‘Childline is just as important now, if not more, than it was back in 1986’

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Dame Esther Rantzen tells me she’s had a restless night, when I meet her for breakfast at the Beech Hill County House Hotel on Wednesday morning.

News of Trump’s victory in the US elections has just broken.

Wearing her trademark pearls, the founder of Childline has had a busy schedule on a whirlwind trip to Derry, one of her many stops to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the charity Childline.

“I’ve been staying in the Presidential Suite,” she tells me. “The room Hillary Clinton stayed in when she visited here. I’ve had the television on all night and now I’ve woken up to the news.”

But enough about politics, Rantzen has come to Derry to thank the many people who over the years have given so much to Childline.

And there are so many dimensions to this fascinating lady. A journalist, consumer rights warrior and television presenter, she’s seen it all over the years.

There’s a serious side to this 76-year-old who looks remarkably younger than her actual age, but Esther’s also known for her fun side.

In 2004 she took to the floor of the BBC studios partnered by Anton DuBeke in Strictly Come Dancing, and in 2008 gave it her all in the jungle for I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

Not only is she the founder of Childline, Esther also founded Silverline, a helpline for older people.

But it was back in 1985 that Esther who was working as a journalist became deeply affected when the media highlighted the story of the death of a toddler.

“At that time it wasn’t that people didn’t realise that abuse and neglect happens,” she said. “But the people who were most aware were those who had to pick up the pieces.

“In That’s Life which I was working on, we realised that we had an audience full of children who may be suffering abuse and that we needed to open a helpline,” she said.

“The lines were open for 48 hours and throughout that time they were jammed. I remember talking to one girl on the phone and her story stayed with me. I told her that what had happened to her wasn’t her fault and she had the right to feel safe.

“I began thinking about what we could do if we had a 24/7 helpline.”

Esther then set about setting up a helpline by lobbying BT.

“It had to be a number that was easy to remember and it had to be free,” she said. “I began to realise that Childline could actually become an instrument of child protection.”

The number of Childline was 08001111, it launched in 1986 and has remained unchanged for 30 years. The first night it launched Childline received 50,000 calls.

“Demand was so high it was hitting the exchange,” said Esther. “And the demand stayed like that for six weeks. One of the first girls I spoke to was girl who had been sexually abused by her father, but her mother refused to believe her and she was taken into care. The little girl thought she would never see her brother and sister ever again. I told her it was never her fault. Afterwards the girl stayed in my mind and I found it painful that a mum would abandon her child. We now have debriefs after every shift so volunteers can talk things through and be supported.”

Esther revealed that the charity urgently needs new volunteers, especially in Derry.

“All volunteers are trained and all we ask is a four hour a week commitment and to be computer literate,” she said.

On Tuesday night Esther enjoyed a concert at the Millennium Forum with performances by local children, with a visit to staff at the local offices.

To find out more contact Childline at www.nspcc.org.uk