Rarity of child killings fails to stem parents' anxieties

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THE MURDER of James Bulger has inevitably left an imprint on the minds of parents with young children fearing the same tragedy might befall them.

Despite the outcry, however, official statistics reveal that the murder of children under the age of five by strangers is extremely uncommon, nationally only about one a year.

But yesterday an academic who conducted research for the Home Office on the child victims of crime and their families said that even though such murders are rare, the consequences are so disastrous that parents are not being unreasonable to be fearful.

Lucia Zedner, a law lecturer at the London School of Economics, said she believed that various factors had elevated the Bulger murder in the minds of other parents.

One element was the fact that the kidnapping of the boy was captured on security cameras at a shopping centre. The consequences were something that every parent could imagine as sooner or later they will have to allow their children out of their sight.

As a result families will inevitably be left with a feeling of 'vulnerablility', Ms Zedner, co- author of Child Victims: Crime, Impact and Criminal Justice, said. 'The kind of crimes, like this one, which attract huge amounts of media interest are very rare,' she said. 'So much so that it would seem almost irrational to worry about it. But the consequences of it happening to you are so catastrophic it seems to me entirely reasonable to be very worried.'

However, Ms Zedner warned against imagining that Britain had become a much more dangerous place for children while in the past they could play safely in the streets without fear. 'It is far to tempting to look back and think this kind of thing did not happen 20 or 30 years ago,' she said.

Experts in child behaviour are baffled by the abduction and death of James, writes Celia Hall.

For a toddler to be abducted and for the apparent perpetrators to be so young - described as about 12 and 15 - does not fit patterns of child assault.

Similarly, for a two-year-old to be abducted and then injured or killed by adolescents who are strangers is even more peculiar, psychologists said yesterday.

It is understood that James had not been sexually assaulted. While security videos show him with the youths and later struggling, it is not known what part, if any, they played in his death.

Kevin Epps, principal psychologist at Glenthorne Youth Treatment Centre, Birmingham, a unit for disturbed 13 to 17-year- olds, said: 'I am a bit suspicious of this. There needs to be some other motive or someone else involved in some way or other.'

He said that a boy might kill a younger sister and that children do abduct younger children, but usually with a sexual motive.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Children under five killed ----------------------------------------------------------------- By someone By strangers known to them 1982 55 1 1983 59 0 1984 50 1 1985 61 1 1986 39 1 1987 56 3 1988 72 1 1989 51 1 1990 55 1 1991 73 0 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Home Office -----------------------------------------------------------------