Why no-one intervened when a child was nearly abducted

Last week, iVillage posted the ‘heart-stopping’ story of the near-abduction of a six-year-old in Sydney’s Centennial Park… while a whole park-full of onlookers did nothing to stop it.

Yesterday, Fairfax Media described the story as a cautionary tale for our times.

The story is chilling. It was a near miss. I cannot imagine the frightening nature of your child being there one minute, gone the next. And the frantic minutes or hours that follow. Not to mention the confirmation of your worst fears: there was a narrow escape involving a predatory man in a public park. 

But at the same time, I’m somewhat struck by the irony of a moralistic tale that warns parents about the danger of strangers while also highlighting the need for strangers to intervene – indeed –chastising those strangers in the park who failed to intervene. You see, the mother in this case was horrified by the lack of attention, care or insight demonstrated by passers-by who failed to assist her child. In an email she sent to a circle of friends warning them of the incident, she wrote:

“The scariest thing of all is that it was a public holiday, and therewere a million people around.

Both Fairfax Media and the mother in the above case came to a similar conclusion: onlookers should always approach distressed children and ask them if ‘they’re alright’ or whether the adult accompanying them is their parent:

If you see a child obviously in distress (and not just because they didn’t get that Kinder Surprise™ they had their heart set on) get down on your knees and be sure to look into their eyes when asking them if they’re alright; failing that get right into the face of the person they’re with, because when it comes to our kids and their safety it’s time for all of us to step out of our comfort zones. 

But here’s where things get complicated. Because on the one hand, according to these rules it’s perfectly alright for decent/good/nice/honourable people to approach a six year old kid, just not the nasty/evil/child abductor ones.

Well, naturally.  

But let’s actually unpack this a little. There may be a very good reason why no one intervened. And I think it goes beyond the ‘bystander effect’.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were at a family caravan park. It was the morning-after-a-scorcher and a dip in the caravan park pool was the first thing on everyone’s mind. My husband and I headed to the pool early. A bunch of kids, all tiny limbs and teeny bikes, overtook us on walk to the pool. But then we noticed one kid lagging behind his mates, feverishly trying to dislodge his tangled beach towel from his bike chain. He was young (five or six?), and I’m sure I recall training wheels on his bike. His parents weren’t around. 

I forced my husband ahead to help the kid out; having struggled before to dislodge a pair of stubborn flares from my own bike chain, I guessed my husband would be quicker and stronger. That this task was incredibly hard for this kid was confirmed by the grunting, panting, sighing and general sounds of frustration coming from the little kid’s mouth as we approached.

My husband approached the kid tentatively, ‘Do you need some help, mate?’. ‘Yes!’ was the kid’s exasperated reply. But as my husband moved closer to the tangled mess, we heard a shout from across the reserve. About 300 metres away was the kid’s Mum calling his name in a panicked tone. My husband backed away and stood well away from the boy and the bike. I was slightly baffled and starting yanking at the kid’s towel in lieu of my husband, wondering what the issue was. ‘No use calling his name,’ I wanted to shout at the Mum. ‘His bloody towel’s stuck!’.


I was a bit miffed at her cranky yelling. We were helping her kid!

Because, you see, I still hadn’t deciphered what all the fuss was about. I just thought Mum was rude, not in protective Mama-bear mode.  

After I managed to dislodge the kid’s towel and he rode off, my husband turned to me and said. ‘See, you can help whoever you want. But that Mum thought I was going to abduct her kid’.

It was then that I realised my husband was a predatory paedophile while I, as a woman, was a Good Samaritan. It felt like a lose/lose situation. If we had of walked past the kid and ignored his distress at the tangled towel, we would have been accused of being cold-hearted. On the flip side, by stepping in and helping him out, my husband was viewed as a would-be paedophile.

And herein lies the conundrum – how do we teach adultsand kids to both fear and trust strangers? Because although strangers may very well be the cause of danger in some circumstances – they may also hold the key to your child’s safety when another stranger has violent intentions. 

In an ideal world, we would all be able to identify and read the clues when kids are in danger in public. But while the mother in this case described her son as hysterically crying when his Dad eventually found him, a parent’s interpretation of distress is obviously far more heightened than that of a stranger. I am not sure I would be able to decipher the difference between the distressing cries of a six year old in ‘stranger danger’ and those of a kid who just ‘didn’t get that Kinder Surprise’. And why would I have looked twice at a man of 25-years of age walking beside a six year old kid, even if the kid was crying? And even if, as described by the mother, he looked was an ‘overweight,
dungeons and dragons looking kind of guy’. Kids cry all the time. Parents don’t look like some cookie-cutter stereotype of the ‘perfect parent’. And not all people will instinctively differentiate between an ‘ok’ cry and a ‘this-is-not-my-parent’ cry.

And when you’ve stepped in to help a kid out before, only to be met with contempt by a parent, it makes it difficult to not think twice about intervening.

I’m not saying this situation is good. I’m not saying this is the way we want the world to be. But I am saying that there may have been 200 very good reasons why the 200 strangers that passed this kid on the bike path didn’t intervene. 

Do you agree that encouraging bystanders to approach distressed children is problematic or even hypocritical? 

Claire Gallagher is a freelance writer, staff writer for women’s magazine The Peach and a social justice policy officer. She is a lover of feisty debate and persuasive prose (any topic, any time) and tries to find an appropriate outlet for it on her blog Oh, and another thing and on Twitter: @anotherthingoh  

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