A false alarm: Maltese parents are scared of the foreign child-snatcher

Some people are devoting energy to a rare phenomenon, in reaction to the rapid pace of change in Malta. It’s called ‘stranger danger’

Statistically, your child is unlikely to be kidnapped. Excluding the prospect of children taken by relatives, no one has ever been found guilty of child abduction in Malta.
Statistically, your child is unlikely to be kidnapped. Excluding the prospect of children taken by relatives, no one has ever been found guilty of child abduction in Malta.

It is possibly one of the commonest fears for parents to have their child kidnapped right in full view, such as on a popular beach: the hallmarks of a nightmarish Hollywood thriller.

All these elements appeared frightfully in place when a mother told police her child was about to be abducted by a foreigner at Għadira Bay, only to be stopped in the nick of time by the boy’s parents… or so the story was supposed to go.

When the story hit the headlines last week, parents were struck with a dreadful reality that the once safe Maltese streets were no longer fit for their children.

READ MORE: Mother’s child abduction claims prove false after police investigations – media reports

However… it simply was not true. The incident, fanned by the boy’s family, turned out to be one big lie, invented by the parents because a foreign couple had taken up their usual spot on the beach.

Statistically, your child is unlikely to be kidnapped. Excluding the prospect of children taken by relatives, criminologist Saviour Formosa told MaltaToday that no one has ever been found guilty of child abduction in Malta.

Since 1998, the police only received one formal report from a private citizen alleging child abduction. The report in 2016, eventually turned out to be untrue, Formosa said.

The Għadira case mirrors another that erupted in Birżebbuġa last year and which had many people outraged.

A mother had claimed on Facebook that while she was shopping, a migrant had tried to abduct her child, who was in a pushchair. She even claimed to have resisted the abductor by hitting him with a bottle.

However, CCTV footage released by the shop owner in the wake of the outrage expressed on social media debunked the mother’s claim. Nobody had ever approached the child’s pushchair while the mother was in the shop.

The incident turned out to be a hoax. A pure invention.

And yet another unresolved claim was made sometime in 2015, when The Times published a front-page story of an unnamed woman alleging that a foreign national – ostensibly of Arabic nationality – would have asked her to sell him her child, an indecent offer made on the serene Sliema promenade.

While abductions are a horrific prospect, the manner in which these allegations have gone viral in Malta suggests that some parents are devoting energy to a rare, if not unlikely phenomenon, in reaction to the rapid pace of change in Malta.

And with this comes a higher affinity to risk and danger: what German sociologist Ulrich Beck dubbed the “risk society”, where people become more conscious of the dangers and opportunities in their lives, or Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid society” where everything seems to be always in flux, less secure or stable.

It is not just the sensational stories of child abductions or parental abuse in the media that ultimately contribute to parents’ risk assessments.

The Maltese media is awash with reports from the law courts of crimes committed by foreign nationals living here.

Ulrich Beck says such threats dissolve “active trust” between citizens in ‘strangers’ – and Malta’s foreign influx of labour has grown exponentially in the last four years.

Frank Furedi, in his 2001 book Paranoid Parenting, calls it “the erosion of adult solidarity” – the low level of trust parents have for other adults when it comes to child safety, breeding the culture of ‘stranger danger’.

In a way these reactions are redolent of anti-semitism in the Middle Ages, when Jews were accused of killing Christian children for their blood to use in the Passover, or depictions of Roma gypsies as child-snatchers.

Saviour Formosa told MaltaToday that cases of child abduction have never occurred on the island, by both Maltese and foreigners. The only cases of child kidnapping arose from family issues, which means the abductor was an estranged parent or known to the victim.

“The only cases of child abduction in Malta are parental abductions, where parents who are not entitled to the custody of the children, proceed to kidnap them.”

Police historian Eddie Attard confirmed Formosa’s findings, stating that no court has ever found anyone guilty of child kidnapping. “The only cases of children being taken away are those of parents breaking conditions of custody. No one has ever stolen children for the sake of stealing them.”

The police this week told MaltaToday that investigations into the Għadira incident are ongoing, after initial media reports suggested they had let the mother off with a warning.

While such an incident finds fertile ground in a society revelling in the fear of the foreign bogeyman, the real victims of these ordeals are left dealing with the trauma of being singled out for this kind of ‘punishment’.

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