CHILD murders, including that of Australian-Chinese schoolgirl Karmein Chan, and dozens of abductions and sexual assaults have cast a shadow over the Australian suburbs. A new study has found that Australian parents, fearing for the lives of their children, are turning their homes into fortresses. The new generation is growing up fearful and overprotected and few children are allowed to go unsupervised beyond the large,fenced backyards that are the dream of many new migrants. The widespread fear of child abductions has emerged in a study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. It focused on 427 families in the Melbourne suburb of Berwick, but the researchers say the level of fear it exposed is likely to exist throughout the community. The research was commissioned by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and is part of Australia's largest living standards study. A total of about 6,000 families will have been interviewed by December. It found that almost all the parents surveyed who have children under 10 feared that their child might be attacked or abducted in the street. Parents and most children believed neighbourhood streets and parks were dangerous and one in five families saidthey did not have a safe place for their children to play. Almost 60 per cent of the children of primary school age surveyed were driven to and from school because of their parents' fears. ''Home is often seen as a fortress,'' the report said. ''The fear of assault outside is ever present and this fear is clearly restricting the activities of almost all children.'' Xavier and Gerard Glenane are typical of the Berwick children. Their parents, Trish and Tony, moved there when Xavier, aged 21/2, was born, because they wanted a ''safe'' place to raise their family. Now Trish and Tony, a police sergeant, say they, like most parents, are afraid to let their children play outside their yard, especially given the recent child abductions and murders in both Melbourne and Sydney. ''That's why so many turn their homes into a fortress, just to protect their children,'' Trish Glenane says. ''Sadly, we are raising a generation of over-protected children but what choice do we have? I would rather that than risk leaving my children unattended.'' Barbara and John Kiely agree. Their eight-year-old daughter, Jessica, lives just 500 metres from her school, but is driven there by her cautious parents. Occasionally she is allowed to ride her bike, but she never knows when - her parents say it is safer to avoid a regular routine. The Kielys, both 38, lament the lost safety of their own childhoods: ''We had so much freedom. It was safe. Not anymore.'' The issue of child safety has been under the spotlight since the man believed to be responsible for abducting and killing Karmein Chan in April 1991, dubbed ''Mr Cruel'', grabbed a schoolgirl from her home on Boxing Day, 1988. He sexually assaulted her,but released her a few days later. He is now believed responsible for at least 10 child kidnappings and rapes, but police do not appear close to catching him. In the past two months two children - one in Melbourne and one in Sydney - have been abducted and murdered. Ironically, statistics show Australian children have a far greater chance of being attacked by someone known to them or their family than by a stranger and the man heading the family study says the fortress reaction is the wrong one. Dr Peter McDonald, deputy director of the Institute of Family Studies, says children are now likely to be confined to their backyards or to watching television, rather than moving freely or visiting friends. That is changing the nature of Australian childhood. ''Children need self-confidence in their development. But if they're continually protected by parents and they live in an aura of fear, that does not augur well for good childhood development or a more natural kind of upbringing,'' Dr McDonald says. He says no amount of safety measures could fully protect a child against a determined sexual pervert. Rather, society should be finding our why people behaved that way and developing programmes to change their behaviour. ''Just as we provide strong messages that irresponsible driving is unacceptable with obvious success in the reduction of road fatalities, we need to provide strong messages that attacks on children and the use of violence is also totally unacceptable.'' Instead violence is condoned in Australia and so, to an extent, is child pornography and paedophilia. Yet research shows violence and sexual assault are more common in societies that tolerate violence, Dr McDonald says. ''We tend to err a little bit too much on the civil liberties side and a little too much on the side of accepting this behaviour because it's due to a temporary psychological disturbance.'' The Berwick study found that it is not just parents of young children who fear for their children's safety. Parents fear for their teenagers and teenagers fear for themselves, in particular, while travelling on public transport. For many families these fears have been increased by the Victorian Government's announcement of drastic cuts to public transport, including the abolition of train guards and tram conductors and the replacement of trams and trains with buses, staffed only by a driver, after 8pm on many major lines. A second study has also borne out the Berwick findings. Dr Di Bretherton, a senior lecturer in psychology at Melbourne University, says that despite statistics showing most attacks on children are by someone known to the family, fear of abduction is rife among parents - and that fear will create more violence, she says. ''Fear can create exactly the same sort of world you fear, in terms of aggression and suspicion,'' she says. The Institute of Family Studies research says not only are Australian parents' fears changing the nature of childhood and the ways our children are raised, it is giving new, sinister meaning to the family home and yard: ''The secure backyard is not justa place to keep the dog and grow a few vegetables.''