Until recently, few people realised the extent of the tragedy that is child abduction. A few names are remembered, like Madeleine McCann and Ben Needham, but it was the reaction to the finding of little Maria, believed to have been taken by a Roma couple, that revealed how many children may have been stolen from their real families. Thousands of people all over the world have claimed her in just a few days, and while some of them may be time-wasters, most of the parents who have contacted the Greek police have lost a blonde, blue-eyed daughter in the last few years – and want her back.
There will be many others for whom the revelations about Maria and another girl found with a Roma family, this time in Dublin, will bring back haunting memories of their own loss through abduction, whether their child was snatched, taken away at birth or was claimed to have died. The premature death of any loved one is hard to bear, but to lose a happy, healthy child in unexplained circumstances, not to know if he or she is alive or dead, taken for illegal adoption, slavery or paedophilia, is an unimaginable burden.
While it is good that the publicity about Maria’s story is causing extra scrutiny of family relationships in some communities, it is important that it is fair and does not become a witch hunt resulting in the ostracising of all Romas, for example. Meanwhile, there must be many places where a child has appeared unexpectedly, or there have been suspicions of something “not quite right” which have been ignored or overlooked by neighbours: it is a symptom of a disconnected society where community values of helping, sharing and noticing have been forgotten, whether applying to a beaten wife, an ill-treated dog, a lonely widower or a bewildered child. If we paid more attention, many crimes of cruelty and abuse could be stopped, and so could some of the sadness of child abduction.
My heart goes out to the men and women who feel the flutter of hope, today, that their lost and much-loved child may have been found but who will be disappointed, once again, and to those others who remember, but now without hope. Whatever the spiritual learning that lies behind these sad events – and there is one, always – every abduction is a tragedy, for us all.