Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

By Dr Liz Yardley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

Four-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from Praia da Luz in May 2007. Over the past two years, the Metropolitan Police have been reviewing the case, and have now announced that new witnesses, new evidence, and a list of 38 people of interest are sufficient to justify the review being stepped up to an investigation. The McCann family have welcomed this news but the inevitable questions are already being posed:

Is there any realistic chance of solving the case? Yes there is. There is always a possibility that any case that is reopened may be solved. We do have to acknowledge the statistics that tell us that if these cases are not solved in the very small window of time after a child goes missing, they become less likely to be solved. But less likely does NOT mean impossible. New investigations by different teams of people have the potential to look at cases with fresh pairs of eyes – the team coming at the case now do so with their own unique experience and expertise in investigation. There are also ever increasing opportunities to use new technology – for example the projected image of Madeleine aged 10, as well as computer programmes to help catalogue the vast amount of documentation that has been amassed in this case.

Could she still be alive? It is a possibility and it is encouraging to see DCI Redwood approaching this question by emphasising that there is no definitive proof that she is not alive. It is not unknown for missing children to be found alive months or years after going missing. There are plenty of high profile cases in the US; 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was found after 9 months and 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was found after 18 years. We should continue to maintain the positive outlook that has been set by the investigative team.

Should we be spending public money on this in times of austerity? We need to look beyond this and remember that 6 years ago, a 4-year-old child went missing and may have come to harm. No one has been brought to justice. We cannot put a price on what justice would mean for her family. I’d say to anyone raising such criticisms, ‘Would you be asking this question if this was your child?’.

In conclusion, the investigation is a good thing, the McCann family can have some confidence that their daughter’s case is being looked at by a team of investigators from a trusted institution. Even if the new investigation does not SOLVE the case, at the very least, they can be assured that the case has been thoroughly explored and that no stone has been left unturned. However, what is crucially important about this investigation is what it represents more widely for the families of missing children – that cases CAN BE and ARE reopened. This sets an encouraging precedent for other families in similar circumstances and there are many families experiencing this anguish. Just look through the Missing Kids website, which tells us about 120 other children we should not forget.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.