36  Danger Of Childhood Freedom

 

 “Since the murder of the little 9 year old Akhlaq who left his family to go to the toilet while out in the park, we have been too nervous to go back there. We used to enjoy watching the cricket but now the whole place has been spoiled for us. Now we do not think he should go to the park, public toilets or indeed anywhere on his own and he and his school friends feel the same way too. When he goes back to school next week we are arranging a rota of parents to share the chaperoning for the journey to and back from school. Before, we let our children go to school on their own. It is a sad thing to reflect on that this is no longer possible in England”.

 Mr & Mrs P. Slough

 

 The death of a child from natural causes affects the family and the wider community. We expect our children to outlive us and are shocked and saddened when the position is reversed even where we are not personally attached to the particular child. The death of a child through murder is devastating. It affects all of us with the most powerful impact experienced by those emotionally or geographically closest. Whilst many parents taking their children out to parks this summer will worry over their safety and think of Kayla and his family, those, like the P’s who used to enjoy family outings in the same park where a tragedy occurred (such as Richmond), may find themselves unable to return for a while.

 

 The spot where someone loved has died of natural causes can become a comforting geographical memorial but the place where someone is murdered is very different. We tend to displace on to the innocent scenery for a while all the unknown hatred and perversion of the murderer and the unknown but guessed-at fear and pain of the child. Blaming or avoiding the place can be a way of trying to be in control of the haphazardness of such rare events. The Ps might be irrationally hoping that by avoiding the park their son will never be murdered. In a similar way, some shoppers avoid a favourite shop after a bomb explosion in the vain hope of avoiding the catastrophe that has already happened. These ways of responding to disaster are widespread.

 

 However, by not letting their son go alone anywhere they could erode his trust in the world further, increasing his fear and dependence. As Peter Wilson, Director of Young Minds comments, “The impact of this kind of outrage is that it can all too easily breach the trust and routine of everyday family life. Children want to learn to do things by themselves- and they have to if they are to take their own place in the world as men and women. This means being on their own, going into strange places, taking risks. Parents have to find the right balance in overseeing them; too little protection too soon can leave children overly vulnerable to their own fears and actual danger; too much too late can deprive a child of his or her own competence.”

 

 How much real risk do children face of murder by strangers? Gwen Adshead, Lecturer in Victimology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Traumatic Stress Project comments “ The vast majority of children are at most danger from people they know rather than from strangers. In almost any year children make up less than 10% of all murder victims. In 1990, for example, there were 690 homicides in England and Wales in which 58 were under 16 years of age and all were murdered by their parents. That was an unusual year but in almost every year 80% of all victims are murdered by people that they know.” In other words, England has not suddenly become a less safe place. It is just that we know what is happening more.

 

 Perhaps too there is a way that for many parents, including the Ps, murder by a stranger evokes particular compassion, identification and fear because it could have happened to anybody in the country, whereas murder within a family can be easier to put aside as a disturbed family’s private tragedy.

 

 The P’s say their son and his classmates have all been affected and do not want to travel alone. That is initially understandable but could the children be encouraged to go out in a peer group without an adult for a specific short timed period to see if that relieved their current fears? Perhaps the school itself can offer help when term starts.

 

 Mrs Anne Gold, Lecturer in the Management Development Centre at the Institute of Education, University of London has co-written a book “Wise before the event: Coping with crises in schools” with psychology professor William Yule for precisely such a purpose. She comments “A violent murder of a child is very shocking for people who are even remotely connected with it. We suggest that the children are told about it as clearly, carefully and honestly as possible as soon as possible in their class or in a regular small tutor group with a teacher they work with regularly. We warn teachers that there will be a lot of distress about but it is important not to avoid things because they might be distressing. With 9 years old there could be some creative work- reading or writing stories about the child who has died; talk about how they might comfort the friends of somebody who has died as well as how to keep safe.”

 

 Children and adults who find themselves haunted in the long-term by such incidents and develop sleep problems might suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. This is easier to diagnose when the child or adult is otherwise trauma-free. Ms Sally Swartz, Senior Lecturer at the multi-racial Child Guidance Clinic, Cape Town University, comments “ In the recent Church massacre you may have heard about in England where we were referred children who had never experienced or seen anything like that before we could isolate post traumatic stress disorder more clearly than where our child patients are exposed to domestic and political violence, sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse.”

 

 For Mr and Mrs P, their son and his school friends, if there is no gradual relief from the fear and worry the local child guidance clinic or hospital trauma unit should be contacted next. The letter did not state if the children went to the same school as the murdered child or knew him. Where there is additional closeness the loss and hurt are greater.

 

 There have been several letters expressing concern about the safety of boys in public toilets and next month’s column will be devoted to that.