Aged six and nine, the girls were outside the house at which the birthday party was taking place when they were asked by a man they didn’t know to accompany him to a nearby building.
After being lured inside, they were detained and assaulted. It was a nightmarish case which exposed one of the deepest fears of mums and dads – that no matter how hard they try to make them understand, parents may not be getting through to their kids about ‘stranger-danger’.
An experiment carried out by ITV Daybreak bluntly demonstrated just how easily young children can be lured away by a stranger.
Nine children were approached as part of the experiment, which was carried out in a controlled environment — and, shockingly, seven of them were successfully enticed away.
A mother of one of the children later said she was horrified by what she described as a reality check:
“It showed me you cannot be naïve, you cannot trust that your kids know as much as you’ve told them.”
Parents face a big challenge in getting the message across, particularly to younger children, that they simply mustn’t trust strangers, says child and adolescent psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan.
This he says, is partly because they often don’t realise just how quickly young children forget the warnings:
“We forget that important messages in kids’ lives need to be repeated — children’s brains are developing and their capacity to think about situations that they do not encounter every day is limited.
“What we tend to do with stranger danger messages is we do it intermittently.”
But children need safety messages to be repeated regularly because they struggle to retain this information until about the age of eight, says Ryan, Director of the Doctoral Programme in Clinical Psychology at the University of Limerick.
But he says, there’s another reason:
“The reason why most children will go away with someone is because most of them are living in safe, caring, nurturing homes so they presume that adults are safe and caring and looking out for them because that’s what they’ve been exposed to since they were born.” Such children don’t need to have a danger antenna all the time, he says, because to them, the danger is hypothetical.
“I have worked with children who were brought up in emotionally, psychologically and sexually abusive homes, and even when they’re taken out of those homes they remain hyper-vigilant for any sign of threat in their environment.
“They’re highly mistrustful and they would be more streetwise to the threat of stranger danger.”
Parents must continuously repeat safety messages to young children, agrees Fermoy, Co Cork-based Sgt Andrew Geary, a former community garda and father of four, aged between five and 10.
The Garda School’s Programme, which has a comprehensive module on the issue of stranger danger, officially starts at fourth class, but most community gardaí will visit pupils at all levels of the school to impart safety messages, he says.
“The warnings about stranger danger are usually imparted in story form — colouring in a poster and then checking to see the children understand by going through what they present back to you.
“However, small children often will not have the sense to say no to a non-threatening stranger, until they are about nine or 10, so it’s very important for parents to keep repeating the message.”
On a positive note, parents are more vigilant about child safety nowadays than they would have been 20 years ago, he says, and children today are more aware that they are entitled to say ‘no’ to an adult they see as a threat.
“Getting this message home is very important and you have to keep saying it from an early age.
“As a parent you want your child to feel secure and safe, you don’t want to take away their innocence at an early age but you have to teach them that it’s okay to say ‘no’ to a stranger or a person they don’t trust.”
Clonmel mum Laura O’Mahony was one of those who saw the ITV documentary.
O’Mahony, who runs her own business, Happy in Your Nappy, and has two sons, four-year-old Joe and newborn baby Dan, described the programme as both “realistic and very frightening”:
“I think kids expect a stranger to be someone in a long dark coat who looks evil – they expect cartoon figures and they’re not equipped mentally to refuse someone who just looks like a normal everyday person.
“They just don’t consider that person a threat,” says the Co Tipperary entrepreneur.
Sgt Andrew Geary warns of a new danger to children at primary school and at second-level:
“There’s a new environment of stranger danger that parents really need to be aware of, this is on the internet. It’s an environment where children or young teenagers are not saying ‘no’ the same way they would on the street.
“Parents need to be aware of the potential risks of the internet – and be aware of the stranger danger posed by laptops, iPads and smartphones which should be used only in family rooms and not bedrooms.”
* Give safety messages regularly. Don’t wait for something on TV or the newspapers to remind you
* Use ordinary situations as examples to reinforce your message
* Don’t just tell children not to trust strangers – do role play with them and re-enact an ordinary everyday situation
* Use a safety ‘code word’ that whoever is picking them up at school must know. Ensure the word is easy to understand and remember
* Give safety messages in a calm and playful way – your child’s memory is still developing and they don’t remember stuff that doesn’t happen every day. “The things children remember are things they get exposed to a lot, so regular, calm reminders are important. If you teach children out of a situation of fear you will only frighten them,” says Dr Ryan
* Explain that a stranger is a person you do not know at all or don’t know very well, says Garda Lisa O’Sullivan, a Community Garda in Bandon
* Explain that although a stranger might know a child’s name or address or other details that doesn’t mean it’s safe to talk to them. Explain that while the child may know a person to see, if he or she doesn’t know them well, that person is a stranger, she says.
* Tell your child that if he or she is frightened or feels nervous, to stay calm, to run to a safe place and tell an adult or to shout “no” or “help” to draw attention to yourself. If he or she cannot run home, run into a safe place with people around, such as a shop, café or school. Somewhere busy is safe.
* Tell someone you can trust like a Garda, a teacher or a grown-up you know well. You can also trust someone in who is doing their job, such as a shopkeeper.Warn your child:
* never to get in a car with a stranger.
* Never to go somewhere with a stranger.
* Never take things from a stranger.
* Sometimes a stranger may say they’ve lost their dog or cat and will ask a child to help find it. Tell the child not to go and to run home or tell someone.
* Warn a child that if he or she is unsure about a stranger at school to tell the teacher.
* Tell your child not to go off playing alone – explain that nobody would know where the child was if anything happened.