As they continue to hunt for Madeleine, Kate and Gerry McCann have won a victory for missing children everywhere
Report: ANNA KINGSLEY
Issue: 3 May 2010 (published: 26 April 2010)
As her kidnappers threw her into the boot of their car, Mara Downes thought she caught a glimpse of a shovel - that meant just one thing to the 13-year-old: they were going to kill her and bury her body. Trapped in the darkness, she started to pray. And thanks to an Amber Alert, Mara's prayers were answered. Just over three hours later a woman saw a TV news alert about Mara's abduction and realised she'd seen the kidnappers' car. She called police, who found and freed Mara. 'It worked so well,' says Mara's mother, Martha. 'She would have died in that boot.'
Mara's incredible rescue isn't as unusual as you might think. Thanks to a nationwide system in America that spreads information across the country as soon as a child is reported missing, nearly 450 children have been found safe and well. And now, thanks to relentless campaigning by Kate and Gerry McCann, a similar set-up is about to be launched here in the UK. It's welcome news for the couple, who will be marking the third anniversary of their daughter Madeleine's disappearance next week.
When the police announced plans to launch the scheme straight away, Kate and Gerry said they were very delighted. It's one of the things they've been working towards since their daughter first went missing.
'We're delighted and relieved that this system is being introduced, because the first hours after a child goes missing are crucial,' they said. 'We know it saves children's lives, and it doesn't cost a lot.' Kate and Gerry, both 41, first heard about the US Amber Alert system on a trip to Washington.
It's named after nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996.
A similar scheme has also been adopted in France and Belgium. It's designed to spread information, including up-to-date photographs of a missing child, as widely as possible during the critical first six hours following an abduction, as this is when they're most at risk. The alerts wil lalso pass on details of where the child was kidnapped, a description of suspects and any vehicle that may have been used in the abduction. Radio and TV stations will broadcast newsflashes every 15 minutes for up to six hours.
Crucially, the new network will be compatible with other European countries so that a continent-wide alert could be issued when police fear a child may have been taken across national borders.
The breakthrough is good news for the McCanns, who've struggled over the past three years to stay positive. Speaking on a visit to Portugal to see their lawyer, Kate admitted she still goes into her lost daughter's room every day. 'We haven't changed a thing. There's still a lot of pink. I go to Madeleine's room twice a day - it's a comforting feeling.'
Gerry added: 'There are several cases, some recent, of missing children that were found. That makes us believe our daughter could be alive - and that's why we continue to have hope.
Last month Kate and Gerry got a boost when the police team who found hoax kidnap victim Shannon Matthews agreed to investigate Madeleine's disappearance. The team from West Yorkshire will be studying the Portuguese police files, which include 2,000 pages of sightings, tip-offs and potential suspects, many of which were never properly investigated.
The McCanns feel sure that a European version of the Amber Alert would have helped in the search for their daughter but are trying to focus on the future. They've always been adamant that the loss of their child would make a difference.
If anything positive can come from the disappearance of Madeleine, maybe it's the creation of an effective system for recovering missing children, in the hope that no other parent will have to suffer the torment Gerry and Kate have suffered over the past three years.
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