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.