PCF Child-Grabbing Incident: The Problem with Misinformed Fear

I spotted a number of Facebook shares today through a couple of friends about a letter issued by the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Hougang Education Centre warning of a “child-grabbing” incident that happened on 6 May.

PCF-Letter

Remembering the kidnap hoaxes that were circulating over the social networks last year, I decided to call the Hougang Centre, and subsequently the Police Feedback Unit, to verify the information.

Soon after I finished the call with the police, this appeared on the SPF’s Facebook wall:

Dear all, thanks for bringing to our attention the alleged ?child-grabbing? incident at Hougang Avenue 7. Police have investigated the incident and confirm that there was no such attempt to ?grab? any child away from their parents. There was a call made to the Police on 6 May 2013 at about 11am, informing us about a man in his 50s who was seen interacting with some children in the vicinity of Block 326 Hougang Ave 7. We subsequently contacted the informant and the PAP Community Foundation Centre to establish more facts. It was found that the man is actually a resident in the neighbourhood and that he was merely trying to interact and hold a child?s hand while he was in the lift with the child and the parent. There was no attempt by him to forcefully grab the child away. Hope this clarifies the incident.

We note that what really happened could have been taken out of context through hearsay by various concerned parties. While such concern is good, we would like to caution that the circulation of such unsubstantiated information can lead to undue public alarm and anxiety. So our advice is that in future if you do come across such incidents, please inform or the call the police immediately at ?999? so that we can take immediate action. Thank you.

I started a discussion on the Daddy Matters Facebook Group (if you’re a dad, you should join, seriously) which led to a number of dads also sharing the concern that one can never be too careful about these things.

Back on the SPF’s FB wall, there were a flurry of comments that followed, showing quite a division in opinion on whether the parental freak-out caused by the letter was justified or not. At the core of the “freak-out” camp was the argument that the PCF letterhead was an authoritative indication that the incident was legitimate despite the SPF’s claim that “what really happened could have been taken out of context through hearsay by various concerned parties.” The responses varied as such:

“SPF shouldn’t downplay such incident. The letter (from PAP com foundation) clearly states that a child has been grabbed. We should be vigilant at all times. This is not based on “hearsay” or rumours as what SPF claimed. Neither was the incident quoted out of context ! This is based on the exact notice sent out by PCF !!! Hello, please wake up.”

“Of course, we should quote things from official channel only (PAP is official enough I guess).”

“PCF Letterhead? Or you have an explanation for that as well? Maybe they should also investigate as to why PCF which issued that memo did so without investigating first. So who do we believe now?”

“The problem is that there are so many false information going around on the internet. People need to learn how to be more sceptical about what they read online and learn how to verify them with the correct sources. You may think there is no harm being more careful about everything but using false information to instill fear is not the right way to go. Such case takes resources away from the real issues that requires them, and resources not just being SPF, but your attention span as well.”

At this point, I thought I should note something about the phone call I made to the PCF Hougang Education Centre. The very first thing I noticed as I spoke to the PCF staff member was that she felt unsure about addressing the issue, despite the letter having been issued – by them, no less – in no uncertain terms that the incident occurred. Then when she went off the receiver to ask another colleague, that other colleague immediately and very curtly said, “No comment! No comment!” When she came back on the line, she told me, “The police are currently investigating the matter, and we have no further comment.”

It was altogether a rather strange phone call… until the SPF posted their update.

As I read the line, “We subsequently contacted the informant and the PAP Community Foundation Centre to establish more facts”, the phone conversation suddenly made a bit more sense. It sounded like the staff realised they may have released the wrong information before consulting the police.

Ouch.

I received a return phone call fromSPF later in the evening. At the time of this post, they’re still trying to find the man, but the information they got about him was from residents in the area that knew him.

The officer that contacted me also acknowledged that PCF was feeling a bit embarrassed about the whole affair, and they did not expect the letter to have gone viral.

Double ouch.

Still, my portrayal of what I thought happened was really just piecing stories together by virtue of the non-verbal signals I received (and the clarification call I received from SPF on the matter), so it’s really up to the PCF to clarify their side of the story now. But by no means should anyone blame the PCF staff for handling the incident as they did. They were only being vigilant, which is, as far as any parent (me included) can see, a top-notch initiative taken by professional caregivers to ensure the safety of their charges. What did go wrong was that the letter described a perpetrator in some detail (if you consider a “normal looking” man a description with some detail), when the accused had not yet been identified as guilty.

Then that letter went viral. And the general public took the letter as authority simply by virtue of its letterhead (the power of a red thunderbolt encased in a blue circle, eh?), despite the fact that it was written and issued by staff who were as human and susceptible to gut instinct as you and I, and equally reactive to a situation that they thought was an immediate danger to the children they cared for, and may have maligned someone in the process.

This is the very danger of spreading “information” I was talking about when I wrote about moral panic; I am just glad for now that the identity of the man in question did not go beyond the confines of the parent, the education centre and the police officers involved, but if the man just liked interacting with children in general, the poor guy is going to have to think twice about interacting with children again, even if he was just trying to be friendly.

One more thing: as parents, when a story like this comes out, naturally we would tighten up our defenses to make sure “child-grabbing” incidents will not befall our own precious ones. But I have also said before, how much protection and education you give to your child towards stranger-danger will also affect how your child will see and interact with society-at-large, not to mention how society-at-large will react to your child’s defenses – as taught by you.

So be mindful. But in more ways than one.

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