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Inspiring families with fresh thinking on parenting

Yano — Inspiring families with fresh thinking on parenting

The invisible children

Posted on 24th May, 2012 | filed under Featured, The Big Debate

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May 25th is International Missing Children’s Day. So where are the children and why have they gone? Esther Rantzen, founder of ChildLine, opens the lid on a growing problem for the UK

It is frightening, shocking and deeply disturbing that even in these enlightened days, even in this civilised country, thousands of children can become invisible. And their invisibility can put them into the gravest danger. We have seen cases that have made headlines recently as the evidence was revealed in court of children being plied with drugs and alcohol and then used as sex slaves. This has happened, not in the back streets of third-world slums where these children were be living in rubbish dumps or starving. It happened to ordinary children living in our own towns and cities.

How is it that children like these suffer such a terrible fate? The cloak of invisibility that surrounds them seems to have been fashioned out of adult indifference. They ‘bunk off’ school and nobody notices. They run away from care and no one can restrain them. They sleep rough and nobody seems to take responsibility for them, or ask questions, or even search for them and find a safe refuge for them.

We sometimes hear from these children at ChildLine. One girl I know well ran away when she was 11 from her mother’s alcoholism and violence. She stayed on a bus until it was dark and she had run out of money, and then rang ChildLine, the children’s helpline. The first time she, and we, were lucky; we found a bed for her in the only children’s refuge in London. The next day she was placed in foster care, but when that placement broke down, she ran away again and rang ChildLine once more.

This time we were not so lucky and were not able to locate a place for her, so she promised she would go home. In fact, she slept in a local park overnight. I dread to think what could have happened to her. Happily, she survived, rang ChildLine in the morning, and from then on was looked after. Although there were other crises in her life, each time she rang our helpline we were able to empower her and inspire her to move forward. Now she is married, with children of her own and has a thriving career working for a children’s charity. She is a wonderful success story, but how many others end up in our prisons, or addiction units, or dying in A & E with no one to mourn their passing?

It is estimated that 100,000 children run away from their homes, or from care each year in the UK – but nobody really knows the true figure. Railway Children is one of the most effective charities which supports children living on the streets, the children most of us pass by without a glance in their direction. According to Railway Children, two-thirds of runaways will be victims of violence on the streets and few are reported missing by their parents or carers in the first place. It’s not enough to suggest that the police should pick them up and return them home.

When a child runs away there can be a very good reason. And yet they may be too ashamed or fearful to tell the police what that reason is. And what happens if they do tell? One of the most appalling aspects of the recent case of teenage girls abused by gangs of predatory men is that when one did ask for help, and reported the abuse, she was not believed.

It is clear that we urgently need to open our eyes and ears. We need to see and hear the children before the moment when their desperation forces them onto the streets. Many of these children know what they are running from but have no idea what perils they are running towards.

I talked to a girl who was running away to Piccadilly but paused to ring ChildLine. She was in floods of tears so she could hardly find the words to explain what had driven her from home. Eventually she explained that she had just discovered her own adoption papers. Her parents had never revealed to her that she had been adopted. ‘I realise now that they could never have loved me,’ she said. ‘They never told me the truth.’ As I asked more questions she painted a picture of parents who deeply cared about her. I suggested to her idea that parents can make mistakes and that sometimes children need to forgive them. She said she had run away before and met a man who offered to let her work for him in Piccadilly, but another girl had warned her to go home. At the end of our conversation she said she would return home and talk to her mother about the adoption that they had never discussed before. I will never know if she went back. I pray that she did. Otherwise she might have ended up like so many of our invisible children, believing no one knew or cared how she lived or if she lived at all.

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The invisible children was posted on 24th May, 2012 by Esther Rantzen CBE under Featured, The Big Debate

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Esther Rantzen CBE

About the author: Esther Rantzen

Esther Rantzen was born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, and graduated from Somerville College Oxford with a degree in English. She joined the BBC as a sound effects assistant in radio, then became a researcher in television, and in 1968 became a researcher/reporter for Bernard Braden’s consumer programme, Braden’s Week. When Bernard Braden went back to Canada, in 1973 Esther became the producer/presenter of the consumer programme That’s Life! which ran for 21 years, and drew audiences of over 18 million. It achieved fame, (and notoriety) for its talking dogs, Jobsworth Awards and campaigns on behalf of abused children, organ transplants, safe playgrounds, hospital patients and to provide justice for consumers. Esther also created the documentary series The Big Time which discovered singer Sheena Easton, invented the Children of Courage segment of Children in Need, and Hearts of Gold which ran for seven years, honouring unsung heroes and heroines. Esther presented her daily talk show “Esther” on BBC2 for seven years, and “That’s Esther” on ITV. She has made a number of pioneering programmes on child birth, mental health, drug abuse, and child abuse (in the campaigning series of programmes, Childwatch). In 1986 Esther invented the concept of ChildLine, (the children’s helpline which was launched on Childwatch), which she then chaired for twenty years. She is currently President of ChildLine, is a trained volunteer counsellor, and is a Trustee of the NSPCC since its merger with ChildLine in 2005. She is a Patron of a number of other charities including the Red Balloon to recover bullied children, and she helped to found the Association of Young People with ME, of which she is President. Esther has received a number of awards, including the OBE for services to broadcasting, and the CBE for services to children. She received the Royal Television Society’s Special Judges’ Award for Journalism, and was received into their Hall of Fame. In addition she was given the Dimbleby award from BAFTA, (the first woman to receive it), the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Film and Television, the Snowdon award for services to disabled people, has 5 honorary doctorates and has been made an honorary Fellow of Somerville College. Esther has appeared in Strictly Come Dancing for the BBC, and the jungle for ITV. She stood at the 2010 General Election as an Independent candidate for Luton South. In 2011 Esther published her book “Running Out of Tears” (The Robson Press) to celebrate ChildLine’s 25th Anniversary.