Sunday, February 06, 2011

Dangers, real and perceived

My friend and I were talking the other day about the news stories that freaked us out when we were kids. For me the story was the abduction of Eloise Warledge.

Eloise Warledge was taken from her home in Melbourne in 1976. She was eight years old. When her family discovered her missing they found the front door unlocked, the bedroom window flyscreen was cut from the inside. No-one was ever charged with her abduction, and no trace of her was ever found. The parents had been on the brink of separation, had argued that night, the father had been drinking, and each parent had neglected to close the front door. It was left open. I was aged eleven and totally freaked out that a child could be taken from her bed. Police investigators found 200 incidents of suspicious behaviour in the locality on the night she disappeared. I wonder if anyone would have reported those incidents if she hadn’t disappeared that night.

For my friend (who is a little younger than me) the story was about Samantha Knight. In 1986 Samantha Knight was aged nine. She went missing after school in Bondi. She was taken and drugged by her abuser, Michael Guider, who accidentally overdosed her. He was convicted sixteen years later. Samantha had routinely been left unsupervised after school. Guider was a free babysitter to single mums, and had routinely been drugging and abusing children for years. It turns out that another of the children who had been in his care had told her mother about the abuse a few weeks before Samantha died. The family had not told police, nor the other families who had trusted Guider.

So, what can we, as parents, learn from these cases?

We are, thankfully, more aware of child abuse now, and, hopefully, more likely to report cases that are brought to our attention. A child of Samantha’s age would now go to after school care rather than go home alone. And she would have a mobile phone and tell her mother where she is going. The story does, however, point to the vulnerability of single parents, who need support, still, and always will.

But what about the case of Eloise Warledge? A similar case happened in Sydney in 2005, when 19 month old Rahme El-Dennaoiu was taken from her home where she was sleeping in a bed with her sisters. The fly screen over the window had been cut. And, of course, the case of Madeleine McCann, who disappeared from a hotel room in Portugal in 2007. How can we protect sleeping children? We can lock the front door and stay in the same premises, but, in the case of Rahme El-Dennaoiu the audacity is astounding. There is nothing that could have been done.

What I find extraordinary is something attributed to Eloise’ mother, Patsy, in an interview in 2003. She had two younger children, and wanted them to live normal lives.

Shortly after the disappearance, Anna and Blake made a kite and wanted to take it to a nearby park for a test flight. Patsy was finishing cooking but let them go alone - following just minutes later. Instinctively, she says, she knew she had to let them live normal lives and not be prisoners to their sister's mystery.

So, what are we doing? Are our children prisoners to the tragedy of the few children who disappear? What do we tell our children? What of our own experiences?

There are times I’ve been in danger.

At seventeen I was raped by a young man I trusted. I told a friend who didn’t believe me. The man behaved as if he had done nothing wrong, even though I was retching and in shock. I told him he was never to speak to me again. A few times I’ve been felt up whilst on a train. The first time it took me a while to realise what was happening was not an accident. I didn’t say anything - I was nineteen, I think, and the train was crowded - but I remember I cried when I got home. It happened again when I was pregnant. I yelled at the man and got off the train, was late for work, and cried when I told my boss why I was late. When I was younger I would often walk where I was going, alone, late at night. I worked for a time at a nightclub in the city and would walk home to Darlinghurst through Hyde Park at 3am. I often walked from the train station through the quiet streets to my parent’s house and once encountered a man masturbating with his face covered, so I knocked on the door of the hospital and asked them to call the police who drove me home. I also called the police one night when I was working as a phone sex operator (that was the official name) and someone had rung saying he knew where we were and he would get us. Then there was a banging on the door at the time my shift finished so I rang the police to escort me to my car. I've been held up at gunpoint when working behind a bar at a club on New Years Eve. At a share house I've woken up to find a drunken and uninvited police officer lying on top of me. At another share house a home invader broke our front door in, door frame and all. I've been in minor car accidents. I had a psychotic reaction to an injection of antibiotics when I had mastitis - the psychosis was that I believed I was dying. Other times I’ve trusted my instincts to turn away from danger, like the time when I would walk through a park on the way to work, and one misty morning a man was cycling in circles in front of the tunnelway and I couldn’t see past him, so I turned and went the long way around, again, making me late for work. Sometimes the turning away from danger was simply by going home instead of partying on. (I’ve done some pretty stupid, trusting, things by partying on - I’ve been very lucky! I’ve avoided disaster many times by sheer luck.)

But I'm OK. I've never been bashed. I've never experienced an earthquake, flood, fire or cyclone. I haven't witnessed a massacre (my friend was at Port Arthur). Some dangers you can prepare for; others just hit you out of nowhere.

So, I’m telling my children to trust their instincts. I’m telling them to ask for help when they feel unsafe. That it is OK to be late if the option is a risk to your safety. That it is OK to call the police. But I’m also telling them they can walk to school on their own, and walk around the neighbourhood to see their friends and run errands. Safety first, but within that, have fun. I’m listening to Eloise’s mother. If she can do it, so can we.

For more on raising kids to feel safe and free, see Lenore Skenarzy’s Free Range Kids.

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