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30 Years of ChildLine: Reflections from a Witness Seminar

Dr Jenny Crane, Research Fellow, University of Warwick and Dr Eve Colpus, Lecturer, University of Southampton

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How do we explain the contributions made by a charity?  Can historians work with practitioners, and a charity itself, to assess and contextualise these contributions?  For historians, a charity’s continued existence over any length of time raises questions both about its purpose and the shifting social and cultural climates it refracts. 2016 is the 30th anniversary of the charity ChildLine, originally established as an independent free telephone helpline, and now part of the NSPCC. To consider the meaning of this anniversary, the impact and contexts of ChildLine, Dr Eve Colpus (University of Southampton) and Dr Jenny Crane (University of Warwick) organised a witness seminar, on 1 June 2016, which was  supported by the Wellcome Trust, the University of Southampton, and the BT Tower.

The timing of the seminar gestured in two directions. An anniversary year pointed in part to celebration, but also to reflection and analysis, not least as the Goddard Inquiry and other investigations address how historical child abuse cases were ignored or denied in the post-war period, and as many charities, including national children’s charities, face renewed scrutiny following the collapse in 2015 of Kids Company.

The day was split into two panels. Panel One aimed to bring together witnesses to reflect upon the emergence of ChildLine in 1986, its early organisation, and significance in 1980s and 1990s Britain.  The speakers were Dame Esther Rantzen (Founder and President of ChildLine), Baroness Valerie Howarth (Chief Executive ChildLine, 1986-2001), Shaun Woodward (former Secretary of State and Trustee of ChildLine), Mary MacLeod (Director of Policy at ChildLine, 1991-1999), Colin Butler (ChildLine volunteer counsellor, 1986-present) and Anne Houston (Director ChildLine Scotland, 1990-2007).  Panel Two used this history of ChildLine to contextualise current challenges for children and the voluntary sector.  Our speakers were the historian Professor Mathew Thomson, Sue Minto (Head of ChildLine, 2007-2015), John Cameron (Head of NSPCC Helplines), Anne Longfield (Children’s Commissioner for England), and David Brindle (Public Services editor at the Guardian).

A key theme that panellists discussed was how to understand ’the child’ and children’s voices.  Dame Esther Rantzen opened the seminar by suggesting that ChildLine had addressed both palpable issues of continuity in children’s lives and experiences, seen in the shocking deaths of young children, and also concerning aspects of change illuminated, for example, by today’s children and young people registering profound feelings of unhappiness.  Rantzen emphasised that in the 1980s and 1990s ChildLine was perceived as a service that children could call their own and feel safe contacting. MacLeod discussed the policy of maintaining callers’ anonymity, which empowered children although, as Houston emphasised, this could be compromised in areas with sparse populations. Participants discussed the relationship between changing technologies and counselling practices; children first contacted the service through writing letters and using the landline telephone, now 77% of calls are made from mobile phones, and 70% of all contacts with ChildLine are directed through the internet.  Cameron called for reflection about whether counselling through digital platforms could potentially limit emotional engagement.

Colin Butler, ChildLine’s longest serving volunteer counsellor, spoke about the changing problems callers have disclosed to ChildLine counsellors since 1986, sometimes linked to public policy, as in the recent rise in children reporting mental health issues. Longfield, like Rantzen, offered a positive view of children’s influence over policy, arguing that ChildLine allowed policy-makers to better understand the services that children and young people say will make a difference to them.  Minto, however, discussed the challenges of avoiding an ‘adult-focused perspective’ in child protection; an issue which came into focus as Cameron and Rantzen discussed the wants and needs of children.

Speakers elaborated the nature of voluntary action, and the motivations and contexts that facilitate or disable the establishment of a service such as ChildLine.  Many paid tribute to Rantzen’s role in pushing through the introduction of ChildLine, including in her work at the BBC and forging links with BT. Rantzen was also instrumental in persuading parliamentarians to provide funding to the untested charity.  Panellists also talked about the role of chance in the establishment and success of a charity.  MacLeod recalled Rantzen meeting Cherie Booth at the hairdresser in 1992, and was able to persuade her to get Hilary Clinton to speak at a ChildLine conference on children and the courts.

The aim of a witness seminar is to bring actors together to enable collective reflection.  Some analysis emerged from this seminar because of collective memory, or interaction between participants. Participants reminded one another about the early challenges of data collection for ChildLine and evaluation of their demographics, important technological and ethical questions which remain today. Some panellists and delegates asked challenging questions: Howarth asked how many children phoned ChildLine today to say that they were hungry. Professor Jean Seaton encouraged analysis of the extent to which children may not be self-identifying as ‘children’, and therefore not contacting the service.

Conversations between historians and practitioners also encouraged analysis.  Many practitioners identified useful sources for further historical study: Rantzen discussed feedback from former users of ChildLine which she had collected this year. These materials represent a new strand of evidence about the charity, which help us to understand the significance ChildLine continues to have in the memories of some of those who contacted ChildLine and perceived they had reached an organisation which would listen to them on their own terms.

Historians were able to contextualise present-day concerns. Thomson’s talk was particularly useful here, as he suggested three ways of considering ChildLine historically. First, Thomson argued that historians must first consider where ChildLine fits within a longer history of charities’ responses to child abuse, for example the establishment of the NSPCC in 1889 in response to concerns about cruelty to children in the Victorian period. Second, Thomson stated that historians must consider how ChildLine related to the social context of the early 1980s. Finally, Thomson suggested that historians could analyse the ways in which ChildLine marked a turning point in children’s experiences.  Building on Thomson’s suggestions, Dr Chris Moores asked a question highlighting the historical precedents of many panellists’ anxieties about the internet in children’s lives.

Many practitioners addressed the contexts in which ChildLine emerged.  Woodward and Brindle, for example, both discussed the significance of journalism, media and broadcasting in the success of ChildLine, and in raising awareness of child sexual abuse more broadly. Addressing a different paradigm of popular politics, MacLeod indicated the influence upon ChildLine of post-1968 feminism.  Whilst there were some points of meaningful interaction and dialogue between historians and practitioners, it was also interesting to observe the very different questions and assumptions which framed the thinking of these groups.  A question posed by Dame Esther Rantzen, as to why children are so ‘profoundly unhappy’ today is very important, but not one which historians would typically ask, for example.  Historians were perhaps more interested in unpicking the earlier contexts, as well as thinking about why and how various groups reacted to ChildLine, and moments of tension, as well as those of triumph.

Bringing history, policy, and practice in to meaningful dialogue is an ongoing challenge for historians, but one which may be key to understanding historical child abuse cases, and for improving the lives of present and future children.  This is something which the seminar organisers are continuing to reflect upon, as we think about how best to interpret and disseminate the key messages of our event – and we would welcome any thoughts on this from others.

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