Fifteen years ago today – on 29 October 2007 – the European Commission officially reserved the number 116 111 for child helpline services. This decision was grounded in a recommendation from the European Parliament – the “Declaration on Child Helplines in Europe” (17 January 2006) – that child helplines should be further supported by the European Union as an essential component of each national child protection system, and that child helplines should have a common toll-free number throughout the EU.
Furthermore, the Declaration recommended that the EU should support Child Helpline International as a platform for child helplines within the EU to network and liaise on regional issues and be provided with assistance for this – currently done through Child Helpline International’s Framework Partnership Agreement with the European Commission through the Citizenship, Equality, Rights, Values Programme (2021- 2027). According to the directives of the European Commission, child helpline services that operate the 116 111 number should:
We aim to ensure that 116 111 represents a high-quality, recognisable child helpline service for children that is rights-based, reliable, safe, accessible and child-centred, as well as advocating for children, facilitating meaningful child and youth participation and operating effectively in emergency settings.
Today, 116 111 is operational in 23 out of the 27 member states of the EU, and in seven other European countries*. You can find a list here of the child helplines who operate the 116 111 service.
There have been significant developments for children and young people, children’s rights and child helplines since the 116 111 service was introduced in 2007. Technology and new methods of communicating – including text messaging, webchat and internet forums – have enabled child helplines to provide counselling to children who may not want to share sensitive information over a telephone call (for example in cases of sexual abuse), and have facilitated contact with children with disabilities, very young children and other children with certain communication needs. The development of the digital environment has pushed many organisations to provide services online via text-based services – something European child helplines have been early to adopt. They have also developed new methods of communication to increase accessibility and reach wider communities of children, for example displaced children who do not speak the local language.
An essential requirement for child helplines is the ability to adapt to the needs of the children and young people they serve, and the conditions under which they have needed to operate. This has most recently been demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic and – in Europe in particular – as a consequence of the conflict in Ukraine. Increased mental health issues (anxiety, loneliness), online violence and exploitation, online child sexual abuse material and exposure to violence and exploitation as a result of these are major issues to tackle. Those who are most vulnerable – children in migration, children with disabilities, children in poverty and other minority groups – are at greater risk and require specific support and protection.Child helplines have shown great resilience and have found ways to continue their operations even though the circumstances in which they are working have been significantly affected. Every year, child helplines in Europe provide counselling to millions of children, most of these contacts related to mental health and violence. Over the years, child helplines in Europe have developed strong expertise in supporting children’s mental health remotely. They have deepened their child protection knowledge and have developed effective partnerships with organisations, industry and authorities to protect children from violence – offline and online.
The resilience of child helplines during times of crisis was one of the key themes of the 10th International Consultation of Child Helplines, held in Stockholm, Sweden, in September 2022. The Stockholm Declaration announced at the end of this International Consultation reiterated our call for not only governments but also partners in civil society, international agencies and the private sector – including telecoms and the information and communications technology industry – to support the sustainability of child helplines by providing adequate resources and support to ensure their continuous ability to operate, free of all costs, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. This support will also enable child helplines to be able to adapt to specific issues faced by children at any given time and to ensure that children and young people can always access support – whenever, and whyever they need it, and wherever and whoever they are.
It is clear for many of us – national governments, the EU, industry, telecoms and mobile operators, children’s rights partners, children and youth – that our child helplines are an essential part of national child protection systems, including in the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child (2021-2025). But we are moving into times of financial insecurity.
In celebration of 15 years of 116 111, we must ensure that child helplines are protected through proper resourcing and their recognition as essential services for children. The continuation of established child helplines, trusted by the children and young people who rely upon their services, is key. Therefore, we call upon stakeholders to raise their voices in support of child helplines:
* The infrastructure for 116 111 is generally well established, apart from some issues with connectivity, mostly with SIM cards from countries outside the EU and sometimes within. This negatively affects children in migration.