EARLIER this month, a NSW mother had a chilling encounter with two unidentified strangers pretending to be government social workers, who gained access to her home using fake IDs to "inspect" her children.
The case, described by NSW Police as "disturbing", has been likened to a wave of similar incidents which sparked a full-blown national panic in the UK nearly three decades ago - and which remain a mystery to this day.
At about 4pm on Friday 9 February, a man and a woman claiming to be from Family and Community Services attended the home in the Queanbeyan suburb of Karabar, just outside of Canberra.
"Police were told the man and woman claimed to be FACS caseworkers and produced what appeared to be an identity card," NSW Police said in a statement. "They stated they were there to check on the welfare of the children.
"The mother stated the children were asleep and told the pair she could call them to return when they woke, however the pair stated they would wait. A short time later, the mother presented the children to the pair in the lounge room. After checking the children and their bedroom, the pair left the home.
"The woman became suspicious of the visit and contacted Queanbeyan FACS who confirmed they had no record of the visit from any of their caseworkers and the matter was reported to police."
Police commenced an investigation, releasing composite images of the two suspects. They said there had been no reports of similar incidents in the area.
The man was described as being of caucasian appearance, about 183cm tall and in his 30s, with a slim build, fair complexion, short dark hair and a prominent nose, wearing a business shirt and trousers.
The woman was also described as being of caucasian appearance, about 170cm tall and in her 20s, with a medium build, tanned complexion, medium-length curly hair with a dyed streak, wearing an orange blazer with a dark-coloured skirt.
Detective Chief Inspector Neil Grey said the incident was "disturbing" and that the mother had been shaken by the visit. "She's holding up OK, but obviously extremely upset that these persons unknown to her, and at this stage unknown, are being able to gain access to her children," he told the ABC.
"FACS have confirmed that all caseworkers in the Southern District carry photo ID with their name, job title and FACS logo. The ID that was produced was good enough to fool the young mother into letting them into the house.
"Generally speaking workers from the Department of Family and Community services will ring prior to attending the address anyway."
No arrests have yet been made and anyone with information is urged to contact Queanbeyan Police or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
THE UK'S PHANTOM SOCIAL WORKERS
The incident is eerily similar to a wave of reports of fake social workers attempting to snatch children which swept the UK in the '80s and '90s, sparking a major investigation involving 23 separate police forces.
Dubbed Operation Childcare, the investigation ran for four years and gathered 250 reports, but UK police ultimately said of those, only two were considered genuine and 18 worth taking seriously.
They sheeted much of the blame for the failure of the investigation to people believing media hype, which made it hard to tell genuine complaints from the "attention-seeking" hoaxers or misunderstandings.
Lurid headlines speculated everything from "Satanic paedophile gangs" and childless women to self-appointed child abuse vigilantes. Some conspiracy theorists even likened the visitors to "men in black" from UFO popular culture.
At the time, police said some of the debunked cases involved genuine social workers, door-to-door salesmen, researchers and even a TV crew.
Despite the thousands of police hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on the investigation, not a single case was confirmed. No one was ever arrested or charged and the so-called "Phantom Social Worker" phenomenon was relegated to the history books a bizarre social panic.
Speaking to The Independent in 1995, one victim who experienced such an encounter slammed critics who dismissed the incidents as misunderstandings, hoaxes or cries for attention.
Anne Wylie told the paper how a slim woman in her late 20s with light brown hair, a small mark by her right eye wearing a light blue nurse's-style coat, called at her home in the Scottish town of Hamilton, asking to see her 20-month-old son.
"I thought it was strange to start off with, as no one usually comes to my back door," she said. "This woman said she was my new health visitor and she had come to check his medical records. My son had been in hospital, he was an asthmatic.
"I said to her, 'Do you have identification?' and she said, 'Och, I must have left it in the car', something my usual health visitor never does. I looked at the car and there was a gentleman in there smoking a fag - which again was strange as you wouldn't have thought health visitors would.
"So I asked her my son's name and she hesitated. But then she got out this file and I don't know if it was my son's but she seemed to know all his medical history - how long he'd been in hospital for and so on.
"She was talking to my son but it was pouring with rain and I said we'd all better go into the living room. I took my son inside and she was away."
Ms Wylie said after ringing her health worker's office and being told she had not been replaced, she immediately notified the police. "I'm very wary now," she said. "I don't like opening the door or talking to people I don't know."
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