Esther Rantzen writes exclusively for Yano on the launch of ChildLine and the way it has been at the forefront of pioneering the plight of children, who are in danger in their own homes
Times have changed so much. Back in 1986, soon after ChildLine was launched, a broadsheet newspaper called it ‘the phone line that encourages children to sneak on their parents’! As if ChildLine was a threat to good parents and happy family life. As if children were being encouraged to inform on their parents, like children in Mao’s China. When, in fact, over the plst 25 years we have learned that even given the safety of a confidential phone line, children will go to great lengths to protect their families. As one child who contacted ChildLine because she was terrified that she was pregnant by her father said, ‘It was my job to suffer.’
But 25 years ago was a very different time.Then most people had no idea that some children could be suffering terrible abuse or neglect behind the net curtains in perfectly respectable homes. When, in October 1986 we revealed that fact in a special programme called Childwatch, which launched ChildLine, it was such a painful message that the temptation was to blame the messenger – a tabloid newspaper labelled our programme ‘the most dangerous show on television’.
I believed then, and believe now, that the only way to tackle a problem is to admit it exists, and try to resolve it. On that first night, when we opened our phone lines ChildLine received 50,000 attempted phone calls. Buoyed up by the children’s faith in us, and by the fact we knew from the start we were saving lives and preventing abuse, we continued to publicise ChildLine’s work and the Freephone number 0800 1111, and to expand and develop as fast as we could. Now 25 years later we have 12 bases around the country, have created on-line counselling services, and, wonderful news, at last we are meeting the huge demand from children.
Over the past 25 years we have helped almost 2.7 million children, and have tracked huge changes in young people’s lives. Back then, for many children the only way to contact ChildLine safely was to run to a phone box. Some put their lives at risk, escaping from their homes in the middle of the night to ring us. And because so many thousands tried to get through, and we simply hadn’t enough money, or volunteer counsellors, or phone lines to answer them all, many of them failed to get through. When they did, I remember speaking to children who described abuse that had been going on for 10 or 15 years – as long as they could remember.
Mobile phones have been a crucial liberation for children. Now they can ring us from anywhere, at any time. So has the internet. There are some problems, such as self-harm, or depression, which so destroy a child’s self confidence that they dare not attempt to talk about them. So they contact us online instead, and our counsellors have developed the skills to counsel them effectively via the internet. Now sexual abuse has been replaced as the most common problem (it is still in the top five), but at the very top of the list now are serious family problems. Which makes me wonder what has happened to our family life that causes so many children so much unhappiness? At the moment we are analysing those calls, to try and find some answers.
ChildLine has never been a threat to good parents. But it may reveal ways we can support our children and protect them from pain more effectively. It did 25 years ago. It does so still today.