In the shadow of Athlone, how real is stranger danger?
The alleged rape of two young girls has sparked anger and anxiety. How big are the risks of abuse by strangers?
Public support: a rally outside Athlone Courthouse this week. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
It was a day remarkable only for its normality. A sunny Saturday at a children’s birthday party on a quiet housing estate in a town that rarely finds itself in the headlines. Then every parent’s worst nightmare unfolded. Two children went missing, and a desperate search ensured. Two days later, a 30-year-old man was charged with four counts of rape against two girls, aged nine and six.
For legal reasons, the details of the alleged attack, in Athlone, cannot be reported. But it was the sheer ordinariness of the day that made its circumstances all the more shocking. It touched on that most elemental of fears: that our children could come to harm and that we might not be able to protect them.
By Monday, hundreds of parents, neighbours and friends had descended on the town’s Garda station to vent their fear, disgust and anger. Some carried cardboard signs with handwritten slogans seeking justice. Passing cars were urged to sound their horns in support as they crawled through the crowded street. As tensions grew, later in the evening, community leaders appealed for calm and for people to let the justice system take its course.
The anger and fear were raw and real. “I’m physically, physically, physically sick,” said Joanne Hewitt, who has two children, aged one and eight, and was carrying a placard that read “Name and shame”. Hewitt, who is 32, said: “They’re only babies. I’m just thinking of my children. I live 15 minutes away, in a cul-de-sac. I let my little one out. From now on, I’ll be out the front with her. It’s shocking to think you have to do that. They have to have a childhood.”
Anthony Francis, a 32-year-old plumber and father of two from Athlone, helped to organise the protest by posting a message on Facebook the evening before. “We need this to be highlighted,” he said. “People are sickened. People are angry . . . We want people who do this to know that we won’t put up with this.”
After the protesters dispersed in the early hours of the morning, the suspect was taken from the Garda station under heavy security. Hours later he was formally charged at Longford courthouse, flanked by members of the Garda’s armed support unit. A group of about 50 people shouted abuse as he was driven away in a Garda van from a car park at the back of the courthouse.
The events are a reminder of how paedophilia occupies a space once filled by the bogeyman. No one seems to know quite who a potential predator may be, where they are or how a person might turn out to be possessed by the sexual urges that draw them inexorably towards children.
But we do know some some facts. All available research indicates that most child sexual abuse – 92 per cent, according to Irish studies – involves a family member, relative or trusted person. Yet the fear about “stranger danger” far outweighs the infinitely more real menace of abuse within the home or extended circle.
“I can fully understand the community’s reaction,” says Sen Jillian van Turnhout, a former head of the Children’s Rights Alliance, with dozens of years of experience dealing with child-protection issues. “It’s a very human reaction. It doesn’t want to be tarnished by what happened. It’s a kind of grieving for lost innocence, but we need to be careful to channel that energy in the right direction.”
Until relatively recently, paedophilia did not dominate the public consciousness. Then came a succession of seemingly endless child-sexual-abuse cases involving the Catholic Church.
Other high-profile cases in the media are seared in the public imagination. The Marc Dutroux case in Belgium; the killing of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham; the disappearance and alleged abduction of three-year-old Madeleine McCann; the killing of five-year-old April Jones in Wales; and, most recently, Jimmy Savile.
Psychologists call it the “availability heuristic”. In other words, the easier it is to remember an example of something, the more prevalent, frequent or large we think it is.
The Irish Times health columnist John Sharry, a social worker and family therapist, says parents need to put the risks their children face into context. Although child abduction receives extensive media coverage, it remains remarkably rare. “In the past 20 years in Ireland and the UK, there have only been a handful of child abductions, yet in the same time many thousands of children have been killed or seriously injured in road traffic incidents, either as pedestrians or passengers,” he says.
Simply put, Sharry says, children are thousands of times more likely to be harmed on the road than to be abducted and harmed by a stranger.
Some children’s advocates worry that a growing risk-averse culture is stopping children enjoying outdoor play and establishing their independence. Caroline O’Sullivan, the director of services for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, says getting the balance right is a challenge.
“A parent’s job is to protect their child . . . but it can go too far. If a parent is too hands-on, they can end up being prisoners in their own home. They need to be able to go out and play, rather than to build fear and anxiety,” says O’Sullivan. “There are risks in life. You can’t protect them from everything. But we need to let children develop; if we don’t, they’ll never be able to deal with conflict or rise to challenges later in life.”
Others go further. Prof Tanya Byron, a child psychologist and author in the UK, warned this year that parental concerns had reached “insane” levels and that children were being “raised in captivity”. She told a conference that children today are “hugely, hugely restricted” and added: “There are no more predators on the streets, no more paedophiles, than when I was growing up, in the 1970s.”
But parents often feel bombarded by mixed messages and conflicting advice. Commentators may bemoan the fact that children are driven to school and complain that children aren’t allowed to run around in schoolyards. But there are risks for children that didn’t exist a few decades ago. More traffic is on the roads. Society is more litigious than it ever was.
And, whether down to greater awareness or incidence, an ever-increasing number of child-protection and -welfare concerns are being reported to authorities. Most parenting experts and educators agree the best way to prepare children for risk is to equip them to deal with situations through awareness and education.
Stay Safe programmes, which are now mandatory in primary schools, are one way of doing this. The curriculum is officially described as seeking to “enhance children’s self-protective skills by participation in lessons on safe and unsafe situations, bullying, inappropriate touch, secrets, telling and stranger danger”.
The tone of these kinds of practical steps is important, says Sharry. He points out that “scare tactics” are not nearly as effective as positive safety messages. If anything, overemphasising danger can make sensitive children scared of doing everyday things. “For example, rather than telling children that there are ‘bad people’ out there who can harm you, it’s better to emphasise a safety message, such as reminding them that ‘Mummy and Daddy will send only someone they know to collect you,’ or that they should never go anywhere different without asking.”
Simple parental vigilance will make the most difference in ensuring young children’s safety, Sharry adds. Knowing where they are, making sure they are with trusted adults and children, and having rules about being in by a certain time are all habits that will keep young children safe.
If there was any solace from this week’s grim events, it was that for all the fear and anxiety that convulsed Athlone, the families at the centre of the incident wanted to put on record their appreciation of the support of the public, as well as of the Garda and other public services, for the empathy and compassion shown towards them. The professionalism of gardaí had been a source of great comfort, the families said in a statement. Other care providers, they said, had helped them to find their way through this challenging period.
“We would also like to recognise the kindness and practical support that we have received from the people of Athlone,” the families added. “The level of public empathy and practical assistance has been immense and again it has been a source of comfort to us all at this most difficult time.”