Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Alert scheme launched in malls to prevent 'Bulger-style' kidnaps

By David Bamber and Thair Shaikh

A new alarm system which will flash up pictures of children as soon as they go missing is to be installed in shopping centres across Britain in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the abduction and murder of James Bulger.
Under the scheme, children entering shopping malls will be photographed and given an identity number and a plastic tag with their family's mobile telephone number.
If a child goes missing, its parent will be able to give the identity number to a security guard, who in turn will be able to have the youngster's picture instantly displayed on screens throughout the centre, alerting the public.
The photograph will also be transmitted to the mobile phones of security guards in the centre, helping them to locate the missing child.
The scheme was inspired by the brutal murder of James Bulger, aged two, who was taken from a shopping centre on Merseyside in 1993 by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both 10. Since then parents around the country have been terrified of losing toddlers in similar circumstances.
A trial of the new system, called "Child Safety Zones", began last week at the County Mall in Crawley, West Sussex, where it was devised. Several other major shopping centres, including Bluewater in Kent, the Arndale centre in Manchester, Merryhill near Birmingham and Trafford in Manchester have been so impressed by the scheme that they are to introduce it, too.

Duncan McKenzie, the deputy store manager at the County Mall, said that the scheme had been welcomed by parents, with only a handful declining to have their children's pictures taken. "It has been a tremendous success so far, nearly all parents have wanted to take part and if a child were to be abducted or lost it would make locating them so much easier," he said.

"The technology is fairly inexpensive and the chances of saving a child are incalculable. The trial has been a success and it looks set to take off nationwide from the end of June." He added: "If we are sure an abduction has taken place we will send the pictures and details to every mall in the country so that a nationwide hunt can begin immediately."

Mrs Marianne Wilson, who was shopping at the centre with her daughter Candice, three, said: "We come here two or three times a week and Candice is always dashing off in a shop even though I try to keep her near.

"She has only had to have her picture taken once and it's on the database. If this scheme deters a paedophile it will be a success."

Lisa Clarke, 35, a receptionist from Burgess Hill, West Sussex, recalled an occasion when her son George, five, disappeared as she joined a queue of parents registering their children.
"He just ran off, it was one of the worst experiences I've been through. We eventually found him with some of his older friends, but a system like this would have helped because everyone then knows what your child looks like."

Mrs Clarke has also registered her daughter Ellie, nine. "This is going to make me feel much safer. Kids do run off; you try and keep an eye on them, but it does happen." So far almost 300 children have been electronically registered since the trial at the County Mall began. Many shops in nearby Crawley town centre are also participating.

Katherine Bridle, 27, a paediatric nurse from Burgess Hill, uses the County Mall shopping centre every week and said that abduction was always at the back of her mind when out shopping with her daughter Jenny, six.

She said: "It is very worrying for parents when out with their kids because there are so many distractions and this centre is always so busy. This will be an extra security measure and I'm sure it will help. You would be stupid to try to abduct a child here.

"Jenny went missing when she was two years old. It was only for five minutes, but in that time I was worried to death and it felt like much longer. She was only away with older friends who had taken her on to some rides. This system has been a long time coming."