Why did nobody help a child?

What would you do if you saw a child in distress? (Posed by model)

What would you do if you saw a child in distress? (Posed by model) Photo: Layland Masuda

Generally speaking, I go about my day keeping to myself. But I do make one exception: When I see a distraught child alone or with someone who doesn’t appear to be their parent. 

Last Easter Monday such a child entered the orbit of some 200 people ambling along in Sydney’s Centennial Park. 

It was about 4.30pm and moments earlier the six-year boy had been riding alongside his parents and younger sister before he suddenly took flight and raced ahead. 

And that was it. One minute the air rose with his laughter; the next it filled with the depth of his absence. That’s how quickly and inexorably a child can disappear. 


“What is the scariest thing about this is that when [my husband] found him he was walking with his bike, hysterically crying, with a 25-ish, overweight, dungeons and dragons looking kind of guy next to him,” the unidentified mother wrote in a statement published in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

“[My husband] shouted [our son’s] name at which point the guy ran under the fence at the park.” 

What upset the already ‘distressed mother’ most, however, was that none of the 200 or so people who were in the park, and might have seen her son, made any moves to intervene or alert the police. 

“Most of all, we ask that if you ever see a child who looks uncomfortable, or ill at ease, ASK THEM IF THIS IS YOUR MUMMY OR DADDY ... I think we have to stop being concerned about ‘interfering’ and start being concerned about who could possibly interfere with our children,” she wrote. 

This wasn’t about pointing the finger at a bunch of strangers. This was a bald-faced plea from a parent in freefall, having been forced to deal with the terrible “what ifs” in those interminable minutes following her son’s disappearance. 

Here, it seemed, was a cautionary tale for our times. A mother’s right jabs to the heart of our complacency and a terse reminder that a child’s disappearance must always be treated as a priority. 

One of the most persistent and troubling myths around children’s disappearance is to wait 24 hours before reporting them missing. The reality, as Australian Federal Police National Missing Persons Coordination Centre’s Rebecca Kotz, warned in the SMH last May, is quite the opposite. 

“Don’t wait. If you have fears for the safety of a loved one, you go straight to police and report them missing,” she said. “As soon as the trail goes cold, it’s harder to trace somebody,” she said. 

Does it matter that in Australia, says Kotz, children usually go missing for “an innocent enough reason”, such as failing “to tell their parents of a change of plans”? 

Of course not, because for every child safely home there’s a Madeleine McCann, Jamie Bulger and Daniel Morcombe. Of the 35,000 people reported missing in Australia every year, around 20,000 are under 18. Even though most will be found, as a mother of two small boys it’s still hard not to be haunted by these statistics and their untold stories. 

Our beautiful boys—a five-, soon to be six-year-old, and a three-year-old—keep my husband and I on our toes and on high alert. They’re curious, boisterous and undeniably cheeky. They’re also abject runaways. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve told them of the dangers of running away, but they simply can’t be contained short of keeping them on a leash. (Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind.) 

In the last few months, for instance, our three-year-old has gone missing in the supermarket (three times), a car park (twice) and once even down our street. His absence marked by the seconds crashing into minutes; and our augmenting anxiety. What makes this all the harder to digest is that on each occasion not one person intervened. 

As the mother wrote: “Considering the very close call we had today, and realising that we possibly had a minute or two before a potential tragedy, makes us realise that we are all too complacent in coming forward.” 

To her sage advice allow me to add this. 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. 



  • this reminds me of what happend to my best friend.
    She is dark skinned, and her step son is a fair skinned blonde boy... with autism.
    She took him shopping one day, but on the way back to the car, he started kicking and screaming "HELP ME! HELP ME!" as she walked him back to the car.
    Can you imagine how she felt when people started staring at her? Mind you, no one asked her any questions.

    I understand the point this article is trying to make, because I know I would want someone to help my child if they were ever in a situation illustrated in the article, but you really cant judge someone because they dont look like the parent of the child. Every situation is different.

    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 9:23AM
    • My kids appear completely distressed at being around me all the time.

      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 11:39AM
    • Ah....the dangeons and Dragon guy ...............RAN AWAY?????
      If I was helping a lost child, simply because an apparent parent called out their name, i wouldn't RUN AWAY....I think its fair for this mother to assume that in all probability this dungeons and dragon guy was not a legitimate helper of her child.
      However, the mothers point that people should intervene when a child is crying and ask if the adult with them is their parent is a bit over the top. unless the child and the adult look clearly out of context together or the child is struggling to get away.All children cry at some point with their parents in public and sometimes they struggle to get away from their parents.Can everyone be walking around questionning children if the adult with them are their parents?...rarely can this be done.

      The mother makes some good points but I think the worry and trauma she has gone through makes her overstate her case.And finally....instead of thinking about doing so...she needs to actually go out and buy then regularly USE child leads for her children. That would be more responsible towards her own children (as opposed to writing this article) than writing this article which does, as i have said...have some very good points despite my criticism of its naievity at times..

      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 7:56AM
  • I think you know why people don't now intervene.

    It isn't that they don't want to help, it is purely that they are afraid of the consequences and accusations that may follow by doing so. Especially if you are male.

    We've made a society where every adult is a potential paedophile. We're paying the price.

    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 9:56AM
    • But how can any decent man run the risk of letting a child be abducted because he is afraid of being accused himself?

      If a man intervened in one of these situations and returned the child to it's parents, how is he going to be accused of doing anything wrong? Granted, the parents in their distress might not be appreciative and even react inappropriately to the innocent man, but still isn't that better than a tragedy occurring?

      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 11:09AM
    • @ ian, i agree. i would most likely not assist. it only takes one person to misinterpret the situation and someone's reputation (especially a male) can be ruined, even if it was later shown not to be suspicious. imagine a hysterical parent running at you yelling leave my child alone, don't you dare touch them, and most likely using more colourful and inflammatory language. people are told, if a child even simply falls over, unless they are in your care, do not touch them.

      i once was a committee member of a swimming club. we were instructed to never get into a situation of being alone with a swimmer, especially a junior and to never touch a swimmer on pool deck i.e. in public view, no matter what the circumstances. there was a situation (about 15 years ago) where a very distraught 15 year old came to me (on pool deck) for consoling. the moment she was within arm's reach, i backed away. the poor girl was confused and it made her even more upset, even though i had tried to placate her with words alone. to this day, i still feel bad about it. however i would still do the same, i have seen situations and heard rumours that are totally baseless that spread like wildfire. if someone witnessed me cuddling a swimmer while consoling her, goodness only knows where the accusations would lead.

      unfortunately this is what society has evolved to. i do not agree with it, however it is the sad reality

      sad sad land
      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 10:11PM
    • I was outdoors recently and a male had found a lost child but he quickly transferred that child to the first female that walked by. He clearly looked uncomfortable.

      The irony about our society is that we have created so many rules in an attempt to 'protect' people, but we have lost something in the process - personal responsibility and friendliness. In countries where there are noticeably less rules people tend to help each other out more as they do not have to fear litigation when the outcome turns out less than perfect.

      ESL teacher
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 5:49AM
  • You answered the question yourself when you painted the "25-ish, overweight, dungeons and dragons looking kind of guy" a potential danger. He may have just been walking and upset and lost boy back to the last place he saw his parents.

    Date and time
    April 09, 2013, 10:11AM
    • Exactly. That thought has been going on in my head the past few days. Was he really trying to abduct the child, or help a lost boy and perhaps took one look at the father's face and decided to leave?

      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 12:24PM
    • ...and possibly seen the dad's expression suggesting that the dad was about to drag him in front of the police and/or kick his arse, and panicked.

      I've seen a man fail to help someone else's little girl as she was falling off a bit of play equipment at a park. He just looked awkwardly around for her parents while she was slipping, then bam, she fell right on her head.

      I'm the sort of guy who helps, despite my own mum's dire warnings that it might come back to bite me some day, but I can seriously see why a lot of men don't want to risk it. I took a lost kid to the mall info-desk once, and was so nervous I had to ask a female passer-by to come with me.

      This article shows why.

      Seriously, dungeons-and-dragons men should just be locked up in advance.

      Date and time
      April 09, 2013, 12:48PM

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