mercurial, honest, life-loving way of expressing themselves. It was also such an honor to work at Childline because when one engages with children, one has the opportunity to respond to a problem or trauma timeously and to prevent the development of long-term complications or self-destructive behaviors. It is much more difficult to assist adults whose views have become deeply entrenched and cloud all their experiences”.

Q: What are Childline Gauteng’s mission, underlying values, and general approach to serving South Africa’s children?

“Our mission is service excellence to children and families”.

Childline Gauteng works collectively to establish a culture of responsibility for child and human rights; to provide counselling to disadvantaged and vulnerable persons and communities; and to advocate for community development towards the actualization of the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and Section 28 of the South African constitution.

Section 28 stipulates that every child has a right to a name and nationality, family or alternative care, adequate nutrition, shelter, education and health and social services. Children must also be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse, degradation, detention, armed conflict, and exploitative labour practices.

“Childline has worked tirelessly to achieve this mission”.

Through this human rights-based approach, Childline seeks to empower individuals and communities and contribute to their positive development. Childline also:

  • Advocates for children’s rights in the broader community and among relevant role players such as the South African Police Services, the medico-legal fraternity, and the departments of Education and Social Services.
  • Facilitates child protection services through referrals to appropriate stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
  • Assists in preparation for court proceedings, including providing psychosocial support.
  • Engages in community events to promote awareness and prevent gender-based violence and femicide.
  • Implements the ‘Seven Strategies to End Violence Against Children’.

“The values that underpin our work include the best interests of the child, child-centered, child participation, accountability, transparency, respect, communication, transformation, development, empowerment, confidentiality, and accessibility”.

Q: What was Childline Gauteng’s reach over the last financial year? What were the cumulative totals reached over the last approximately 20 years when you served as the Director?

For the period 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2023, as per Childline’s Annual Report, the organization reached 407,860 children and their families. This includes:

  • 200,435 Help Line calls answered;
  • 9,748 counselling sessions provided to 2,751 children and their families;
  • 207 children placed in emergency care;
  • 44,000 youth services provided through the Childline Tshwane NACOSA project;
  • 967 children reached with 6,343 counselling sessions through the Telkom schools’ project;
  • 460 youth who received group work services;
  • 113,205 youth and 12,219 adults reached through the Childline Awareness Prevention Project;
  • 277 staff, 26 professionals, and 23 members of the Childline Youth Development Program who received training.

In the preceding 20 years, Childline Gauteng provided approximately 8 million services to children in need. Between 1998 and 2019 Childline Gauteng:

  • Provided services to 7,948,625 children, caregivers, and community members;
  • Reached 1,308,906 learners and adults through the Community Awareness and Prevention Program;
  • Provided safety to 7,057 children in life threatening situations at the Sunlight Safe House;
  • Answered 6,499, 590 Help Line calls; and
  • Conducted 133,072 counselling sessions.

Q: Providing 8 million services to children in need is a commendable achievement. What is the size of the team that provided all these services?

Childline Gauteng has only 47 full-time staff members, supported by volunteers and 46 foster mothers.

Q: What are the factors that enabled such a small team to reach 8 million children?

  • Hard work and a dedicated team.

“Our biggest strength lies in our staff. They are unflinchingly committed and dedicated.”

  • Having a shared vision and high levels of commitment among staff, volunteers, partners, and donors.

“Childline Gauteng is exceptional in the sense that the staff who work here share a vision of a society in which children’s basic needs are met, where they are cared for, and where they can grow-up to reach their potential and contribute to society. More broadly, we share with our partners the knowledge that by getting the basics right, in terms of family life and providing the basic needs of every individual, and especially every child; and by advocating for the necessary sociological and political change, we can generate a state of kindness in which all can prosper”.

  • Practicing the principle of servant leadership and aligning the management style to the words of Mahatma Gandhi “be the change you want to see in the world”.
  • Having strong and committed partners (particularly to support the strong referral system) and donors.

Q: What are some of the challenges you and the team face?

“Our services address the psychological impact of the many challenges and traumas our communities face. Our staff are at the coalface of this and carry the awareness of widespread vulnerability and pain. They witness this suffering and trauma, and often life-threatening situations, on an ongoing basis. This is happening in a world in which the extreme traumas people inflict on each other seem to be increasing. We see gang rapes, murders, femicide and infanticide. We also see the violence and trauma inflicted on children. It is difficult to bear witness to the deep levels of suffering and maintain one’s own sanity. The challenge is to find a way to maintain a sense of balance in one’s own life, and continue to recognize that there is still much good in the world, even when you spend eight hours per day listening to the outcomes of destruction and negativity”.

Q: What keeps you and the team motivated to work in this sector?

“It is about knowing that you can make a difference through early interventions and seeing the positive results of counselling and support. It is also about recognizing that it is a rare privilege and honour to be trusted to the extent that someone shares their most intimate experiences. It is about seeing how people begin the process of healing and regain their sense of gratitude, and their ability to see that which is beautiful and wonderful in the world. It is about facilitating new ways of decision-making that will have positive outcomes for these children as they go forward. It is about seeing a child become empowered and transformed, moving from being completely heartbroken to recognizing their strength and potential, their bravery in going through and dealing with these traumatic events. That is a wonderful and humbling experience, to know that you participated in some way in the healing of this little person”.

Q: We have talked about the many children and families reached through Childline Gauteng’s various initiatives. Could you also provide a brief description of some of the key services and initiatives, and their impact?

Childline offers face-to face and telephonic counselling services. The counselling focuses on establishing a therapeutic relationship and identifying the emotional, social, and familial factors that affect mental health. The aim is to bring about behavioural change in the individual, family or community system that affects the individual, and to enable the individual to reach their potential and play a meaningful role in society. Childline social workers utilize a variety of evidence-based theories and practices. These include Rogerian or client-centered therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, play therapy and creative art counselling, and systemic counselling.

In-person counselling takes place in culturally sensitive ways at Childline’s easily accessible Community Based Centers in marginalized and under-resourced communities. Social workers at the Centers address matters such as sexual violence (sexual abuse, rape and attempted rape, and infant rape); physical abuse; emotional abuse; neglect; grief and loss; trauma; witnessing violence and domestic violence; assault and bullying; young sexual offenders; behavioural problems; those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS; and adult survivors of childhood abuse. When necessary, food parcels are distributed.

“The toll-free Helpline operates 24/7, 365 days per year. We provide telephonic counselling (in all eleven official languages) and referrals (with follow-ups) to children and their families. We also ensure that children in danger access child protection services from statutory partners like the South African Police Services, the Department of Social Development, or Child Welfare, based on individual risk assessments. Prevention, early identification of problems, and practical interventions all strengthen the individual, family, and community’s ability to meet children’s needs. In that regard, the helpline service limits the exacerbation of problematic situations and promotes optimal functioning, emotional intelligence, and child development opportunities”.

“On average, a child will make 20 phone calls before they develop enough trust to reveal their real concern. Children call about multiple issues, some just to talk, to wish us Merry Christmas, or to share that it is their birthday. Others to say: ‘my daddy is hurting my mommy, and I am scared she is dead’. Then we engage with child protection services or the police, and very often we save lives”.

The highest number of calls for the previous financial year, in rank order, pertained to services, abuse, neglect, family related problems, problems in schools, substance abuse in families, homelessness, hunger, and refugee status.

Childline’s flagship Community Awareness and Prevention Program aims to create awareness and provide information regarding children’s rights and responsibilities in schools and communities. In the last financial year, Childline visited 109 schools, reaching 90,360 children, 1,354 teachers, 6,106 parents, and 5,585 children in early-childhood development centers. This resulted in the identification of 1,129 cases where help was required.

“We go to primary schools . . . we tell the little ones that nobody is allowed to hurt them, that nobody is allowed to make them feel uncomfortable, and that if that is the case to run, yell and tell, and if nobody is listening, to phone Childline. We tell them that we will listen and intervene in a way that is helpful”.

The Junior Leadership Program takes place at all Childline’s community-based centers. The 18-session intervention contributes to the holistic development of the child. The focus is on increasing children’s resilience, self-esteem, and problem solving, leadership and communication skills. Parents are invited to attend positive parenting sessions.

“We have received very positive feedback on the program, and schools have invited us to return year on year because of the program’s noticeable positive outcomes”.

Childline trains young volunteers in basic counselling and child protection during a 5-day course, implemented under the Youth Employment Project. Trained youth are placed at the Helpline where they contribute to the achievement of Childline’s mission and gain work experience.

The Sunlight Safe House provides emergency after-hours care to abused, abandoned, neglected, orphaned or vulnerable children, or children in immediate danger. The Safe House also seeks to mitigate the trauma that can accompany a child’s removal from their family system and entry into the highly regulated and complex child projection system.

“Children are warmly received by child and youth care workers, often in the middle of the night. They are given a ‘care pack’ that includes a change of clothes, a teddy-bear, and some toiletries”.

Children in need of longer-term support are placed with one of Childline’s 49 foster parents where they receive counselling, grief and loss therapy, family therapy, behavior modification interventions, holistic individual development plans, occupational therapy, substance abuse identification and referrals to relevant treatment facilities.

Independent living youth (i.e., youth who grew up in the foster homes) receive financial (for tertiary education), nutritional, and therapeutic support. They are also assisted with career placement, transport, and skills development.

Childline Gauteng’s training department provides training to staff, volunteers and external lay persons and professionals on subjects including suicide and gender-based violence prevention. One example is the gender-transformative, 8-week Ringa Mjita (i.e., Let’s Talk Gents) program that addresses problematic gender norms and biases among young boys.

The three-year HIV/AIDS, TB and GBV Prevention and Psychosocial Services Project implemented in Tshwane in partnership with NACOSA seeks to empower adolescent girls and boys with the psychosocial skills required to prevent infection with these diseases. The project delivers a prevention package of biomedical, behavioral, structural and psychosocial services that includes sexual and reproductive health rights education, parent dialogues, and homework support.

Finally, Childline (with funding from the Telkom Foundation) is active in five schools in Tshwane.

Q: Why is investing in children so important in achieving the sustainable development goals?

“There is a tendency in the development sector to respond to crises. Of course this is necessary, but it is also important to engage in long-term planning and to utilize evidence-based interventions. In this regard, the most important investment a country can make is an investment in meeting the basic needs of children and youth. If you meet the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs of a child, you set them up for a positive life and to make a positive contribution to their family, community and country”. The opposite also holds.

Q: Which of Childline Gauteng’s current initiatives best addresses the intersection between violence against children, violence against women, and overall rates of violence and crime in society?

Childline Gauteng’s Peace Campaign, supported by the Solidarity and Human Crisis Relief Funds, sought to end violence in all its forms and to promote peaceful relations in communities. During the campaign, Childline distributed 14,000 posters, embarked on a social media strategy, advertised on community radio, started a ‘whistle for peace’ initiative, and extended the helpline service to those parents and community members requiring counselling on “how to achieve and maintain peaceful” interpersonal relationships.

“The campaign recognized that we are a country affected by trauma because of our long history of conflict and violence, as well as our current challenges of crime, corruption, poverty and unemployment. The idea was to intervene to stop the sometimes unintentional transfer of trauma from one generation to the next. It was a lovely campaign during which many shared their trauma and received counselling support, appropriate referrals, or advice on coping techniques (e.g., using attitudes of thankfulness, care and compassion to reduce the levels of violence and anger). I would say this project was a great achievement”.

Childline Gauteng is currently seeking funding for a second phase of this intervention.

Photo Credit: Childline Gauteng

Q: Childline Gauteng’s financial statement for the most recent financial year shows that the organization is currently in a sound financial position. What are the factors that have contributed to the organization’s sustainability over time?

As a civil society and service delivery organization serving children, Childline is primarily dependent on funding partnerships.

“Funding is always a challenge, and we are in the unfortunate situation that we are never certain where our money is going to come from. Yet, we have survived for 36 years, providing services to those who cannot afford them, and we have developed a trust in our work and our partners, all of which contribute to our sustainability. Of course, we also take appropriate actions to promote our sustainability”.

Childline utilizes multiple and inter-related actions to promote organizational sustainability.

  • Childline Gauteng has committed patrons of high standing. These include Mrs. Leah Tutu and, in memoriam, the late Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and anti-Apartheid struggle veteran, Desmond Tutu.
  • A strong donor support base.

“We have strong relationships with long-term donors who either provide financial support or ongoing pro-bono services. I think this speaks to a well-managed organization that delivers.”

  • Having a sustainability strategy that focuses on ensuring the continuation of Childline’s critical services.
  • Having sound financial and management systems in place. These include a strong board; ensuring the reliability and integrity of financial and operational information; efficiency and effectiveness of operations; compliance with policies, laws and regulations; and achievement of established operational goals.

“For example, GrowthMap Infonomics conducted an independent sustainability audit in which Childline Gauteng scored 92,8%, and we scored 100% for compliance. We have a very high-level board, which meets regularly . . . Everything at Childline is done absolutely by the book.”

  • Maintaining positive relationships with government departments and agencies with similar mandates, such as the Departments of Social Development and Education, the South African Police Services, and the Health and Welfare Sector and Education Training Authority. The latter enables Childline to provide professional psychosocial training and employment to young volunteers.
  • Establishing international partnerships with bodies such as the Global Fund through the Networking HIV and AIDS Community of Southern Africa (NACOSA).
  • Various annual social entrepreneurial activities including the sale of used merchandise, providing training to lay and professional persons in the children’s sector, and renting out facilities.

“The training is provided by a small unit in the organization. The training focuses on how to appropriately respond in cases of child-abuse or gender-based violence disclosure. There is information on referrals, as well as modules on positive discipline, positive parenting, childhood depression, and on assisting children with behavioral problems. We charge a nominal fee for these training sessions”.

  • The Board Finance Committee manages a Childline Investment Portfolio, which provides a hedge against unforeseen challenges.
  • Continuous submissions of proposals and applications for funding to international and national donor, philanthropy, and private sector communities.

“And overall, we are very thrifty, and we are always conscious of the fact that we are spending public money and that it must be used very judiciously to ensure that we can sustainably provide our services to the many children and families who need them”.

Q: Any final comments?

“It is really important that we continue to promote kindness and compassion in our world, especially for children. Our late patron Archbishop Tutu spoke about the importance of spiritual wisdom, and that we all have the choice to develop that which is good within us. I believe this is most evident in our capacity to nurture not only human life, but all living things, including mother earth, on whom we all depend for our continued existence”.