With Daniel Morcombe’s remains found and a man charged with the Sunshine Coast teenager’s murder, the term “stranger danger” is again front-of-mind. Leading the way are Daniel’s brave parents Bruce and Denise, who have summoned unimaginable strength to travel the state, speaking to school students about personal safety. The Morcombes are also devising a universal distress signal so children can attract attention and fend off would-be attackers.
What concerns me is that any increased media and community focus on stranger danger has two undesirable consequences. Firstly, it creates a perception that our community is filled with child-abductors. The target of this paranoia is generally older men, as seen recently when a group of semi-retired blokes at Palmwoods set up a Men’s Shed so they could socialise and potter together. In no time, there was a complaint to Sunshine Coast Regional Council, arguing that it was no longer safe for children to walk alone in the area.
The second and arguably far more serious side-effect of shining the spotlight on strangers as perpetrators is that the abuse of children in the home, inflicted by trusted adults and family members, disappears into the shadows. As Megan Y said to me in a recent email: “Tragic as it is, cases like that of Daniel Morcombe are incredibly rare thankfully. Crimes like child abuse, abduction and infanticide are usually committed by family members, trusted family friends, church people or foster carers. Why the constant fear-mongering/repetition of the anti-public transport/you must drive your children everywhere meme? I haven’t seen any evidence that the risk of children abduction is higher today than it was when we all walked/rode our bikes/caught buses unaccompanied as children.”
Indeed, a 2007 Griffith University study found that strangers accounted for only 14 per cent of the sexual abuse of children. Friends and family friends were responsible for 50 per cent, whilst 35 per cent of cases involved a family member.
I’m also concerned about the false sense of security created by the Blue Card system which can only ever detect, and protect children from, those who have already attracted the attention of police. There is nothing to stop a child abuser who hasn’t been caught from holding a Blue Card.
All of this leads me to the importance of empowering children within the home. I’m not saying you should panic or suddenly be suspicious of your husband, wife or others who live under your roof or spend time alone with your children. Instead, be pro-active and talk to your children about safety and trust.
Brisbane blogger, radio producer and child abuse survivor Annie Reuss suggests using these words: “An adult who truly loves you will never make you feel afraid – they will always make you feel safe, even when they are angry at you. If an adult ever makes you feel afraid you should always speak to another adult who makes you feel safe.
“Adults should never, ever touch you in sexual places and if they do it is wrong and another adult needs to know about it straight away. Even if they tell you they will do something terrible to someone if you tell on them, don’t believe them. They won’t. “Even if it is someone in your family you must tell someone you trust. You can be brave and you can stop them from hurting others.”
Annie says she always wishes she had spoken up when she was little. “He went on to abuse others and I could have stopped him from doing this by speaking up, but I didn’t and I do feel very bad about that. I didn’t speak up because you know once you do everything changes. Even though you don’t like being abused, it is the only family you know, so it’s a double-edged sword.”
I know other survivors who haven’t felt strong enough to speak up until their 30s and 40s. They share Annie’s guilt – that they could have saved younger family members from the same pain – but at the same time they are relieved to have finally sought justice. It’s never too late for that once scared child inside you to find the strength to tell someone. Finally, a plea to anyone who touches children inappropriately. You are betraying trust, inflicting fear and impacting lives forever. You must stop. Seek help today. Please.