Mr Palm's speech during the meeting on "Common challenges and goals for protection of children in Albania" organized by the Albanian National Child Helpline in cooperation with UNICEF on 14 June 2013
I arrived in Albania a little over 4 years ago, in 2009. I understood very little of what was going on. My first public appearance as the representative of UNICEF was attending a meeting where the agreement for the operation of the child helpline was announced.
I sometimes wish I could turn back the time, so I could be in this important moment again, with the full understanding of what was happening. Because we – and I really mean us altogether - were creating a unique coalition of the civil society, the private sector, the government and UNICEF, to create an institution that many countries and children can only dream of having.
First, ALO 116 is a service for children who have nobody else to talk to about their problems. Most of us have grown up in stable families, with hardworking parents who gave us love and to whom we could talk when we were in difficulties, or had burning questions. Still, even in the best of families, were there not situations in which you did NOT want to ask your parents for help? Or where you troubled yourself because you did a bad exam in school? Or you felt romance but where too shy to ask anyone for help or advice? Now imagine children who are growing up in disadvantaged families; and situations multiply where you just want to talk to someone who is listening to you. Even worse, imagine the families, where a child may feel threatened and insecure.
Second, this is a service open 24 hours a day for every day in the year. Any telephone service might be good, but it is really good only if you have it day and night, any time. A child in trouble cannot wait for the offices to open next day. Help is needed most urgently when it is tends to be far away.
Third, this helpline give professional service from trained counselors. From people, who know what they are talking about, who are dedicated to be of assistance, and with a system that monitors the quality of the service.
Fourth, the service is free. This is thanks to our partners from the telephone companies – mobile and fixed – and the regulating authority, AKEP. I wish to particularly thank these businesses for this. After 4 years we take it for granted that it has to be free, but this is not the case in many countries. But ALO 116 is not a helpline for bankers who need a bailout; it is a helpline for children, especially from poor families, many of which wouldn’t call if there would be a charge. I also think that this is how the private sector can best show their social responsibility, not only by contributing cash for charity, but putting their core business into the service of children in need.
The number of callers speaks for itself – about 100,000 calls per year, of which 30,000 calls are really serious calls where children need advice and help. These are 80 cases per day where the helpline provides professional assistance, which I think is a lot for a relatively small country.
Fifth – what makes ALO 116 unique is also the fact that there is only one simple number to call. In many countries you have competing numbers, or long numbers that nobody can remember, and you might be sent from one to the next. Here in Albania, we have one short number, 116, which is also the number that is in use in many European countries exactly for this purpose. I even don’t know why not all countries would adopt this system, because it is so common sense – but we have it here in Albania.
Sixth, ALO 116 is not only a helpline where children can talk to someone if they have nobody else to talk to. It is also a hotline, which can trigger an immediate alert to law enforcement and border controls if a child has gone missing. As Albania is integrating into Europe, there will be more and more people travelling between Albania and other countries, and to have a hotline has become a requirement in European countries. Imagine the horror of being separated from your child in shopping mall or on a busy beach – we don’t want to think about it but for this and other situations a hotline is needed. So far only 17 countries of the EU have complied in full with the requirement. Albania should be proud of its helpline. It is one of the things where you no longer need to be reminded of doing before acceding to Europe; on the contrary, you can demonstrate to some European countries how it should be done.
With all its success, let me also point at some issues that can be further improved. Most importantly, the helpline needs a sustainable financial base. The core budget should be financed by government. A child helpline is an indispensable part of any child protection system. If you want your child to be safe, and if you want your child to have access to information and help, you want a functioning, professional helpline. I hope that the legislator will soon take appropriate measures to guarantee a core budget for this service.
Then, I think, we need to ensure that mechanisms are created for the provision of emergency services. The helpline can make all appropriate contacts, but there must also be an efficient response by other service providers, law enforcement or others, near to the child. This is a matter of cooperation with the official government departments (health, legal services, and social services), who need to be fully committed to intervene when needed.
Lastly, let me thank the counselors, who serve long and stressful hours on the other end of the line. This is a very taxing job, and not many people can do it for a long time without also getting emotionally exhausted. You do a marvelous job, and I trust that arrangements will continue to be made to ensure your own wellbeing.
The Durban Resolution of 2012 resolved that all countries must have a helpline. Here in Albania you got a helpline that is a model for all others.
Again thank you all, the staff and management of the helpline, the telephone companies and all the other partners and donors that contribute to the success.