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Does Madeleine McCann deserve never to be found?

by Rebecca Roache

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Several news sources reported today that Scotland Yard has launched a formal investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, following the emergence of ‘new evidence and new theories’. Madeleine disappeared from her family’s holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007, a few days before her fourth birthday. Her parents had left her and her siblings alone in the apartment one evening while they dined with friends at a restaurant. The years since her disappearance have seen a botched Portuguese police investigation, the arrest and release of Madeleine’s parents, various unconfirmed sightings and false leads, a private investigation commissioned by the McCanns, a Scotland Yard case review, and a massive media campaign driven by the McCanns. The case is controversial: among other things, various people have complained that attention to it eclipses other abducted children, and have suggested that media interest in it is partly due to the fact that Madeleine is from a respectable, educated, white, middle-class family.

Perhaps some of this criticism is warranted—I don’t wish to engage with it here. Personally, I am happy that Madeleine’s disappearance is to be investigated, and I hope that it sends a clear indication that this sort of crime will be taken seriously even when a child disappears outside his or her community, with all the difficulties this raises for any investigation. I wish, instead, to focus on a particular complaint about Madeleine’s case that arises again and again each time the case reappears in the news: the view that the case is undeserving of serious attention because the fact that Madeleine’s parents left her unsupervised means that they are partly to blame for her disappearance. This complaint appears many times in comments on a recent Daily Mail story about Madeleine.

Many would agree that it was irresponsible of Madeleine’s parents to leave their children unattended in a holiday apartment. Even so, parents act in comparably irresponsible ways every day, often (mercifully) with no ill consequences. Last year, for example, the Prime Minister accidentally left his young daughter in a pub while the rest of the family went home. And a couple of months ago, my three-year-old daughter wandered into the road while I was strapping her brother into the car. As it turned out, no children were harmed in either of these incidents—but they could have been, and the neglectful parents would have been held responsible. That the McCanns’ irresponsibility had such dramatically tragic results is bad luck, and it is perhaps unfair to heap blame on them when parents like the Camerons and me get off with, at most, a disapproving tut. (Roger Crisp wrote a great blog post on just this sort of unfairness a few months ago.)

I do not think, however, that this particular complaint about Madeleine’s case is concerning chiefly because it is unfair to her parents. I think its main problem is that it reveals a shocking failure to appreciate that the true victim in this case is Madeleine. This ought to be obvious—but, perhaps given the media focus on her parents’ anguish, many people seem to have lost sight of it. Whether or not a suspected case of child abduction is worth investigating does not (or should not) depend on whether the child’s parents acted responsibly, or are otherwise deserving of the resources required to support an investigation. Madeleine’s parents have undoubtedly experienced unimaginable suffering since her disappearance, but they are not the relevant morally significant subjects: Madeleine is. Any investigation into her disappearance, and any punishment of those responsible for taking her, must primarily be a response to (suspected) harm to Madeleine, not to her parents.

The attitude I have criticised is an example of a low-key but persistent failure to view young children as morally significant. Consider, for example, the issue—hotly debated in parenting circles—of whether it is harmful to allow babies to cry themselves to sleep. Very often, the permissibility of this strategy is assessed purely with reference to long-term harms to the child (see, for example, here). The implicit assumption seems to be that the suffering experienced by the crying baby does not matter; we need only worry about whether he or she will suffer when older. To take another example, consider that parents often justify certain punishments to their children with the words, ‘My parents did this to me, and it never did me any harm’. Again, the assumption is that only harms experienced later in life count. Yet another example: decisions about parental access to very young children in foster care generally take into account the preferences of the parents, but not those of the children (for a brilliant and harrowing account of the experiences of foster parents and children, see here). Sometimes there are prudential reasons to ignore the preferences of children. They are less able than adults to consider their own long-term interests, for example. But when this discounting of children’s interests goes too far—as when it leads us to conclude that a suspected child abduction should not be investigated because the child’s parents acted irresponsibly—something is seriously wrong.

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17 Comment on this post

  1. Very well balanced article. And you are absolutely right Madeleine McCann is the victim.

  2. I agree that many parents comparably irresponsible ways every day, and the majority of the time, do not end so tragically. There are plenty of other cases of parents leaving children alone, or with inappropriate childminders, so that they can socialise. I do think that the other examples given are not good comparisons. The McCanns wanted to go for a meal with friends. They took a calculated risk, balancing their own enjoyment against the perceived risk of leaving young children alone, at night, in an unfamiliar environment. The Cameron’s made a mistake, each thinking that the other was caring for the child. The other appears a lapse of concentration, whilst attending to the safety of the other child. I would not consider either to be examples of irresponsibility. In neither case was there intent to leave the child unattended.

    1. I have indeed compared two different ways of being an irresponsible parent, but the point is that they are equally ways of being an irresponsible parent. Allowing one’s child to get into a dangerous situation by failing to keep track of her/him is no more a mark of responsible parenting than is deliberately taking an ill-advised risk with one’s child safety.

  3. I hope the mcanns get there little girl back but at the end of the day if they had not left her alone they would not have lost her maro,

    1. This is an example of exactly the attitude to which I have been objecting. You recognise that Madeleine’s parents are suffering as a result of her disappearance, but make no mention of the harm caused to Madeleine herself. This attitude might be appropriate if the McCanns had lost a beloved but inanimate possession; it is not an appropriate response to a child abduction.

  4. The main reason the McCanns left their children alone was because at the time the holiday co had a policy that children ate at 5pm and then they are put to bed under babysitting service which in effect was a receptionist with lots of monitors. This policy has now changed, but the holiday company is at fault not the McCanns. I am sure not a minute passes for the McCanns when they would change their decision they made. Many other parents did the same as the McCanns, it was just terribly tragic that they were so unlucky that night. Lets hope they find out what happened to Madelaine as after 6 years of not knowing is too much for any parent to bare. Leave the McCanns alone they’ve suffered too much from the media let’s get on and find her, no parent is perfect we all make wrong decisions, give them a break.

    1. I agree that the focus ought not to be on Madeleine’s parents, yet this is another example of the concerning attitude I have identified: you mention how ‘unlucky’ Madeleine’s parents are, and that her absence is ‘too much for any parent to bear’, but make no mention of the harm suffered by Madeleine as a result of being taken from her family. Again: her parents have suffered unimaginably, but it is Madeleine who is the primary victim, not her parents.

    2. Why is the holiday company at fault? According to the McCanns it was their decision not to take advantage of any of the services offered and to leave three children unsupervised in an unlocked apartment while they went out to wine and dine with their friends. I think the objection of people complaining is that for some strange reason they are being held up as models of responsible parents whereas the truth is, they were anything but!

  5. Potential harm Rebecca, unless of course you know something different and if this is the case you had better contact Operation Grange.

    1. For a three-year-old child to have been separated from her family for 6 years (and counting) is an actual harm, not a potential one.

  6. Do you know something; otherwise best let Operation Grange find out what has happened to Madeleine. However, if you had said TRAUMA – I could easily understand. When you say HARM – I tend towards physical. (The best case scenario for Madeleine I can think of, is, she was illegally adopted and obviously this would involve vast sums of money and child trafficking. So when I say best scenario:- I mean she is living as some unknown’s daughter and in all likely- hood does not remember herself as Madeleine).

  7. WHAT sort of parents LEAVE there children IN A HOTEL, TO TOP THAT OFF IN A foreign PLACE with two young brothers i think k IF she is found they shouldnt get her back she could be ANYWHERE in the world!

  8. the only issue is to Find Madeleine.Enough blame has been heaped upon the Mccanns.I also hope that she was abducted for an illegal adoption other options are too awful to contemplate

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