‘Dear parent, we don’t want to alarm you but we are aware of a possible attempted abduction of a student in the area. Please talk to your son about travelling safely to and from school.”
The message from Oatlands College, in Mount Merrion in Co Dublin, was sent on Monday morning. It was never intended to be widely dispersed. But it was quickly posted on Facebook and, by Wednesday, had been shared more than 1,800 times.
The alleged incident related to a younger secondary student, but the message also made its way to parents with children at the neighbouring Oatlands Primary School.
Oatlands College moved swiftly to protect its children. Its principal, Caroline Garrett, says that its Stay Safe policy swung into operation. The school reported the allegation to the Garda, which advised it to issue a text alert.
Parents wanted more information, but the school rightly sought to protect the child at the centre of the alleged incident. “Heightened alert,” said one Facebook poster. “A near successful abduction,” said another. “Watch your kids in the area.”
On Wednesday St Andrew’s College, a fee-paying secondary school about two kilometres away, in Booterstown, sent a letter to parents stressing that although such events are rare, children should be aware of their personal safety. It asked parents to ensure that their children travel in groups, especially in unfamiliar areas, and that they don’t talk to or accept lifts from strangers.
The story also appeared on newspaper and parenting websites. There was an understandably alarmed reaction online.
Although the report has, rightly, been taken seriously, a number of signs in this case – including that the Garda, although aware of the case, has not publicly sought assistance; and that an official statement from Oatlands College steers clear of language such as “near successful abduction” – suggest that a child snatcher might not have been lurking outside the school.
The number of attempted child abductions is far outweighed by the number of rumours and stories about the topic – and now social media further amplifies such stories. The archetypal image of men in white vans, cruising the country in search of children to abduct, has an ancient provenance, but it is out of proportion to the real risks that children face.The story is found, in one form or another, all over the world, and still has the power to grip the public imagination.
Between October 1998 and January 1999 various newspapers, including The Irish Times, reported more than 60 "suspicious approaches" to minors, most of which were regarded as attempted abductions.
Reports came from Dublin, the midlands, Dundalk, Cork and Donegal. One paper reported that an English-registered white van had been trying to abduct children in Wexford.
The Garda investigated all of these allegations but found only one to be a cause for concern. Some were outright hoaxes, others were innocent approaches by motorists, others still were incidents that children had misinterpreted or exaggerated. One of them, although counted as an “alleged abduction attempt”, involved no more than a girl feeling uncomfortable because two people in a car stared at her while stopped at traffic lights.
In August 2002 the murders of the English schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were followed by an increase in reports of alleged abductions in Ireland. The Garda said they were merely innocent cases where cars had broken down.
Approaches by men in cars – including, last year, a “sinister” motorist speaking to a child in Co Wicklow and a male motorist in Co Donegal very seriously harassing a 15-year-old girl – are widely reported in the media as attempted abductions, but these reports often miss crucial context.
In January 2005, 11-year-old Robert Holohan went missing in Cork and was later found dead. Several newspapers reported "suspicious" white vans in the area. It transpired that the child's killer was well known to both the victim and the victim's family; child abusers and killers almost always are.
Studies in the United States show that, of about 800,000 children reported missing every year, only 115 – or 0.01 per cent – are taken by strangers. In Ireland the vast majority of missing children are not taken by strangers: they are more likely to be children of African or Asian origin who have left the country or have been abducted by a parent. Many are teenage runaways.
There is only a handful of exceptions, including the recent case of a 36-year-old man who did fit the abductor stereotype and who was convicted of attempting to abduct a girl in Co Laois. The missing children Philip Cairns, who disappeared in 1986, and Mary Boyle, who disappeared in 1977, may have been taken by strangers. Over the past decade, as a lecturer in Irish folklore at University College Dublin, I gathered dozens of narratives about attempted child abductions in Ireland. They followed a similar pattern, often involving an unfamiliar van or car in the area, a strange man, and an offer of sweets or a glance at a puppy. Most ended with the child running away. All were unverifiable.
Often, as noted in some Facebook comments about this week’s Oatlands case, there is a suspicion about why the story was not more widely reported. Usually, it is because there is no story, or because it hasn’t happened quite as alleged and reporting the truth is unhelpful.
Some cases, for example, involve vulnerable children who have drawn from things they have heard and absorbed, and believe themselves to be at risk. To some extent this reflects the success of the Stay Safe programme.
Some vigilance is advisable, but there is a risk in parents being overcautious. By being very protective towards their children, parents may indeed make the children physically safer, but in adulthood those children may be too unprepared, inexperienced and uncertain to cope with the real world. Children need space to play, roam and grow.
If there is a genuine threat to children, expect to hear from the Garda. Otherwise, treat these tales with caution.