Discover more from James Esses
A cathartic attempt at closure
In May 2021, after volunteering as a counsellor at Childline for over 5 years, my volunteering contract was terminated, without warning, over a Zoom call. This letter, addressed to Childline, is my cathartic attempt at closure.
This letter is not addressed to any individual. However, its spirit is addressed to all individuals that I came into contact with during my 5 years at Childline – my fellow counsellors, my supervisors, and the senior management of both Childline and the NSPCC.
From as far back as I can remember, I had wanted to become a Childline counsellor. Although I had not engaged with Childline as a child myself, I was well aware of the crucial work that they carried out for vulnerable children of all ages and for all manner of issues. I wanted to be a part of this.
Once I had left university and got myself settled into a stable job in London, one of the first things I did was apply to become a Childline counsellor.
Over the next year, I engaged in various stages of application and interview before being conditionally accepted onto the in-house counselling training course at the London base. The training was challenging but extremely interesting and inspiring.
I can still remember the day that I passed my final assessment and received my certification as a Childline counsellor. I felt a sense of pride but mainly I felt joyful and happy that I was going to be able to support children and do something that I was passionate about.
I was allocated to an evening shift on Thursdays, between 6.15pm and 10.30pm. With a few exceptions, this was the shift time that I would spend the next 5 years counselling during. Once a week, after finishing work, I would head straight over to the London counselling room. It never felt like a hassle or a chore. It was a privilege. Nothing would stop me from my counselling – even Covid 19 – and I found myself going in for my weekly shift during the pandemic as soon as the counselling room was re-opened.
By my own calculations, I had spent over 1,000 hours counselling children and young people.
Every single week that went by, my own knowledge and confidence in the role grew. I formed friendships and excellent working alliances with counsellors and supervisors alike. I continuously sought to increase my skills, through supervision and attendance at training.
I felt like a valued and appreciated member of the team – often receiving positive feedback for empathy, ethics and commitment. I was entrusted with sensitive and complex contacts. I was even chosen to mentor new volunteers during their first shift to help them to settle in, as well as being allocated trainee counsellors to observe my counselling sessions. To my knowledge, there was never a single mark against my name.
It is no exaggeration to say that my Childline counselling was the most important part of my week. In fact, my decision to re-train as a psychotherapist was solely because of the experiences I had counselling children at Childline. I found helping young people to be one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life and I wanted to devote my time to it.
My concerns about the medicalisation of children with gender dysphoria began when I noticed a significant increase, year on year, with the number of children coming through to the service, saying they felt trapped in the wrong body. It was off the back of this that I ultimately decided to immerse myself in the literature and research on this topic. I have previously written in detail about these concerns, including here.
During this time, I also began to develop concerns about Childline’s approach to gender dysphoria. These included concerns regarding the content of Childline’s webpages on gender identity, the content of their training and the influence that Stonewall and other similar organisations had over Childline’s general policies.
I decided to raise these concerns with supervisors and senior management. I had assumed it would be a safe space and that I would be listened to, especially given the complexity and sensitivity of the issues involved, as well as the significant implications for the welfare of vulnerable children.
My aim throughout was not to needlessly criticise but to engage in an open and productive dialogue, to better the support offered to young people.
Whilst all of my feedback and concerns were acknowledged by senior management within Childline and meetings were held, they were ultimately ignored, with no action ever being taken off the back of them. This included a briefing document I submitted regarding the Childline website. For further details of the concerns I raised with Childline, please see here.
Around the same time, as is now common knowledge, I had been engaging in work around safeguarding children with gender dysphoria more broadly. This included co-founding the group Thoughtful Therapists, writing a petition to government to ask them to safeguard exploratory therapy for vulnerable children and engaging in public awareness raising.
From the outset, Childline sought to limit my freedom of speech in this respect. For example, I was instructed to never refer to Childline as part of any of my written or oral advocacy on the topic. I agreed to this because I wanted to be as collaborative as possible and to keep all channels of communication open.
However, as my advocacy in the public eye increased, I requested permission to simply reference publicly the fact that I was a Childline counsellor. This did not seem to be controversial in the slightest to me, given that it was simply stating a fact.
I was told categorically that this wasn’t allowed and I had to keep my counselling role in the organisation hidden. Over a period of weeks, I made various requests to Childline to ask them to re-consider their position on this, as I felt it was in the interests of transparency that I was able to publicly identify myself as a Childline counsellor.
One day, I was asked to attend an informal call with a senior manager within Childline. At the start of this call, without so much as having a conversation, I was informed that my volunteering contract with Childline was being terminated with immediate effect and that I should not come in for future shifts.
I was shocked and confused. No one else was present on the call. I was told that I was being terminated because it was impossible to keep my Childline role hidden any longer, particularly given my CV and LinkedIn profile. This was even though I had never stepped beyond the boundaries previously set by Childline.
When I mentioned that any counsellor is entitled to reference their volunteering in their CV or on LinkedIn and, therefore, I was being treated differently to other counsellors, the manager had no response.
I emphasised to him that Childline was built on non-judgemental exploration of issues and options for young people and therefore my work trying to safeguard children with gender dysphoria was not in conflict with this.
I was simply told that my work would put children off speaking to Childline. I was not provided with any evidence that this was likely to be the case. Nor was I provided with any policies.
As I began to get visibly upset during the call, I was told that the call would be ended and the senior manager hung up, leaving me alone in tears. I was distraught that an organisation to which I had devoted 5 years of my life could treat me in this way.
I appealed this decision on the basis that I was never provided with clear grounds or evidence to justify the decision or any explanation as to why terminating my contract was deemed to be appropriate or proportionate. Furthermore, Childline did not follow due process and breached their own internal policies on a number of occasions.
The appeal was swiftly rejected, with the majority of my submissions completely ignored, even though breaches of internal policy were acknowledged and accepted. Most concerning of all is the fact that it was expressly stated in writing to me that the reason for my termination had nothing whatsoever to do with the standards or ethics of my counselling.
It became clear to me that the reason for my treatment was because senior individuals within Childline did not like my personal and philosophical beliefs regarding sex and gender. Evidence I have seen, including from a Data Subject Access Request I subsequently submitted, seems to support this.
I had assumed that there would be individuals within the organisation, particularly supervisors, who would come to my defence after my termination. I was sadly mistaken.
I received radio silence from everyone within the organisation. Most saddening of all was the silence received from the dozens of supervisors I worked so closely and well with over the years in the joint pursuit of supporting and safeguarding children and young people.
It was at this time more than ever that I needed support. None came.
There could be numerous reasons as to why nobody within the organisation has reached out to me or spoken out in my defence. For some, they may already be signed up members to the world of gender ideology. For others, they may simply be too afraid of speaking out, for fear of what may happen to them. I appreciate the difficult times we live in, particularly given today’s cancel culture and erosion of free speech. However, given the importance of free speech, particularly when it comes to protecting the welfare of children, I thought this would be a subject in which some supervisors might feel it important to stand up for what is right.
Since my termination from Childline was made public, I have received a lot of abuse online, including individuals on social media making up the most horrible and hurtful lies about me and my counselling at Childline, in part due to the vague and ambiguous public statements published by Childline at the time.
I reached out to Childline, providing them with the details of this, supplying evidence, and asking them to publicly refute these false statements being made about me. Even though supervisors and Childline management alike know these not to be true, nobody has stood up and said so.
Even if Childline disagree with my beliefs in this area, one might have hoped that a counselling service would feel a sense of duty of care and empathy towards a former volunteer who devoted over 1,000 hours to them. It would appear not.
Almost a year on since my termination as a Childline counsellor and the pain and hurt is as raw as ever.
Most Thursday evenings, I find myself looking over to the clock to see what time it is. I remember where I used to be, where I should still be – counselling and supporting young people in need. I feel a deep sense of pain that I have been prevented from doing so.
Whilst there are undoubtedly caring, compassionate and highly skilled employees and volunteers in Childline, I have lost faith in both Childline and the NSPCC as a whole.
Finally, to the young people I spoke with during my 5 years of counselling (who may never even know who I am) – supporting you with whatever you came through with remains one of the most fulfilling things I have done in my life. I can only hope that our conversations had a positive impact on your lives. Speaking to you certainly has had a positive impact on mine.
To young people in general - whilst I may no longer be at Childline, I will never stop speaking out and fighting to ensure that your welfare and wellbeing are safeguarded. That’s a promise.