A stranger tried to take my daughter away

Penny Harrison* was looking forward to taking her children, Beth, five, and Liam, two, to the local school fete. Little did she know what was about to unfold…

The sun was shining at my daughter’s primary school in north London as we made our way between the throngs of excited children racing to throw the sponge at the headteacher or binge on the fairy cake stall.

Liam was safely strapped into his buggy: it was too crowded for him to wander around on his own. Beth led the way, skipping around 20 metres ahead of us, confident in the familiar environment of the school playground. As I pushed the buggy towards a group of friends, I saw an unusually tall, thin man kneel down by my daughter.

I knew something was wrong

I didn’t recognise him but I work three days a week so I didn’t know every parent in the playground. Plus, plenty of dads only put in an appearance on occasions such as the school play and parents’ evening. I told myself not to be so suspicious: he must be the father of one of Beth’s friends. So why was my heart thumping and the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end? I knew something was wrong. I’ve never really understood the expression ‘someone’s walking over your grave’ but that’s exactly how I felt.

The man was talking to Beth. I found myself gasping for breath, but quickly I pushed the buggy towards them. The man looked up, saw me approaching, turned and ran off. It was all over in an instant.

He tried to take her away

I grabbed Beth and hugged her tightly. “What did that man say to you? Do you know him? What did he want?” My questions were garbled but I needed to know what they’d talked about.

“He said, ‘Do you want to come and see my puppy?’” said Beth in a small voice.

I froze. Could this really be happening on a summer’s day in a place our family had felt safe and happy since Beth’s first day at reception a year ago? “What did you say?” I asked her.

“I said that would be very nice,” said Beth. “I didn’t want to go with him, but I was trying to be polite.”

I felt panic wash over me. Where was he? What should I do? Feeling overwhelmed and close to tears, I waved my friends over. When I told them what had happened, they said: “Call the police. That’s the only thing you can do.”

I knew the man was long gone. The crowds were thinning out and people were starting to go home. My mobile was out of charge so I borrowed one and called 999.

Soon afterwards, two police officers turned up at our house. They took a statement from me, then asked whether they could talk to Beth. So, with my little girl sitting on my lap, the female police officer gently questioned her. Beth reiterated what she’d told me, but when the policewoman asked her to describe the man, her answer was utterly chilling: “I knew he was a bad man because he had cold, staring eyes.”

A lucky escape

That was the last we heard from the police officers. They took the incident very seriously and promised to circulate a description of the man to all the primary schools in the area, but admitted there was little chance of apprehending him unless he struck again.

Over the coming months, I found myself searching for tall, thin strangers wherever we went. I knew it was pointless: London’s a big place with millions of people. Most of them are good but sadly, a few are very bad. We had a very lucky escape and I’m thankful for that. I’m convinced that had I not approached the man when I did, he would have taken Beth by the hand and led her out of the playground. I can’t let myself think about what might have happened after that; it’s too terrifying.

I still occasionally have nightmares about what happened, but I try not to dwell on it. Beth’s a teenager now. I’ve never asked her whether she remembers that day at the school fete. I probably never will. I don’t want her to have nightmares as well.

*Names have been changed.

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