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Monday, 19 August, 2002, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Are we too scared for our children?
shrine for the missing girls
The plight of Holly and Jessica has touched many
The abduction and murder of two 10-year-old girls has once again raised the spectre of evil in our midst. But do parents have good reason to be afraid?

When Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing a little over a fortnight ago, a nation held its breath. As the days of searching stretched into weeks, mums and dads clung just that bit tighter to their own children's hands as they set out each day.

Now that the bodies of the Cambridgeshire 10-year-olds have been recovered, their families' tears of fear have turned to cries of despair.

Father holds child close in Soham
The rarity of such cases may not dampen fears
And throughout the UK the girls' plight has again raised concerns about strangers who may pose a danger.

Yet such cases are rare. Of the children murdered each year, just a fraction die at the hands of an unknown assailant.

Reported cases of child abductions are on the up, but in the main the perpetrator is a family member. Kidnaps and murders by strangers are no more common than 20 years ago, according to Home Office figures which show there are about six such deaths annually.

Modern-day bogeyman

Ian Stephen, a forensic psychologist who advised on the television crime dramas Cracker and Prime Suspect, doubts there are more paedophiles now. It is just that we hear more about their activities.

An ambulance carries the bodies to a hospital in Cambridge
Even the removal of the bodies has been covered
"It's only in the past couple of decades that people have started to pay attention to what children say has happened to them.

"And increased mobility and the internet have made it easier for paedophiles to communicate with each other, as well as make contact with children."

The extensive media coverage given to such cases - and to the dramatic campaigns against sex offenders - has contributed to the perception that paedophiles constantly lurk in our midst, Mr Stephen says.

It is the same in the US, where this summer reporters have talked of an "epidemic" of child abductions. George W Bush has called a conference to work out ways to stem the "wave of horrible violence" threatening children.

Yet few of the children abducted in the US have been snatched by strangers. The FBI lists 62 such cases in the past 10 months, a rate slightly lower than that in the previous year.

Close to home

Mr Stephen says not only do current cases hit the headlines, adults who were abused decades ago have started to come forward. Many had been the victim of someone they knew and trusted.

I was allowed on a bus by myself at a young age - today that almost seems like neglect

Ian Stephen
"In most cases it is not 'stranger danger' that's the problem, it's your uncle, your father, your school teacher," says Mr Stephen.

In a study by Huddersfield University to be released later this month, more than one in five children said they had been approached by a paedophile while away from home. In the main, the child knew the person involved.

The researchers also found that the majority of children who said someone had tried to snatch them had managed to evade their assailant.

"This is because parents and carers talked to their children about the risks and it shows that forewarned is forearmed," says Bernard Gallagher, the co-author of the report.

Father and son holding hands
Shielding a child may put them more at risk
Parents have to strike a balance between giving their child protection and independence, Mr Stephen says.

"I'm a man of 60 who remembers being told not to talk to strangers, but I was also allowed to go on a bus by myself from a relatively young age. Today that would almost seem like neglect."

Rather than over-emphasising "stranger danger", which could give children a false sense of security around people they know, he recommends that parents gradually teach children how to look out for themselves.

"If you keep them inside the house, they will never learn independence and how to cope with danger - yet that's part of growing up."

Are you concerned for the safety of your children? Would you like to let them roam, but fear the worst? Let us know using the form below:

We moved to France in 2001, and at first I was aghast at my neighbours' tendency to leave their children alone at home while they popped to the shops. Neglect, I thought! Now, I'm not so sure - the children are safe in their own homes, they all know their neighbours and can use the phone to call for help if needed. The parents feel it is their duty to give their children a sense of responsibility early on. Is France a safer country and are there no paedophiles here? Certainly not. I think it is more that in Britain, people who watch out for others are "nosey"; if they try to help children, they can be wrongly accused of far worse. We have created a culture of fear, probably far in excess of the real danger.
Veronica, France

There is probably no more child abuse now than 20 or 30 years ago (remember Brady and Hindley?) - what is missing is trust. Children face danger at all times, but they need to take risks. The paranoia over child abduction is a further example of our insistence that accidents and bad things cannot happen - if they do it must be someone's fault. I have a daughter, I worry when she is out but respect her right to grow independent.
Chris, UK

I'm a parent of a six-year-old. Although the chance of abduction is extremely small, the impact is great, making it worthwhile managing the risk. So I ensure that she is always dropped off and collected, no matter how awkward. As a male, I'm also concerned about a malevolent child calling me a paedophile. I therefore never take any of my child's friends anywhere without a chaperone. Sad!
Mark Johnson, UK

I try to let my children have as much freedom as possible. I have talked about sex abuse and abduction from an early age, and emphasise that most crimes are committed by people they would trust. I tell them that no-one has a right to touch them or hurt them in any way.
Maria, UK

Both my children walk to school and have done so since they were in junior school. They also walk to the cinema, swimming and pretty much every other activity. Do I worry about them being abducted? Of course not, it's very unlikely to happen and I see no reason to restrict their lives because of the media hysteria. Children need to be allowed freedom to be themselves, not wrapped in cotton wool. Unfortunately we will have a generation who will turn up on their first day at work still clutching their mother's hand.
Simon, UK

About 10 years ago I made the selfish decision to not have children. Psychologists would probably have a field day with me, but I would be concerned about their safety 24 hrs a day - a strain I am unwilling to undertake. I am also unwilling to bring a life into this world, when I cannot guarantee that they are not going to be treated in ways that I have had the misfortune of being treated myself.
John, North England

How can you hope to protect your child from the unpredictable? Where can you draw the line between friend and foe? Do we have to say to our children, "Do not speak to those you know, do not trust them, you are only safe within your home and with your parents"?
S Bennett, UK

I have a toddler and another baby due in a couple of months. I would like to say that we have some time before this sort of issue becomes a problem, but as proved with young James Bulger that is not the case. We keep our boy in his pram when we go out, even when he wants to walk. I feel sorry for him, but I'm not risking losing him just for the sake of his minute of freedom. A more difficult time will come when he's older as it's not "cool" to be picked up by your parents and mobiles aren't always the answer.
Andrea Mars, England

It's crucial that our children are given the opportunity to develop resourcefulness and the skills necessary to survive in a tough world when they leave home as young adults. If an adult is always there to pick them up when they fall and graze a knee, how will they ever cope when they have to learn to make decisions for themselves?
Richard English, UK

I have to know where my children are, who they are with and we set a time for them to be home. They always phone before they leave so I have some idea how long the journey will take. I don't know what else I can do to protect them, other than keep them in, and that is not fair on them.
Cheryl Brett, UK

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08 Aug 02 | UK
13 Jul 02 | England
29 Jul 02 | England
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