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.
THE PONT IS THERE WAS A HYSTERICAL 6-YEAR OLD AND NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON
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.
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!’.