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Families for Freedom Child Safety Bulletins

Safer than you think

Families for Freedom was set up in June 1996 [in the United Kingdom], by a group of parents and professionals involved with children. We believe that the risks to children are grossly exaggerated. All the evidence points to the fact that children are safer, healthier, better fed, better read and more computer-literate than ever before. Prenatal, infant and child mortality rates have continued to decline over the past two decades. There has been no increase in the minuscule risk of child abduction and murder in the post-war period. And juvenile crime, despite all the scary headlines, is low and declining.

Instead, we would argue, children do face very real problems today. They are over-protected and prevented from developing any life separate from their parents. They are driven to school, watched at play and their activities are organised by adults. As a result, they have less and less opportunity to explore the world for themselves, to choose their own friends, and to learn what it means to be independent.

Parents also face unprecedented, often self-imposed constraints. Intensely preoccupied with their childrens' well-being they subordinate everything to it, including their own interests. Most parents feel they must put their own lives on hold while their children grow up, and even believe that they should consult their children before they make any decisions about the family's future. In subordinating themselves to their children they undermine their own ability to assert authority.

People are susceptible to the scaremongering around children because we live in a society that has lost faith in itself. There is also a profound sense of insecurity about the future, however insignificant, can have unforeseen and harmful consequences. This sense of risk and fear of the unpredictable is sharply focused on children and the way they are treated, which means that increasingly everybody is blaming parents. Not only are problems exaggerated but, where they used to be seen as having social roots, they are now seen as being caused by inadequate or irresponsible individuals. Reforming individuals rather than society has become the major objective for professionals and politicians alike.

Families for Freedom argues the case for less worry and fewer restraints. We urge parents to relax and enjoy their children. We implore everybody to resist the scares that may frighten the life out of our future generation.

The following fact sheets are part of a series that Families for Freedom plan to publish over the next few months.

Stranger Danger

Children arid Accidents

Secure Schools

Beware the Anti-Bullies

Youth - Vulnerable and Dangerous?

The Cot-Death Guilt Trip

Children, Sunshine and Skin Cancer

Stranger Danger

For a few mouths after Jamie Bulger was murdered, some supermarkets displayed a poster showing a close-up photograph of n adult clasping a small child's hand. The caption beneath it said: `Don't Iet go, it only takes a second'. In the years that have followed we have witnessed an escalating fear of the unknown and uncontrollable freak event - the stranger taking a child. Indeed, the recent responses to the events at Dunblane and of Dutrouz in Belgium have been characterised by the fear for every and any child from an unknown individual who could be lurking anywhere. `No child now seems safe from what was unimaginable only a year ago.' (Guardian Section G2, 20/08/97)

Most parents are scared of `the stranger'. This was borne out by research conducted by FfF in June 1998 where, out of 200 parents interviewed, 76% put this as their biggest worry. Similarly the Campaign group Kidscape's report `How safe are our children?' (July 1993) showed that, based on interviews with 1,000 adults, by far the biggest fear of parents was possible abduction of their child by an unknown person. Ninety five percent of parents put this fear at the top of their list. In 1995 Barnardos published a survey in which they found that nearly 70% of parents felt their neighbourhood was unsafe, and half said they never let their children play out without adult supervision. Again their biggest single fear was strangers. Other surveys have supported these findings. Responding to the `risks' posed by strangers, some `parent-friendly' supermarkets and shopping malls have even offered to supply baby reins and have discussed the possibility of electronically tagging babies (Independent 14/01/96).

What is the risk?

Very few books on Childcare mention risks from strangers. They tend to concentrate on issues such as accidents and nutrition. Indeed one of the first surveys into crimes children face found that the major problem was bicycle theft and did not mention strangers at all. In publications that deal primarily with children at risk from violence, attack or sexual assault there is also little or no mention of `the stranger'. This is because the risk of a stranger harming a child is extremely small (see table below). A Home Office researcher into murder of children commented that, `There are two messages to emerge: First, children are not becoming more vulnerable to homicide, and second, the evidence of homicide by strangers on children has been consistently Iow.' (Quoted by Stuart Wavel in The Sunday Times 06/08/95).

Offences recorded as homicide where the victim was aged under 16 and a suspect was identified who was not known to the victim (Home Office figures 1996).

1975:7 1976:6 1977:6 1978:8 1979:5 1980:14 1981:5 1982:6 1983:4 1984:6 1985:8 1986:10 1987:9 1988:6 1989:5 1990:4 1991:10 1992:2 1993:5 1994:7 1995:6 1996:5

1975 7   1983 4   1991 10
1976 6   1984 6   1992 2
1977 6   1985 8   1993 5
1978 8   1986 10   1994 7
1979 5   1987 9   1995 6
1980 14   1988 6   1996 5
1981 5   1989 5      
1982 6   1990 4      

Abuse and abduction by strangers

Research conducted in Scotland in 1990 found that, out of the 89 families referred to the Dundee Royal Infirmary's Department of Child Psychiatry for sexual abuse and related problems, over a five-year period, the abuser was a stranger in only three per cent of cases. Abduction by a stranger is also very rare. It is hard to be precise as the legal definition changed in 1984. Before that date there was an offence called 'Child Stealing' and it only applied to strangers. However, with the recognition that fathers were taking their children without the consent of the mother in cases of separation and divorce, the law was changed. The present crime of abduction includes parents, who cannot be classified as strangers. However, if every one of the convictions or cautions for abduction in 1992, for example, were against strangers, 54 out of nearly 12,000,000 children is still an extremely low risk.

Restricted Iives

On the whole parents take very little comfort from these facts and figures. They know that the risk is small but the fear remains - `it could be my child who gets snatched'. [Parent cited from `Paranoid parents', research conducted by Families for Freedom in June 1998). As a result they are in danger of fencing in their children into an increasingly limited experience of life. More and more children are being cocooned at home and denied the experiences that their parents had, in terms of exploring and interacting with their peers.

Many parents do not allow their children out to play without supervision. In the research paper `Stranger Danger: parents' fears and restrictions on children's use of space'. Dr Gill Valentine found that 95% of the parents she surveyed impose restrictions on their children's play in order to keep them safe. They often established the restrictions collectively in local areas and parents felt `a strong pressure to live up to these local norms '. Even if parents did not personally believe their children to be at risk they felt they had to conform to other parents' rules. As a mother interviewed said, `I mean we all get together… and I think sometimes when we get together… and I think sometimes when we hear that some parents have allowed their children to go various places, you know, eyebrows are raised' [Valentine 1996).

As result of these restrictions vital experiences that children need in order to develop into independent and confident adults are being denied them. A report published in 1990 showed just how quickly children have lost their freedom. In 1971 80% of English seven and eight-year olds were allowed to travel to school on their own or with other children. By 1990 it was down to 10 per cent. Dr Valentine found that 23% of parents described their children as 'outdoors children' compared to 60% of parents in study done in the early `70s. In contrast their childhood 'they felt that

children spent more time playing indoors or `being chaperoned to clubs, societies and leisure centres'.

The Barnardo's report, `Playing it safe', indicates that parents are organising their lives around the fear of strangers or feel they ought to be. Mothers in particular bear a great burden of being constantly on call to ensure that their children get to and from school and activities safely. They find they have less time for themselves or their partners and that not only are they limiting the range of experiences their children have, they are also restricting their own lives to a tedious and mind-numbing daily routine of supervising and ferrying children.

Everybody's a stranger

Finally, the consequences of `stranger danger' fear are damaging to the relationships between children and adults, creating a society based on fear rather than trust. Interviews conducted by FfF in early 1998 provide a vivid example of this:

Linda: `I took James to Tesco's [supermarket] this morning and a man about 50 years oId was talking to him. The first thought that came into my head was "get away from my child" and, of course, he was probably only being nice. I hate it, but I can't Iet anyone touch him or talk to him without getting suspicious'.

As does this interview conducted by Gill Valentine: `We went to this show...and this little kiddie came wandering up...and he's crying "Where's my mummy?" And my immediate reaction was 'God, you know, keep the kid here where he's safe, don't let him go wandering round', but at the same time it was' God, I hope nobody thinks I'm taking this kid'. And I was terrified to actually hold on to the child in case somebody thought I was taking him.' (Valentine 1996).

Many adults are now reticent about talking to children they do not know, even when they are in the company of their parents or carers. People have changed their behaviour in the park and on the street and steer clear of children so as not to arouse suspicion. This creates a vicious circle with people becoming less trusting of other adults and less open to new experiences. It also means that children do not learn to interact with adults - how to talk to them and make an assessment of them as people they can trust, like, or not. It seems ironic that in a time when politicians are descrying a loss of community spirit they are supporting campaigns that teach children to `Run, Yell, Tell' (Kidscape) when they don't like the look of somebody.

Fear of strangers thus poses a danger to children's early experience of life, undermining their development as independent individuals, and to parents who are increasingly putting the rest of their life on hold while they devote themselves to protecting their children from non-existent risks.


Barmardo's 1995 Playing it Safe. Today's children at play

Families for Freedom 1998 Paranoid Parents

Hillman M, 1991 One False Move. A Study of children's independent mobility PSI Publishers

Dr Gill Valentine - 1996 Children should be seen and not heard: The transgression of adult's public space Dept of Geography, Sheffield University.

Morgan and Zedner, 1992 Child Victims of Crime; Impact and Criminal Justice Open University Press.


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