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.
Watch: A few things have changed since our school days.
In an effort to create a practical solution VicHealth is currently running a Walk To School initiative for the month of October.
Victorian primary school students are encouraged to walk, ride or scoot to and from school to start healthy lifestyle habits.
To combat the fear, VicHealth have also provided some practical tips on how to keep children safe on their way to and from school.
They believe allowing children to get places on their own can help develop self-confidence and mental well-being and encourage parents to judge when their child is ready for independent travel.
Advice for children who have freedom to move around in public spaces without adult supervision:
- Remind your child about strategies for when things go wrong, such as what to do if approached by a stranger.
- Renegotiate and agree with your child on any milestones and boundaries as she or he gets more capable and confident.
- Consider and encourage your child to use a mobile phone to support their independence.
When I look back at my childhood, before Samantha Knight’s case, I have fond memories of walking to and from school.
I ran down that huge hill on the only random snow day with my shoes wrapped in make-shift plastic sandwich bags – the kind of waterproofing only my mother could come up with.
My brother and I ran up that hill through big bundles of orange leaves and “itchy bombs” in the autumn and we avoided the well-known crazy magpie trees on the way home in spring.
I wish it could have been that innocent forever, I wish that Samantha Knight had been safe.
VicHealth says walking to school can help children achieve the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day. They think it’s a very good idea.
As my son grows towards independence and makes his own tracks to school, I know I will have to learn to let go and not pass on my anxiety to him.
My 30-year-old childhood fears will have to be faced as he makes his way into the world alone.
However, I do still have my nine-year-old childlike view on it all. I just wish we were in a world where bad people didn’t exist and all children were safe walking to school.
I hope we are making a world like that possible.