There were seven mobile kids and six adults and all it took was a lapse of attention for one of them to slip away.
What followed was the most terrifying time of my life.
I’d known this little girl since she was six weeks old when I met her and her gorgeous mother at a hospital and health service-led mother’s group. We saw each other every week religiously for the first few years of the girls’ lives and they quickly became like extended family.
Fast forward five years and we are at our annual Christmas gathering. This time, choosing to stave off the heatwave with a swim at the beach. We’d been there for over an hour and the kids were tired of the water and started to frolic on the sand.
My husband and a friend followed some of the group, 20 or so metres down the beach, while the rest of us tended to the others, getting snacks and drying kids off. Then came the question, “Where’s Susan?” (not her real name).
We quickly scanned the beach and couldn’t see any sign of her little blonde ponytail and her new swimsuit.
I told myself she wouldn’t be far away and we started to scout around the immediate area. The internal terror continued to grow with each passing minute, as we split up to cover all areas of the beach, the nearby park and the walkway. Complete strangers must have started to see the panic written all over our faces as they asked if they could help, and soon most of the nearby beach goers had joined in the hunt.
You try not to let your mind wander to the what ifs, but it gets increasingly hard not to as your search continues to come up short. Finally, my husband ventured close enough to the surf life saver tower, a good 400 metres north of where we were based, and heard Susan’s mother’s name being called out over the loudspeaker. There was an emotional reunion and plenty of tears of relief from all those involved as the adrenaline began to subside. Then came the questions – how could this have happened?
Susan simply said she went off for a walk along the rocks and then couldn’t remember how to get back. With so many adults around, we had assumed that someone had eyes on her – but it doesn’t take long.So please take my hard-learned and frankly f*cking scary lesson and watch your children like hawks.
Of course, give them the freedom they need to have fun and enjoy themselves, but make sure there is someone tasked with keeping track of their whereabouts at all times.
But if you experience a case like mine, your mind is going bat-shit crazy when you realise someone is missing. Here are some simple steps you can take:
1. Contact the police immediately.
Even if you find them before they get there, it is better to have the authorities onto it to boost the likelihood of finding your child safe and well. Every minute counts, especially when a child is missing outdoors.
2. Try to stay calm.
It is almost impossible to do, but staying calm will help you be more methodical in your search. You will also need to take time to remember details about what your child was wearing so you can give people visual cues to assist with the search.
3. Ask family, friends and neighbours to help you.
The more eyes looking and the more feet pounding the pavement, the larger the area you will be able to cover.
4. Start by looking in the immediate area and places where the child could be in danger.
In our case, it was in the ocean, but it could be ponds or canals, the street, a place where dangerous products are kept, and so on. Do this in a systematic way.
5. If you are at home, check areas where your child might play.
Keep in mind that small children sometimes hide somewhere and then fall asleep. Check under beds, in cupboards and other areas where your child might play. They may have just nodded off and are oblivious to the frantic search going on around them.
As with most things, prevention is better than the cure, so here are some tips to keep your children safe and staying with the pack:
6. Make sure your child asks permission before he/she goes away.
Make sure that your child knows that he/she should at all times ask one of their parents’ permission before he/she goes away with somebody, whether or not this person is an acquaintance of the child or not.
7. Make sure your child knows his/her full name.
Make sure your children know their full name, address and a trusted person’s phone number (or have this information with them).
8. Teach your child to go to a trusted person when they feel they’re unsafe or is lost.
Encourage your children to seek assistance from a trusted person (lifeguard, police officer, venue staff member) or go to an information point if they are in danger, if they feel unsafe or if they get lost.
9. Tell them to be aware of their surroundings.
Encourage older children to be aware of their surroundings and remember details of suspicious people they may encounter, such as what they looked like and what they were wearing.
10. Teach your child to attract attention from others if they are in danger.
Educate your children to try to break free as quickly as possible and to attract as much attention from others as possible if they are forcibly abducted.
11. Tell your child to go to your meeting point if they get lost.
If you are going to a new or busy place, agree a meeting point if they get lost.