When I was six, two older friends persuaded me to go with them to the woods near our homes to see their “gang hut”.
The woods were forbidden by our parents but kids being kids, this only made them more enticing and exciting so off we trotted one summer’s day in the late 70s.
The “gang hut” was really just a clearing in the bushes and as we played “houses” or something a man came inside and sat down. He smiled and asked what we were doing.
I didn’t feel any alarm until the friends, about eight or nine years old, gave yelps of fear and ran.
The man grabbed my arm but I shook him off and bolted. From what I had no idea, I just remember all three of us running as fast as our little legs could carry us.
When we got back to the safety of our own street it was decided by the older kids the man was “bad” and was up to no good.
With the bravado of childish arrogance we declared we had fought the “bogeyman” and won. But did we?
For me, it, alongside the stark warnings from family to keep away from people we didn’t know unless we wanted “taken away”, triggered an unhealthy fear of “stranger danger” that stayed with me for most of my childhood.
I viewed every unknown person as a potential predator, even if I didn’t quite know the word to describe my feelings, and friendly adults were regarded with deep suspicion.
Nightmares about strange men – it was always men – coming to get me became the norm.
Just recently the girls and I were reminiscing about our close shave and while we all laughed and joked about it, it was clear it had left its mark on our childhood memories.
The message given by parents and guardians in the 70s and 80s was backed by the government who even made films to warn us: “You don’t want to end up dead or in hospital.” It followed cases such as the Moors murders and continued through to the abductions of Caroline Hogg from Edinburgh in 1983 and Susan Maxwell in 1982 – both victims of serial killer Robert Black.
But until our own experience in the woods I don’t think the warnings of “don’t accept sweeties from strangers” was perceived as anything more than yet more nagging from the grown-ups.
While most parents have a natural fear of predators abducting their children the harsh reality is children are more in danger within the home or from people known to them.
Some of the saddest cases in Scottish criminal history involved children being killed by those who should have been loving and caring for them the most.
Mikaeel Kular was three when he was beaten and killed by his mother, Rosdeep Adekoya, in their Edinburgh home in 2014.
Theresa Riggi killed her three children, twins aged eight and a girl aged five, in Edinburgh in 2010. She stabbed them and tried to cover her tracks by causing a gas explosion in the flat.
Barely a week goes by that we’re not reporting on a tragic incident involving children and abuse or neglect.
This week a sheriff demanded more information on how much suffering 19-month-old Kiera Conroy endured before she died alone in her cot at home in December 2017.
Her father, Michael Conroy, admitted wilfully causing or procuring his daughter to be ill-treated, neglected and exposed in a manner likely to cause her unnecessary suffering or injury to health.
Of course we should teach children to have a healthy fear of strangers but it’s a reminder that home isn’t always a safe space for children.
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