Born on the seventh of July

The 7th July Assistance Centre offers counselling to the families and friends of those killed by recent terrorism. But between August and December only 70 people have visited it. Katie Leason spoke to staff at the centre about their struggle to win more recognition.

Anonymously located in an unremarkable block of flats in central London amid balconies groaning with washing, bikes and plants, is a very remarkable service.

Six months after the terrorist attacks on the capital, the 7th July Assistance Centre now appears more modest than in its original version set up within the grandeur of the Royal Horticultural Halls, a huge conference venue in the heart of Westminster. Back then the centre was highly visible; it had a police presence and brash yellow signs pointing visitors towards it.

It is now much more discreet; you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it, and only people who phone the helpline are given its address in an attempt to keep away the press and preserve privacy and security.

Inside, the assistance centre is housed in a small but new one-bedroom flat on the first floor (all the other flats in the block are people’s homes). What would ordinarily be the bedroom is the private consultation room, where counselling and other confidential discussions take place; the open plan kitchen and lounge is the administrative hub, where volunteers answer the helpline. Its size and ambience make it feel homely – an environment that helps the visitors, many of whom are distressed, to feel as comfortable as possible.

When the original family assistance centre closed on 19 August this revised version sprung into operation the next day under the direct management of Westminster Council. However, in November the council contracted out the service to voluntary organisation Brent Bereavement Services. The council is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the centre, but the service is accountable to Westminster social services department, where a contract manager monitors its performance. Weekly information bulletins are also sent to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which will fund the centre until the end of October.

Since July, the centre’s three paid workers and 60 volunteers have seen a change in people’s needs. Sitting on an Ikea-donated sofa in the consultation room, I meet Jo Best, deputy project manager, and Liz Prosser, office manager, to find out how the centre operates.

Best, a bereavement counsellor, says: “Earlier it was practical support, then emotional, and now people are coming forward and asking for one-to-one counselling and help. They may be over the initial shock and find that it is now that their feelings are coming out.”

Ten people, mainly survivors of the blasts, have asked for one-to-one counselling, which can be provided free at the centre. Most of the centre’s work, though, is carried out by phone, with 600 calls taken since August. Some callers need reassurance over their reactions to the attacks which might include feeling weepy or angry. They may suffer from nightmares. Others need legal or employment advice, help with compensation claims or wish to be put in touch with fellow commuters that they met on the day of the bombs. Some survivors have had to give up their jobs because they are unable to use public transport, and others have turned vegetarian, having been unable to face even the thought of meat.

But the centre is not only dealing with follow-up calls – some people who were originally coping are now finding things hard, and so even now the helpline hears from first-time callers. The calls can be lengthy – often up to an hour or so – and may then require several subsequent phone calls if the case needs referring on.

The setting up and running of the centre has been a steep learning curve. The London family assistance centre was the first in Europe, with only the US 9/11 model to follow. As a result, mistakes have been made that will serve as lessons for family assistance centres in the future – joint guidance on establishing family assistance centres has already been published by the government and the Association of Chief Police Officers (see panel), but this is due to be updated to include the recent findings.

Some of these findings are already apparent. For example, it soon became clear that the term “family assistance centre” was unhelpful. Best says: “The name was misleading and kept a lot of people away who felt they didn’t fit in,” says Best. To clarify its remit, the centre has dropped the “family” element and become the 7th July Assistance Centre. Yet, given that it can also help survivors of other terrorist incidents, such as the failed attacks of 21 July and the bombs in Sharm el Sheikh and Bali, the name still does not represent the whole story.

Another hurdle has been publicity. Although the media have been interested in following the aftermath of the bombings, journalists have wanted to speak to survivors rather than find out about the centre, thus limiting coverage. With a tight budget of £170,000 for the year, from which the volunteers’ travel expenses must be paid, there has not been enough spare cash to blow £30,000 here and there on advertising. As a result, the centre is not as well-known as it could be.

As Prosser says: “There’s no point having people sitting around in a hall desperate to help if no one is coming though the door.”

As it is, between 20 August and 20 December, only 70 people have attended the centre in person out of the hundreds who were involved in the incidents. Prosser says that, in hindsight, information-sharing between the police and the support services should have been better. Data protection concerns have meant that the details of survivors and the bereaved have been kept private, to the extent that invitations to the memorial service had to be sent through the police – which resulted in more admin and many survivors being overlooked.

Yet, for all the lessons learned, there is little doubt that those who have used the assistance centre have benefited from the support that is on offer. Anyone else who needs its services can find a kind voice at the end of the phone for most of 2006. 

Contact the helpline on: 0845 0547444

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