Stories like this are heartbreaking, especially as a mother to two young children. I hope April is safe and unharmed, and quickly. When I was a child, my family used to holiday regularly in Machynlleth, staying at a caravan park just outside of the town. Although I haven't visited the town for around 15 years, I certainly remember it as a small, quiet, sleepy, market town nestled amongst large Welsh hills. It's one of the reasons why April's disappearance has particularly affected me. I remember Machynlleth as being a place where nothing ever really happened; it was so ordinary and so safe.
As is bound to happen, I've seen some people on various social networking sites asking questions of April's parents - 'where were they?', 'how could they let their five-year-old out at night on her own?' or, even more judgementally, 'I would never let something like this happen to my child'. April's parents are devastated, let's give them some space and stop with the finger pointing. The priority at this stage has to be finding April and returning her to her family.
But, this case has generated some interesting debate on the issue of allowing children out on their own and whether there is a set age at which to do this. In April's case, we don't know the full circumstances. Yes, she was playing outside with her friends at 7pm in the evening but one or both of her parents or an older sibling may have been nearby, for instance. April's group of friends may have been older than her. The fact that she was with a group of other children suggests that a number of families deemed the area safe enough to allow them outside without close adult supervision.
I can certainly understand this. As a parent, I am naturally and instinctively protective of my children but I recognise that allowing them some independence is a positive thing. I want to make sure they're safe but don't want to be a 'helicopter parent'. It's a very fine and difficult balance. I believe it's best not to wrap children in cotton wool and that they should experience doing things for themselves. As Sophia or Dexter grow older, I'd be happy for them to go to the local park by themselves, walk home from school or go out on their bikes with their friends. Yes, it'll make me nervous but they'll benefit from the independence and freedom. My husband is much more nervous. He's terrified that Sophia or Dexter will stray out of our eyesight and they will be snatched. Stories of missing children stick with him and make him anxious for the safety of our children.
So at what age should we allow our children this freedom to explore and play without a parent close by? I believe it's a totally individual and unique decision for every parent to make. It'll depend on how safe you believe your local area is; how responsible and sensible you believe you child is; who they'll be with; how old those other people are; where they'll be going etc. I can't blame April's parents for allowing her to play outside, it was a decision they chose to make based on their knowledge of the local area. I'm sure they'll be beating themselves up about allowing April out to play and don't need anyone else throwing them judgemental stares.
If you're looking for someone to blame for April's disappearance, I suggest blaming the monster who took her. In the meantime, I'll be praying for her safe return and hope her family can slowly begin to put their lives back together.
And, if you might have any information that could help find April Jones, Dyfed-Powys Police have a dedicated hotline number on 0300 2000 333.