Dame Esther Rantzen: 'A listening ear for millions of children in pain'

MANY of the children and young people who contact Childline tell us they have never spoken to an adult about their problems.

Esther Rantzen and Childline have given so much hope to so many children.
Esther Rantzen and Childline have given so much hope to so many children.

Sometimes it can take months for children to take that courageous step and contact us.

Imagine feeling that you have nobody to turn to for advice, nowhere to unburden your worries, no-one to help reaffirm your sense of worth and value. Now imagine what that would feel like for a child.

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Although we know many children do feel isolated, thankfully no child in the UK need ever face distress alone.

Since 1986, Childline’s trained staff and volunteer counsellors have been there for children and young people time and again – in fact they’ve been there some 4.5 million times. Thanks to their unwavering dedication, children living anywhere in the UK can access a range of confidential counselling services 24 hours a day, every day.

Last year marked Childline’s 30th anniversary – an opportunity to reflect with immense pride on all that the service has done for children.

It will be similarly gratifying to visit Leeds this week to celebrate another Childline landmark with the Leeds Childline base celebrating its 20th birthday.

The operational setup of Childline in Leeds is emblematic of the evolving nature of our services. In 2011 it became one of two Childline offices solely dedicated to offering online counselling sessions for children.

In that time the Leeds base has been contacted more than 33,000 times via email or online chat. Since opening in October 1997, the team have provided a staggering 200,000 counselling sessions.

Although the internet has given rise to a host of new threats to children – such as sexting and cyber bullying – it has also made it easier for children to contact us for help. Mobile technology affords young people the privacy and opportunity to contact us. Last year, 71 per cent of counselling sessions were online.

Since 2006, Childline has also been part of the NSPCC, a much-loved charity whose strength enabled Childline to launch online counselling and last year’s new phone app, ‘For Me’.

But amongst all of this evolution the central premise of Childline remains the same: children are empowered by talking through their concerns. Having the safety of anonymity and being reassured that they are not at fault makes young people feel more confident. Being told that things will change makes them feel happier.

Childline’s impact on young people was evident from the very start. I remember March 1986 only too clearly. Following the death of four-year-old Kimberley Carlile, starved and beaten to death by her father, I approached the head of BBC One, to see if we could create a programme exploring child cruelty.

After getting the green light, it occurred to us that maybe we should open helplines for any child viewers with concerns.

These lines were only open 48 hours but we received a staggering 50,000 attempted calls. Shockingly, around 100 children talked about on-going sexual abuse.

My sister, a trained social worker, came off the lines in shock. “Face to face in front of a social worker they can find it almost impossible to talk about concerns. I’ve never heard children speaking as openly as they do to Childline.”

I knew what I was listening to was far more important than any television programme I had ever made, or as it turned out, would ever make. It was a true ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Starting with 100 volunteers in one small office, the helpline was instantly busy and struggled to answer the 8,000 calls it received each day. Now we have more than 1,400 volunteers working from 12 bases across the UK. It will be fantastic to meet and spend time with the Leeds volunteers this week. They give up their hard-earned spare time to provide a compassionate outlet for children in need and are the lifeblood of Childline’s services.

For the first five years from 1986 onwards, the biggest single problem children talked to Childline about was sexual abuse. Now the most common concerns are feelings of low self-esteem and unhappiness.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the millions of children who have had the immense courage to contact Childline. It takes incredible self-awareness and strength of will to reach out for help.

Over the years, I have received many touching letters of thanks. However, we rarely hear how the story moves forward.

We need to know how the service helped in the long term. Did speaking to a Childline counsellor make a difference to your life? Did we support, comfort and protect you, as we hoped? Telling us about your experience will enable us to reach many other young people who are still out there in need of our support and advice.

I would be delighted to hear from you. Please email me at [email protected]

Dame Esther Rantzen DBE is the founder of Childline.