The disappearance of Madeline McCann is arguably the most internationally famous missing child case since the Lindbergh baby vanished in 1932. The story received an unprecedented amount of media attention throughout the globe due to the international nature of the case and the public relations campaign that struggled to keep the child’s face out there in the public eye. Now, in 2019, Netflix has released an eight-episode docuseries, The Disappearance of Madeline McCann, about the case, taking a hard look at the investigation and media coverage surrounding the case since Madeline disappeared 11 years ago.
Madeline McCann was just three years old in May 2003, when she accompanied her family—mother Kate, father Gerry, and a set of younger twin siblings—on a family vacation to Praia da Luz, Portugal. During the course of their stay at a resort community, it became regular practice for Kate and Gerry to put the children down for the night before travelling less than 200 feet away from their apartment to a tapas restaurant where they had dinner with friends. The parents were not worried for their children’s safety because—according to the McCanns and their friends—the window to their apartment was in full view of their regular table at the tapas restaurant. According to statements from the McCanns and their party, the parents would walk back over to the apartment hourly to check on their children. After checking the children several times, it wasn’t until 10:00 PM that Kate McCann realized her daughter was missing, and immediately raised the alarm.
The documentary chronicles the roller coaster of investigative measures and leads over the course of the investigation. Over the years, there have been multiple leads in the case that appeared promising, such as a famous sighting by one of the McCann’s party of a man walking in the vicinity of the McCann’s apartment carrying a sleeping child. Praia de Luz local, Robert Murat, was a suspect early on in the investigation due to his inexplicable special interest in assisting law enforcement and his continued insertion of himself in their investigation. He was eventually cleared by Portugal authorities. Many angles in the investigation concern the likelihood that Madeline was abducted from her bed by a predator who had been casing the apartment during the McCann’s stay at the resort. The docuseries, The Disappearance of Madline McCann, goes into heavy detail about how simple it would be for a predator to abduct Madeline, and then—within a window of less than 2 hours—have been able to smuggle her out of the country to jump jurisdictional lines and cover their tracks, all in the interest of introducing the child into the dark world of sex trafficking.
While support for the McCann family has remained in the years since Madeline went missing, the vitriol that Kate and Gerry McCann have endured comes from allegations that they themselves might have played a role in their daughter’s disappearance. Law enforcement in Praia de Luz made note that the two smaller children sleeping in Madeline’s room remained asleep during their time in the apartment at the onset of the investigation. Despite a great deal of commotion and adults moving from room to room as they searched for Madeline, the set of young twins did not wake or stir at any time. This led to suspicions that the children might have been drugged in order to ensure they would not wake while the parents were across the way at dinner. Both Kate and Gerry McCann were physicians at the time of Madeline’s disappearance, with Kate having reportedly specialized in anesthetics before moving into private practice.
The docuseries makes a point to highlight the importance that media coverage can play in any missing persons case. It was a subject of note that the McCanns hired public relations representatives to help keep the campaign to find Madeline alive in the media, with high saturation of her name in the UK, Portugal, and throughout the globe. Of the thousands of missing child cases that are currently open throughout the world, Madeline’s face is one of the most famous—along with Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, two young girls who were abducted, were kept captive, and were eventually reunited with their families following a successful, albeit years-long investigation. Talking heads in the series note that although Madeline’s case was an extreme example of media coverage, the question remains how other missing children’s cases would have benefited from the same amount of attention the McCann case received. Despite hundreds of tips and leads that have surfaced over the years, the truth of what happened to Madeline McCann still remains a mystery.
Carie McMichael is the Media and Communication Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on private investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.
How easy would it be to kidnap a child in a crowded place? Maybe the park, walking home from school or even sleeping in their own bedroom. Over again, we see parents of missing children making pleas for the safe return of their children on the news. We see the Amber Alerts and Facebook posts and immediately picture our own children’s faces, thinking “What if it happened to me?” A common reaction to something so traumatic. This is the reaction child predators elicit from their victims families every day.
A young child becoming the victim of a predator is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact is, it is happening every day to parents throughout the country and our own fears do not wane just because our children are getting older.
I am a parent of four grown children and a mother who has worked in the field of missing persons for over 25 years. Every day I interacted with parents who were desperately searching for their missing child. Their pain unimaginable. Very quickly I realized the crime of abduction does not discriminate based upon a child’s age.
Commonly, we think of small children when we hear the word kidnapping and we think as our children age, they are safer, but the fact is, they can become even more vulnerable as they approach adulthood. The fact is that chlid predators can predate at any age.
While teenagers are venturing out, without the protective eye of a parent, there is even more chance they can cross paths with a potential kidnapper. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children throughout their lives and hopefully provide them with some tools that will keep them safe.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. That number accounts for nearly 2,000 per day.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates a relatively small number, approximately 115 of those missing children are abducted by strangers and listed as an “involuntary” abduction in the national database of missing children. However, this number does not account for children (to include teens), who are listed in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in various categories such as “Endangered Missing,” “Runaways” or “Other.” Many of these disappearances are considered “long-term” with more than a year having passed with no resolution or explanation as to how or why the child disappeared. The fact is, we just don’t know, therefor accurate statistics impossible.
One thing we all can do as parents is prepare our children. Much of the following information and tools have proven to save lives.
Communicate with your children
Predators do not look like the “Boogieman.” Strangers look like everyone else. Children need to understand that everyone is a stranger, even women and seniors. It is not about being unsociable, explaining this is about being cautious.
Agree to a code word
Strangers have no business asking a child for directions or a lost pet. Many times, a predator will try to coerce a child into coming with them voluntarily without causing a scene by telling them they were sent by their parents to pick the child up. Agree to a simple “code word” like “Giraffe” or “Cheetos” that your child can remember and tell them to only trust an adult who knows the code word.
Children should be taught to trust their instincts and walk away if a stranger approaches them. Though not all people are dangerous, it is always more important to be safe than being polite.
Don’t put your child’s name on personal items
Children will tend to trust others who know their name. Never put your child’s name on personal items such as clothing or backpacks.
If approached, children should be taught to scream and run. This will scare away child predators. Reassure your child the likelihood of being approached by a stranger is minimal but should it happen, to scream “This is not my dad” or “Fire” while running away.
The stakes are high when a child becomes the target of a predator. It really is a matter of life or death. According to the FBI, statistically when a child is abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of recovering them alive diminishes with each hour that passes.
When a predator has targeted its prey, survival depends upon fighting back. For example, if approached with a knife or gun and told to get in a car, statistically the child or teen have more of a chance surviving if they fight back at the initial crime scene. Survival rates drop when a child is transported to a second crime scene.
As children get older and spend more time away from parents, it is important to communicate openly with them. They need to know the dangers and reality of abduction without feeling fear which can be paralyzing.
Children should never answer the door when home alone or answer the phone and tell the caller their parent is not home.
Use the “Buddy System” and teens should always inform their parents where they are going and with who. No compromises.
Children should avoid shortcuts through empty parks, fields, and alleys. It is better to always remain in a well populated area to be safe.
Use a GPS on their phone. There are free Apps such as Life 360. The App can be loaded on both the child’s phone and the parent’s phone and track location. Personally, my children are all grown with their own families now but my daughter and I both use Life 360 to keep tabs on each other. Though teens may demand their space, their safety trumps the right to privacy.
Remember, promote a home atmosphere that is open so kids can let you know what is going on in their lives. Child predators have been known to use distrust between parents and children in order to manipulate them. It is important to help them to have an understanding and confidence you want the best for them. Thomas Lauth has been in the private investigation industry for over 30 years, and in the cases of missing children, he stresses the importance of communication between parent and child, “We often get calls for missing children and teens. Once located and reunited with their families, we often educate parents or caregivers on tenets that would prevent this from occurring again. Regardless of circumstances, the most important thing is communication. Not only open and honest communication between parent and child, but communication safety concerning things like social media. In a world where young people are glued to their devices, it’s paramount that they remember to have awareness of their surroundings. Communicate, Educate, Communicate.”
Teaching children techniques to avoid an abduction and child predators
The window of opportunity to save oneself from danger might be seconds and children need to feel confident enough to make a split-second decision. Child predators are depending on a child’s fear to overpower and subdue them. In addition to coercion, abductors use intimidation. There are some techniques you can practice at home to build their self-confidence should they ever be face to face with a kidnapper.
Practice yelling “Stop, Stranger” or “Fire” to draw attention and yell as loud as they can.
Practice the Windmill technique which means rotating arms in a big circle so a potential attacker can’t get a good grip.
Practice the Velcro technique by having your child grab and hold onto something, not letting go. They should also learn to scream while doing this.
If a child is abducted and somehow placed in a vehicle, they should know they need to take any opportunity they can to escape while trying to keep a cool head. Child predators depend on hysteria to allow them to escape.
Children should be taught not to be passive but proactive.
Try to open the passenger side door quickly or jump in the back seat and try to escape through the rear doors.
If placed in a trunk, they should be taught not to panic but to look for the “release” that opens the trunk upon pulling on it. Tear all the wires to the tail lights and brakes if possible.
I know this is a very serious and scary topic and just the thought of having to explain to an innocent child that some people are out to hurt them is incredibly uncomfortable, but when teaching others about fire safety, Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It applies throughout life.
Kym Pasqualini is the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults and worked with law enforcement and families of missing persons for over 25 years. Kym continues to work with media nationwide to raise awareness of missing children and adults.
It’s a rather startling number. At any given time, there are between 100,000 and 300,000 children in the U.S. alone at risk for child sex trafficking. While many people tend to think this horrific crime is something that only occurs in third world countries, they are sadly mistaken. This modern day form of slavery is alive and well in our own backyards. Girls are not the only targets either—so are boys.
“These are not children living in some faraway place, far from everyday life,” FBI Director James Comey stated. “These are our children. On our streets. Our truck stops. Our motels. These are America’s children. They are not for sale”
To put the problem in perspective, consider these alarming numbers:
75% of underage sex trafficking victims said they had been advertised or sold online.
A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and exploits an average of 4-6 girls.
325,000 children are at risk for becoming victims of sexual exploitation in the United States.
The average age of entry into the sex trade in America is 12 – 14 years old.
U.S. Cities Notorious For Sex Trafficking
In 2003 as a part of its Innocence Lost National Initiative, the FBI identified 18 U.S. cities where child prostitution is a major problem. Atlanta ranked number one on the list—a number city and community leaders are obviously not too happy about. However, they’re determined to combat the problem head on.
“It’s a moral evil. It’s a moral cancer in the midst of a great city, and it’s something as a faith-based community are trying to address,” stated Cheryl Deluca-Johnson with the non-profit group Street Grace
Her organization is a non-denominational alliance of churches, community partners, and volunteers whose goal is to bring an end to commercial sexual exploitation in Atlanta and duplicate these efforts in cities across America.
“One of our initiatives is supporting at-risk neighborhoods,” she stated. “We know that if all we do is rescue rather than prevent children from entering it in the first place, then we’ll increase the number of children affected by it.”
Of course, Atlanta is not the only city grappling with this massive problem. According to the FBI, the other following cities are hubs for human trafficking:
Grooming: What It Is
Grooming is the process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. The shrouding of the relationship is an essential feature of grooming.
The grooming sex offender works to separate the victim from peers, typically by engendering in the child a sense that they are special to the child and giving a kind of love to the child that the child needs.
According to the organization, 68 percent of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran. However, victims could be anyone—your son, your daughter, neighbor, niece or nephew.
The Warning Signs
It’s not uncommon for a law enforcement officer to list a child as a runaway rather than endangered and a victim of sex trafficking. That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention to these ten warning signs below:
1. Unknown numbers on phone bills or unexpected credit card charges
It’s important that parents are attentive to a child’s phone bills. In an open and honest environment, it can be helpful to sit down and go over the charges/call with the child to learn who they’re interacting with.
2. Going missing from home at odd hours or for days
Although this warning sign may see somewhat obvious, it is usually the excuse or reasoning behind their absence or location that is cause or concern. Keep in mind that trafficker want to conceal the child’s activities by using threats or force, making it harder to verify their whereabouts.
3. Unexplained relationships or interactions with older adults
These types of relationships are clearly inappropriate, but the underlying danger is that the older individual could be manipulating or forcing the child to perform sexual acts or favors.
4. Alcohol or drug use
Alcohol and drugs are common ways that traffickers recruit children into the sex industry. The goal of the trafficker is to diminish a child’s natural resistance to unnatural situations and/or to get victims addicted so that they will do anything to get their next fix.
Any signs of physical or sexual abuse are major causes for concern. Adults should be aware that predators seek anonymity; therefore, external signs of abuse may be hard to identify. More likely, evidence of abuse shows up in changes in behavior or emotions.
6. Delinquent behaviors or increase of criminal activity
Trafficked victims are not just forced to perform sexual favors. Traffickers force victims to steal, lie, cheat or con in addition to selling themselves. Many times, the victims are not engaging in these activities themselves but rather for the older adult.
7. Withdrawal or loss of interest in age appropriate activities
Children at risk of becoming victims exhibit low self-esteem and poor self-image. Predators will prey on children by convincing them that they are valued, thereby luring them away from normal activities and social interactions.
8. Sudden increase in absences and tardiness from school
If a child is not attending school or suddenly begins to miss a lot of school, then they are likely with someone else. Predators will seek to draw children away from activities that they don’t really like to convince them that more enjoyable activities can be had away from supervision.
9. New “street name”
Predators will convince children to go by other “street names” or pet names in order to conceal their identity and age.
10. Sudden change in dressing patterns, personal hygiene or grooming
This warning sign is not a typical teenager showing interest in make-up or nicer clothes. This is a sudden and drastic change in their appearance and grooming habits.
Lauth Investigations and Thomas Lauth are experts in helping families locate missing loved ones.
While each missing persons case is different and results will vary, Lauth has been helping families for more than 20 years and boasts nearly an 85% success rate.
If you or someone you know need assistance, call them today at 1.800.889.FIND or 317.951.1100