Missing by Emily Smart

I have been watching very closely from afar the events that are unfolding in the case of the missing British girl Madeleine McCann. Anyone with any connection to the UK and possibly most of Europe will no doubt be familiar with the case. On Thursday 3 May 2007 while holidaying in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz in the Algarve region of Portugal, three year old Madeleine was taken from her apartment one night while her 18 month old twin siblings slept and her parents dined with friends at a nearby restaurant. What resulted must be the biggest missing person case in history.

I was pregnant and had recently moved to New Zealand with my partner and our first born baby girl when the incident happened and I remember feeling horrified by what I watched on the news and read in the papers.  I could only imagine the pain of Kate and Gerry McCann, who were clearly distraught that their precious daughter had been taken. The ultimate nightmare for any parent. Where was she? Was she alive? Had she been tortured or sexually abused? What would you tell her siblings? How could you ever rest from the search to find a missing child? Endless questions without explanation or answers.

I couldn’t get enough of the story. I’d like to think it wasn’t morbid curiosity or some macabre fascination, but I am only human and goodness knows how our minds work. I desperately wanted Madeleine to be found safe and well and for everything to return to normal for her family. However, as the days, weeks, months and finally years went by and the little girl wasn’t found, I doubted that the McCanns would ever know what normal family life would be like ever again.

The media of course had a field day, and I mean that in both a positive and negative way. The tabloids were full of it, and over the years there have been various possible sightings of Madeleine which have been front page news. Given the screening of a new reconstruction of events which was played out on the UK’s Crimewatch programme this week, and the ‘unprecedented’ response, the media and publicity may just be the crucial piece in unravelling this mystery and bringing the culprit(s) to justice. Is the media exploiting a story which has captivated a nation to sell more papers and get more viewers? Undoubtedly, but if the child is returned safely then who really cares?

Everything I know about the Madeleine McCann case I have read in newspapers or online. In a sense the media created this story and has kept it current for over 6 years. So what have the papers told me, and what actually happened that night in Praia da Luz in 2007? How can one define fact from supposition? How have people around the world been drawn in to this saga, and what can we learn from this in years to come?

From what I can gather (and forgive me if I’m wrong, but I am literally reporting reported speech), Kate and Gerry McCann are good people. She was a GP and he is a consultant cardiologist. They were on holiday with a group of 7 family friends and their 5 children. The adults had gone for tapas at the resort’s restaurant some 50 metres (54 yards) away from the McCanns’ apartment.

Throughout the evening various adults from the party went to check on the children. Madeleine was discovered missing by her mother at 10 pm. At first it was thought she had wandered off and then Portuguese police – leading the investigation – thought she had been abducted.

As the story continued to unfold there was another twist when the police (based on DNA testing) believed the child had been murdered in the apartment and the chief suspects were Kate and Gerry McCann. The McCanns were subjected to intense scrutiny, particularly by the British tabloids as our sympathy for them soon turned into suspicion and judgement.

They were cleared of any involvement in their daughter’s abduction in July 2008 when Portugal’s attorney-general closed the case and were later awarded substantial damages against the Express Group in 2008 for false allegations, which they donated to the Find Madeleine Fund.

Since Madeleine disappeared, the McCanns (quite rightly) have raised funds – including writing a book – created a dedicated website and hired private detectives to find their daughter. I don’t blame them, I would have done the same. According to the website at http://www.findmadeleine.com/home.html the Leaving No Stone Unturned Limited, a not-for-profit company, aka Madeleine’s Fund, which has been established to find Madeleine McCann, support her family and bring her abductors to justice. The Fund is following best practice governance procedures as set out in the Good Governance Code for the Voluntary and Community Sector.”

That the McCanns have kept this front page news for so many years is only to be applauded, and they were rewarded in May 2011 when the British Home Secretary asked Scotland Yard to set up an investigative review of the case named Operation Grange. The understanding at the time was that the Portuguese police had fudged the original investigation, and the British police would review all of the evidence and look at new leads provided since the case had closed.

But what about the facts? What about the other side of the story? What haven’t the media mentioned? Kate and Gerry McCann went to dinner in May 2007 leaving their three children under the age of 4 unsupervised. Although Portuguese laws may be different from UK ones, I think common sense would tell you that leaving small children without supervision is at best neglect and at worst, pretty bloody stupid. I visited https://www.gov.uk/law-on-leaving-your-child-home-alone to get some guidelines on the law around leaving your child home alone:

The law doesn’t say an age when you can leave a child on their own, but it’s an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk.

Use your judgement on how mature your child is before you decide to leave them alone.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says:

  • children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time
  • children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight
  • babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone

The law says that parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised ‘in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.”

It is not my business to be judgmental because goodness only knows those two people have suffered every day of their lives since their daughter went missing. However, Gerry and Kate McCann did not get reprimanded for leaving their 3 small children alone in an apartment in a foreign country. I would argue that had this happened to a working class family at say a caravan park in England, the parents would have been hauled before the courts and made an example of.

And what about the parents of other missing children, who don’t have access to money and advisors and who cannot set up websites and keep their plight in the news? The Scoping Report on Missing and Abducted Children 2011 by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre states:

“In 2009/10 there were an estimated 360,000* missing person incidents, of which approximately 230,000 (64%) related to a child under the age of 18. In a CEOP child trafficking report from 2010**, of the 287 children identified as potentially trafficked, 17% (50) of those children had gone missing from care at some point and 15% (42) were still recorded as missing. In 2004, a Home Office study of 768 incidents that were recorded as child abductions, 56% (447) involved a stranger and 23% (183) involved a parental dispute.”

*NPIA (2011) Missing Persons: Data and Analysis 2009/102

**CEOP (2010)

Strategic Threat Assessment, Child Trafficking in the UK

It’s a fact children go missing every day, the statistics world-wide make for uncomfortable reading, and the number of unresolved missing children’s cases is chilling. That the McCanns had government intervention to find their daughter and potentially catch one suspect in a world of over 7 billion people 6 years after the incident is quite amazing. Surely it will be nothing short of a major miracle if they find her?

I truly hope they do, no parent or child should have to suffer such an enduring nightmare. In the meantime, the stories of thousands of Madeline McCanns which will remain untold only serve to remind us all to look after our family and watch out for others.

2 Comments on “Missing by Emily Smart

    • There really isn’t much information to go on, but the question I would ask – is The Guardian reporting fact? If it is true that the woman had paperwork suggesting she had up to 14 children, but six were registered as having been born within less than 10 months, then anyone from a lawyer, police officer, or member of the public would surely have concerns and suspicions. Surely the question is, would this have happened in Britain to a white middle class family who had ‘adopted’ a black child?

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