I was the same age as nine-year-old Samantha Knight when she went missing on her way home from school and it horrified me.
The Sydney schoolgirl vanished from Bondi Road in 1986, never to be found.
The media coverage at the time changed my dreams into nightmares and my walk up the huge hill home seemed fraught with danger – not only for me but also for my little brother walking alongside me.
Samantha Knight’s disappearance remained a mystery until 2001, when Michael Guider pleaded guilty to her manslaughter and was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment.
My heart goes out to Knight’s parents, who still don’t have all the answers.
Now, 30 years on, I am a parent and child abduction is still my worst nightmare.
What we fear
The way children travel to and from school has changed dramatically in the last 30 years and our new inactive “helicopter parenting” habits have now been linked to parental fear.
“Parental fear has been identified as a potentially critical barrier to children’s ability to travel and play independently and may act to restrict physical activity and be a factor contributing to Australia’s high rates of childhood obesity,” a recent VicHealth study found.
The three-year study found that “general fear” and “stranger specific fear” was related to lower levels of independent mobility for children.
“Parents who are fearful are much less likely to let their children engage in independent travel or play,” the study states.
Parents are mostly worried about their child’s personal safety on the journey and specifically – fear of strangers, abduction or assault.
“VicHealth research shows parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’, traffic concerns and crime are the most common reasons children don’t walk or ride to school,” the report states.
A month of walking to school
Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO, says this kind of fear is not irrational but it is “disproportionate”.
“There is no evidence to show that streets are any less safe in terms of ‘stranger danger’ than they were 30 years ago,” she told The Herald Sun in 2012 – ahead of the study.
Now less than one in five Victorian kids walk to school regularly and fewer children are walking to school than ever before.