The play centre where a girl, two, was allegedly sexually assaulted recently boasted about its tough security measures – as witnesses report seeing a ‘suspicious’ man leaving the scene.
The injured toddler was found wailing in a storeroom about 12.20pm on Sunday, in a nightmare scenario for both parents and staff at Penrith’s Lollipop’s Playground and Cafe.
A haunting Facebook post has since come to light where the centre this year assured parents that strict measures such as a secure gate and wristband checks meant ‘no little munchkin can run away without being noticed.’
Some mothers criticised the post at the time, claiming their wristbands had ‘never’ been checked when they left with their kids, and that the level of security depended on the staff member rostered on.
The criticisms surfaced as police said initial inquiries suggesting that an unknown male predator had assaulted the girl.
The toddler was found by another child while her mother desperately searched, said Child Abuse and Sex Crimes squad commander John Kerlatec.
‘The child’s crying alerted another child in the area, who alerted the mother who was obviously frantic searching for the child,’ Mr Kerlatec said.
In the Lollipop centre’s security briefing to parents, posted to Facebook in January, staff explained their security measures would prevent children running away unnoticed.
‘If you haven’t been to Lollipop’s before you might not know how seriously we take security.
‘On entry each child is given a wrist band with a corresponding ticket given to their parent or carer. This is checked on exit to ensure every child leaves with the correct adult.
‘Our centre is also securely gated, so no little munchkin can run away without being noticed. We know it’s important to you, and it’s important to us too.’
But one mother said: ‘I was there with my two kids in the holidays and the girl just opened the gate and let us out, never checked any security wrist band.’
Another added: ‘I’ve walked out plenty of times without being checked.’
A third said: ‘I guess sometimes your (sic) not checked because the same person was on the desk that served you and put your wrist band on your child remembered who you and your child were’.
Others mums said they have been checked ‘every time’ at the Penrith play centre ‘but never at any others’.
The post came to light as an eyewitness who was at the centre at the time claimed he noticed a man trying to leave the centre during the search.
‘I did see a man trying to leave suspiciously before we saw the panicked woman … and did not see him with any kids,’ the father told The Daily Telegraph.
Mr Kerlatec said while police are investigating the predator theory, detectives are keeping an open mind that another child also could have been responsible.
‘We must keep an open mind, a child between two and three can only provide so much information,’ he said.
Centre staff had been helpful and were ‘as concerned as we are’, he said, and while officers are combing through ‘every skerrick’ of CCTV footage.
Detectives have taken statements from witnesses, including the girl’s mother, and will examine a contact tracing register in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lollipop’s Playland and Café is a national play centre chain with 28 franchised locations across the country in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, WA, SA, and the ACT.
In a statement, the Lollipop’s franchisees said: ‘As parents of young children ourselves we are devastated for the family involved and are fully cooperating with the police investigation.’
When Daily Mail Australia asked specific questions about the centre’s security measures, director Tim Newman-Morris said the company was ‘constantly reviewing’ its policies and practices to increase safety. He said the centre valued all customer feedback.
‘The current matter is under investigation and we decline to comment further out of respect for the family involved and to allow police to carry out their duties unimpeded,’ he said.
Police have given the Penrith centre the all-clear to reopen with several parents pledging to ‘support this small business.
‘I just want to say there is only one person to blame, the predator,’ one supportive parent said.