CHILDREN / Please sir, what does a killer look like?: A policeman who spoke to a girl about strangers shortly before her murder has made child safety his mission. Angela Neustatter reports

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CLARE liked the middle-aged neighbour who was a friend of the family. He was always keen to chat and shared her taste in music. From time to time he would offer her a lift in his car and then he began suggesting she come to his flat to watch videos or listen to music. Clare, a confident 11-year-old, didn't bother telling her parents about these visits. They found out the day the man invited Clare home to watch a video and strangled her when she rejected his sexual advances.

It is nearly three years since the murder but Clare's mother, June, still blames herself for not doing more to protect her daughter. 'Clare told me this neighbour had promised her a video,' she says, 'and I didn't think anything of it. Then after she went missing another neighbour told me she had seen Clare sitting in this man's car. It is ironic that the week before it happened Clare was at home with a friend and they were talking about strangers. You know, asking each other what they would do if a stranger came up and offered a lift or something, and they both said they would scream and run away. They were laughing, very confident they would know what to do.'

From a very young age, children are taught to beware of strangers. But this approach actually puts children in danger, claims P C Stephen Parker, a schools liaison officer who spent several years spreading just this message through a safety education film called Stranger Danger. But this means children are only on guard with people they see as strangers - people about whom they tend to have stereotyped ideas: a stranger is smelly, weird-looking, frightening, always an adult, a man they have not seen before. In fact, P C Parker explains, most sinister advances and attacks are made by people children know, although not necessarily very well. The fixed idea of who will and will not harm them can lead to the sort of risk Clare took.

During the investigation into Clare's murder, P C Parker was driven by dreadful feelings of responsibility and guilt. 'I had begun to learn,' he explains, 'that the majority of children who are abused, assaulted or abducted are attacked by someone they know. I had been speaking to Clare while doing a Stranger Danger session just before she died, and I couldn't stop thinking that if I had said something to her about risks from someone she knew, she might still be alive.'

It was this sense of unease that moved P C Parker to join child safety and health experts in making the film Not Just Strangers, which examines five different cases (including Clare's murder), where children were approached by people they knew. Some of the children involved talk about their reactions and the children in Clare's class at school discuss their own feelings and experiences.

After the film is broadcast it will be produced as a video to be used by teachers and, P C Parker hopes, parents. 'Parents may not realise that just about every child could be in danger from an adult who is in some way known, who aproaches the child and starts to chat. We have a great many reports of adults trying to chat up children. We put this in perspective in the film, pointing out that the number of abductions, assaults and murders is small, but it is also clear that understanding the risks and feeling confident about getting out of a situation can protect children.'

Children of all ages and both sexes are equally at risk, but clearly a film for teenagers will not be suitable for younger children. With this in mind, the Home Office, working with Kidscape, has developed a video for four to seven-year-olds called Think Bubble, where the bubble with a warning thought comes into a child's head in a risky situation.

Yet parents are reluctant to make their children mistrustful of everyone and anyone. As one mother explains: 'My 10-year-old son Barry was invited by a chap who lives nearby to go to a computer show with him. He seemed a pleasant man and he was very knowledgeable about computers, which are Barry's passions. Barry really enjoyed chatting to him when they met and often I was with him. But I felt concerned about letting him go off with this man. I didn't want Barry to feel I was assuming this man was a bad person who would harm him, so in the end I said he could go but must take another friend. Barry felt embarrassed by this and was very cross with me but I insisted and said I would explain to the man myself. In the event the chap was very nice about it, took Barry and his friend and they had a lovely time. But I later heard from another mother at school that she had let her daughter go off with a woman who had befriended her and the woman had tried kissing and touching her; when the girl said no as she had been taught, the woman became very abusive. The girl was terribly upset and scared, so I felt my decision had been right, even though I risked making Barry mistrust someone who was just being kind.'

Psychologist David Warden of the University of Strathclyde is researching how safety education can be refined. 'Children are vulnerable because they want to please,' he says. 'So it is important they are taught in a positive way that, though most people are good and kind, there are a few who are 'not well' and we have to be careful. It's important for children to trust their instincts, to recognise danger signs and to know that looking after themselves comes before being polite.'

Children should know that men, women and older children can all pose a risk, that they do not have to talk to anyone - even a friend of the family or a relative - if they are being touched in a way they do not like or asked to go into a house or for a ride in a car, says Jane Gilmore at the Links Educational and Behavioural Consultancy Service. They should tell a trusted adult immediately if there has been an approach that is unpleasant or from somebody who wants to 'share a secret'.

Parents should be wary of anyone who seems keen to build up a relationship with a child but is not a family member. A large number of people who harm children make contact through babysitting. It is also very important that parents make it possible for children to tell them absolutely everything, says Jane Gilmore. 'Children often say something quite significant in a roundabout or odd way, so parents need to be listening to the little things; and the children need to be sure that no matter what they tell them, their parents will not be angry.

'At Kidscape, where they have developed a wide range of safety education materials, they talk about the importance of children - even older children - knowing they must always tell their parents where they are going. Parents may make it easier if they have a rule that a child cannot go anywhere without first informing them and leaving a telephone number. The person who has bad intentions will very likely be put off by the knowledge that there is parental vigilance.'

Kidscape, 152 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 9TR, tel: 071-730 3300. Links Educational and Behavioural Consultancy Service, tel: 0743 790029. 'Not Just Strangers' is on Channel 4 at 10.45am on Tuesday.

(Photograph omitted)