Scarlett Keeling, Madeline McCann, Shannon Matthews – three young children whose names have been circulating in the media, of late. The first is believed to have been raped and murdered while on holiday on a beach in Goa. The other mysteriously disappeared a few metres from where her parents were enjoying a meal one evening at an upmarket resort in Portugal. And the third faced the most bizarre chain of events when she went missing for 24 days before being found less than a mile from her home, locked in the base of a divan bed.
While there are several loose ends to all these cases, the victim has always been the child.
Not the police, not the perpetrator and perhaps not even the parents as much. It is painful for any parent to lose a child but it was Scarlett Keeling who spent her last few minutes fighting in pain and shame. It is Madeline who is possibly the most frightened four-year old out there, if still alive. And Shannon Matthews is the only one who will be able to tell anyone of her ordeal on being shut in a tiny, claustrophobic space in the home of her stepfather’s uncle.
As a society, we’re quick to judge, our tolerance levels being particularly poor. And it’s infinitely easy to do so when it comes to children. But in the light of these cases, it’s necessary to turn our attention to the parents as well, who very often can be quite irresponsible, as these cases demonstrate.
In Scarlett’s case, the fifteen-year old is believed to have been under the influence of alcohol and a cocktail of harmful drugs at the time of the crime, unsupervised and in the company of a 25 year-old tour guide she had only just met. Which parent leaves an inebriated child in the custody of a complete stranger who belongs to a culture where Western girls are often viewed as sexually available? These circumstances would have made the British teenager vulnerable in any part of the world. And Fiona MacKeown, the mother, having nine children fathered by five men, didn’t exactly help tilt the sympathy scales in her direction.
The McCanns weren’t exactly exercising sensible parenting when they left three-year old Madeline alone with her two-year old twin siblings as they dined nearby. Since when was it acceptable for a three-year old to be left on her own, much less with younger children in her care? At present, Madeline’s parents are also suspects in her disappearance.
Finally, Shannon Matthews’s mother has been arrested for concealing her child’s whereabouts from officers, abandoning her in manner that was likely to cause her suffering and child neglect. The fact that her live-in partner was found to be in possession of pornographic images of children as young as four years, that she had made several statements which suggested an intention to run away with the man in whose home her nine-year old or has seven children from five fathers makes her case not much different from that of Fiona MacKeown.
Nothing strikes a reader more than crimes against children. Their helplessness makes these offences especially heinous. But parental incompetence makes a reader seethe. Why should innocent kids suffer because of stupid decisions that those who are supposed to be caring for them take? Perhaps it’s best not to be quick in forming opinions about people who are rarely in a position to fend for themselves but instead bring the actions of feckless parents under scrutiny.