Almost twelve years after she disappeared from her parents’ vacation home, I am watching Madeleine McCann’s face flash across my TV screen. Since the early weeks of the investigation, Madeleine’s parents have been suspected of foul play. While police cleared them of any suspicion, some true crime enthusiasts theorize her mother, Kate McCann, harmed her own daughter. Even those who don’t suspect Kate are critical of her parenting choices. Netflix’s documentary, The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann, highlights the cultural gulf between the McCann’s UK attitudes and Portuguese parenting ideals. Parents everywhere were simultaneously judging the McCanns and mourning with them. Why would anyone leave their toddlers alone on vacation? Isn’t that so irresponsible?!?! Maybe Kate McCann deserved to lose Madeleine if she didn’t care enough to keep her safe.
Before you scream obscenities at me, know that I don’t endorse any of those statements. Maybe you were appalled...or maybe you found yourself agreeing with me a little bit. Don’t feel too bad! It’s human nature to want to place blame or find guilt when something tragic happens. I myself am a massive fan of true crime and as soon as I found out Netflix was releasing this Madeleine McCann documentary, I penciled a binge-watch session into my schedule! I don’t watch true crime because I’m morbid; I watch true crime because I care about victims and I crave justice. It’s understandable to want revenge when something awful - like a child disappearance - happens. For the sake of balance in the universe, we want to see the offender punished! That’s all good and well...until that thirst for vengeance hurts one of the victims.
In their rush to find a perpetrator, the media and police honed in on the McCanns within days. While they might have been the obvious suspects, this misguided focus cost valuable time during the investigation. Once the Portuguese authorities declared the McCanns had “arguido” (suspect) status, the media burst into a frenzy. Reporters in Portugal are not subject to libel lawsuits and took a highly speculative stance. When police reported an 80% DNA match between the crime scene and a sample from Madeleine, the press exaggerated the claims. In fact, reporter Sandra Felgueiras broadcast a declaration: “There was a match of 80% minimum between the DNA samples...Now the scientists are making progress with final data. It won’t just be an 80% match, but a full match.”
After further testing, every single DNA sample taken was found to be inconsistent with Madeleine McCann.
PR consultant Michael Cole called this savagery “the monstering of the McCanns”. The press is partly to blame - especially during the investigation, they spurred on speculation that harmed the McCanns. Can you imagine the emotional turmoil of losing a child and then facing cruel media attention? If Kate McCann is innocent, how do you think she felt to be suspected in the first place?
A dozen years later, inspectors and journalists alike admit the investigation was influenced by the media chaos. We may never know what this distraction cost the McCanns or Madeleine herself.
“Even today, I feel very bad for having been part of this." - Sandra Felgueiras, Portuguese reporter
This isn’t just about the press, though. We are just as responsible for the monstering of the McCanns. When we say, “But why was Madeleine alone in that room?”, we’re placing blame on her parents. It’s easy to judge someone else if we have never walked a mile in their shoes. On a larger scale, that kind of nastiness feeds into the kind of vindictive society we’ve built. Remember the mom who was arrested for sending her kid to the park? Parents are judged on every level in every moment. Thankfully, none of the reasonable parenting choices I’ve made have led to the kind of media blitz that invites a frenzy of judgment.
Yes, Kate McCann made a parenting choice that some others wouldn’t. She left her three children unsupervised while they slept. Of course, the six other adults on vacation with Kate also made the same choice for their own children. They each weighed the risks and decided it was unlikely anything bad would happen. On every other evening that risk assessment had worked out in their favor. Any parent knows vacation with children can be a lot of work! I can’t say I blame any of those people for wanting some time to themselves without their kids in tow. Spending time away from my kids makes me a better mother, after all.
By all accounts, Kate McCann is a loving mother to her children. Loving mothers don’t knowingly put their kids in risky situations. She had no reason to think Madeleine would disappear on that May evening. If you judge her for this single choice, this statistical anomaly, you are part of the problem. Sometimes life is cruel and unpredictable, but being the mother of a missing child does not mean we get to add to that cruelty. When we judge Kate McCann, we judge ourselves. Each of us will make mistakes as parents - so far, we haven’t paid this heavy price. The only thing Kate McCann is guilty of is being a mother. Just like all of us.