My Son Was Abducted And Murdered, Here's What I Wish I Had Known
Sickening. Heartbreaking. Every parent’s worst nightmare.
Fifteen years ago, these were the words used to describe my son Daniel’s disappearance.
Distressingly, they now describe the experience of another Australian child. In chilling CCTV footage released today, a seven-year-old girl is seen being lured by a stranger out of a Kmart store in Brisbane in broad daylight.
The footage is shocking, and serves as a wake-up call to every parent.
Personally, it made me feel ill for the young girl, and I reflect on how Daniel may have felt.
In the footage, the abuser directs, “follow me”, brazenly walking past dozens of other shoppers and out of the shopping center.
He then took the girl to his car, drove her to a secluded area and sexually assaulted her, before dropping her back at the shopping centre 90 minutes later, alone and traumatised. The man, a father of twins, pleaded guilty this week to multiple charges stemming from the December 2018 crime.
In a moment like this, we all hope that our children will know what to do to keep themselves safe. I wish Daniel had known what to do to keep himself safe.
Daniel was a smart kid, and he was also incredibly trusting. Before he was taken, we had never discussed personal safety as a family, the things he should look out for or do if he sensed something was wrong, and the things we should do as a family. It wasn't something we gave much thought to. There are many things I wish I knew back then, and now, I work tirelessly to make sure all parents and kids have these essential conversations and skills.
There are three simple steps kids can learn: recognise, react and report. RRR is designed to give children a go-to response in moments like this, and serves children of all ages.
'Recognise' begins with an understanding of feelings, and body clues. Body clues, or early warning signs, are things our bodies do which tell us we might not be safe.
We’ve all had that 'gut feeling' that something or someone is dangerous, and kids get this too. Reinforce that children listen to their instincts by recognising their body clues: having a racing heart, a funny tummy, shaking legs or hair standing up. Teach children to notice their bodies, and to react if they feel unsafe.
React is a crucial yet difficult step. Teach children to say “No!" in a loud, confident voice and to get to a safe place as quickly as possible.
In reality, this can be very difficult for children who are experiencing fear. Children are also frequently praised for their obedience and thus, find it difficult to distinguish when not to follow instructions.
It’s important to reinforce that children are ‘the boss of their own bodies.’ They have the right to feel safe, and they can say no to anything that makes them feel unsafe.
Finally, we teach children to report feeling unsafe to an adult on their Safety Network.
This is a list of five Safety Helpers: adults who children can trust to listen, believe and support them if they feel unsafe, with at least one living outside the home. Make sure that those nominated by your child as a Safety Helper are aware and equipped to support your child.
Equally, it is important to give your child the tools to contact and speak with their Safety Helpers whenever the need arises -- for example, making sure they know their contact number.
The recognise, react, report sequence is one which can be consistently reinforced. Like all skills that your child is learning from toilet training to piano, personal safety needs to be practiced, updated and reinforced. It is one element of personal safety education, a process which begins in the early years of a child’s life.
Talk early, talk often and keep talking. Personal safety begins with an understanding of feelings, the right to be safe, the difference between public and private body parts, and the rules about touch. These can be addressed in an age appropriate, non-threatening and empowering manner.
*Regularly practice describing feelings and identifying body clues that might mean a person is scared, worried or unsafe.
*Use scenarios to problem solve together what your child might do if they feel unsafe (for example, “what would someone do if they got lost in a shopping centre?” or “what could you do if someone showed you rude pictures at school?”) Make sure that these are not always about strangers.
*Explain body boundaries, and that it is not okay for anyone to look at or touch the private parts or another child or adult.
*Why not arrange a meeting place in case you become separated from your child. How simple is that?
*Explain the difference between secrets and surprises: a secret is something that makes us feel bad whereas a surprise is something that will make someone happy and will always be shared.
*Children are as we know very trusting. Adults equally can tell lies. With this in mind, why not create a family password. A child could then use it to check if they should go with an adult who may offer a gift or seek help to look for their puppy. No Password -- No Go! If someone does not know the password, never go with them no matter what.
Finally, keep communication open. It’s one of those simple things we all take for granted but remind your child that it is always okay to talk to you, no matter what the issue. Reinforce that they will not be in trouble if they tell you a secret they have been asked to keep, you care about them and want to help them stay safe.
It is vital that as responsible adults we are all observant, trust our instincts and recognise potential danger. I urge all parents and carers to constantly be thinking about the welfare of children they are looking after. Give that social media post a rest. It can wait!
This girl's story, like my son Daniel’s, is extremely distressing and devastating. However, just like Daniel’s story, it can be a catalyst for greater commitment to keeping kids safe across Australia.
For more resources on teaching personal safety skills, visit the Daniel Morcombe Foundation.