It’s been a year since 18-month-old Alyssa Barker was kidnapped, snatched from her family home by a guest of her Good Samaritan parents, who had taken in Skye Mason after she fell on hard times.
While bubbly and confident Alyssa, now two, seems largely unaffected, the impact those 36 hours of hell have left on her parents, Sam Barker and Scott Richards, runs deep.
“I should be a lot better at handling it than I am,” Sam (25) says, tears running down her face as she remembers those horrific hours that Alyssa was gone.
“I think about it a lot, I don’t know why. I’m always thinking about that day and feel so guilty.
I was the one that let her be kidnapped, I still feel accountable,” she says, as partner Scott (41) shakes his head. “I think I should go and talk to someone about it.”
With Skye, now 28, released from the Mason Clinic, a mental health facility in Auckland where she was sentenced to eight months after being charged with abduction and assaulting a police officer, Scott and Sam finally feel that they can begin to move on from that horrific day, despite the lingering effects that remain.
Alyssa’s extroverted personality hasn’t changed, but she has nightmares and hates being separated from her parents – and she’s developed an intense fear of dogs.
Sam was unable to breastfeed her daughter due to the shock of the event, and because she wanted to keep an eye on Alyssa at all times. The thought of being separated again is too much for Sam to bear.
She and Scott offered a home to Skye after being told she was living on the streets.
“We wanted to help,” says Sam. “She was a previous girlfriend of my cousin and my family is really close – we’d give any of them the shirt off our back. Skye made out that she wanted to help herself, and we’re always happy to help people like that.”
Though she was reserved and quiet when Scott was in the house, it was when he left for work on July 27 last year that Skye seemed to “come out of her shell”, remembers Sam.
The grateful mum, exhausted from nursing three-month-old Kashine, agreed to let Skye take Alyssa for a stroll, but instead of walking up and down the driveway to look at the cows, the pair never returned.
The two days that followed were the worst of Scott and Sam’s lives.
They scoured their Kaukapakapa property and the surrounding area, searching through the night for any sign of Skye and Alyssa.
Guilt-ridden new mum Sam refused to return inside all night, and wouldn’t allow Scott to light a fire in their rural home, because she didn’t want to feel warm and cosy when Alyssa might be cold or in pain.
“Even thinking about it now, I can still see myself standing on the deck, freezing cold and calling her name.”
After a mammoth police search, which saw the unprecedented decision to erect motorway signs from Auckland down to Wellington alerting motorists of the kidnapping, as well as multiple roadblocks and a nationwide media appeal, Alyssa was located at a West Auckland address after a woman saw her photo on the news.
“The lady who had taken her in thought Alyssa was a boy – that’s what Skye had told her,” says Scott. “But then she realised. The police snuck in and grabbed her in the middle of the night.”
Skye later admitted charges of abduction and assaulting a police officer, and was sentenced to eight months at the Mason Clinic.
But while Skye has served her time, Scott and Sam continue to suffer – and are outraged at what they believe is a very “lenient” sentence, and are disappointed with the actions of mental health professionals leading up to their daughter’s kidnapping.
“I’m p****d off, actually,” Sam says. “She wasn’t held accountable for her actions.
The police told us mental health counsellors were in contact with Skye eight or nine weeks before she took Alyssa.
No-one saw there was a problem. It was left to us to help her out, and it was obvious that she was ill.”
Scott and Sam have tried their best not to focus on Skye, although the events of last year are never far from their minds, especially Sam’s.
As she sits in the lounge of her and Scott’s home, her eyes constantly dart towards her daughters, checking on them and ensuring they’re safe.
Looking at Alyssa, you would never guess she has been through so much already during her short life. Loud, bossy and always the centre of attention, she lights up any room she’s in.
“She’s certainly a character,” smiles Scott.
“Alyssa’s the out-there one, whereas Kashine, thank god, is quite quiet and chilled out,” Sam adds. “The only time they really fight is when I’m painting their toenails – both of them want it at the same time, so there are feet everywhere!”
These days, the couple try not to be overprotective, although Sam admits it’s hard on her when she’s separated from her daughters.
“Scott handles the whole situation better than I do,” says Sam. “I appreciate him even more now – and I know he doesn’t blame me for what happened.
“I don’t feel anxious towards other people, but before [the kidnapping], if I couldn’t see her, I would think, ‘Oh, I wonder where Alyssa is.’ Now, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, where’s Alyssa?’ I guess I jump to the worst conclusion,” Sam says.
“We don’t mistrust other people when it comes to our kids,” adds Scott. “What happened was a rarity and we understand that. We live in New Zealand – we were the exception to the rule, so I don’t feel any more protective of her when we’re out and about than I did.”
Sam and Scott went through further trauma earlier this year, when Kashine fell into the family pool and had to be pulled out by Alyssa, after a miscommunication between Sam and her father.
“Both of us thought the other was watching the kids,” Sam says.
Now in a new home that is fully fenced, they can relax slightly, but still struggle with the knowledge that they will never know what happened to their little girl in the hours she was separated from them.
“Alyssa had trouble sleeping in the immediate aftermath, and now she has nightmares,” Scott says. “Whether it’s normal or it’s from the kidnapping, we don’t know, but we tend to relate it back to that. If she wakes up and we’re not there, she freaks out.”
“She has this fear of dogs too,” Sam says.
“There must have been dogs wherever she went. When she sees one now, she just screams and runs away.”
“Not knowing what happened to her when she was gone is the worst,” says Scott.
“I hate thinking about that. How did she get from one place to the other? Did the car she was in have a car seat? Who was she with? How close was she to dying? We will never know.”
However, a real comfort to Scott and Sam throughout their ordeal has been the continuing support of other Kiwis around the country.
“Everyone in New Zealand has been truly amazing,” Sam says. “People recognise Alyssa and tell me how happy they were when she was found. It comforted us a lot, especially during those first few weeks.
So, we really want to say thank you to New Zealand for all the love.”
“And you know what, there has been a good thing to come out of this,” says Scott. “We’ve got the usual stresses at the moment, such as cars and work, but then I come home and watch my girls playing outside in the sun.
Since the kidnapping, I have realised that nothing else is that important.
It’s the little things you can do to put a smile on their faces. And that’s all that matters.”
About Kelly Bertrand
“I started at the Weekly after a two-week internship in 2011, which was part of my journalism studies. Basically, I hung around and annoyed people long enough to land a job as a staff writer, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m lucky enough to get to write stories ranging from the Kardashians through to the Queen, but my real passion is telling the stories of New Zealand’s sporting stars. Sometimes I can’t quite believe it’s my job to hang out with All Blacks and Silver Ferns! I absolutely love working at the Weekly, and feel really privileged to be part of this 83-year-old Kiwi institution. I’m also fond of Instagram, coffee and animals dressed as humans!”more of this author