When child trafficking wears a disguise: The case of Madeleine McCann


Washington, September 22, 2012 – As we struggle each day against the rising tide of indifference that clouds the depths of society’s conscience, there are many whose very existence is fueled by the promise of hope.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, every day in this country 2,185 children younger than 18 are reported missing. That translates to 797,500 a year.

The disappearance of a child is a tragedy that leaves a permanent hole in the heart of family and friends. For parents of the missing, every day is an inescapable roller coaster ride where hope and despair battle for possession of their very souls. As they struggle to find the slightest information regarding their loved one, many suffer the unconscionable fate of not knowing if hope will abandon them before the day is through.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works with both Federal and State law enforcement to provide parents and loved ones with the resources to find the hope they so desperately need to continue the search for the missing. From 1984 to March 2012 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has aided Law Enforcement in the investigation of 187,800 missing-child cases and in the recovery of 175,200 children.

The statistics for missing children in the United States are staggering and heartbreaking. Famous cases such as Etan Patz, the six-year-old boy who disappeared in New York on May 25, 1979, bring that tragedy home to each and every one of us. His face was one of the first to be placed on the side of a milk carton and recent evidence regarding his case has once again shone the national spotlight on the tragedy of the missing.

Across the ocean, a case of a missing child in England has transfixed the attention of the world and cost the British Police an estimated £3.2 million over the course of their investigation into her disappearance.

On May 3, 2007, in a small resort town in Portugal known as the “beach of the light,” an invisible darkness crept into the lives of two parents, bringing a heartache that would soon echo around the world. Three year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from an unlocked ground floor apartment at the Portuguese resort as her two-year-old twin siblings slept in a nearby bed. Her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, had decided to vacation in Portugal, taking three-year old Madeleine and her two-year old twin siblings along. The McCann’s were both physicians and in search of a much needed respite from their careers, and Portugal seemed the perfect place to unwind.

The McCann’s rented an apartment on the ground floor of the resort and thought their worries were left behind on the tarmac at Heathrow airport. They had no idea that their worst fears were about to come true. The night of Madeleine’s disappearance, the couple placed the three children in their beds to sleep at around 8:30PM before leaving for dinner. The McCann’s were at a restaurant within a hundred yards of their children as they dined with friends and took turns checking on the children, aided by one of their dinner companions, Matthew Oldfield. The evening went on without incident until at ten o’clock Kate McCann found Madeleine missing from her bed. A nanny working for the resort arrived to find Kate screaming, “They’ve taken her, they’ve taken her!”

In an instant the lives of the McCann’s and of many others would change forever. The Portuguese police were notified and arrived within ten minutes, using dogs to track Madeleine and draining all the swimming pools at the resort. The searches yielded nothing, and police blame the presence of a large number of people at the crime scene for destroying whatever evidence may have been present.

The Portuguese police pursued two possible motives for the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, abduction by an international pedophile ring or by an adoption or “child laundering” network. A list of suspects began to emerge, and the Portuguese called in their Secret Service to help investigate. Shortly thereafter, the British Police were brought into the investigation of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and continue to search for her today.

According to the United Nations, 1.2 million children are trafficked each year and 95% of these victims experience physical or sexual violence. “Child laundering” is the term used for the abduction and sale of children around the world for the purpose of adoption by individuals in other countries, and many have compared the veracity and growth of this practice to the “black market” trade of human organs. The criminal organizations involve a complex network that ranges from government officials, orphanages and adoptive families and involves skills twisted to serve the dark purpose of stealing children for profit. The child simply “disappears” as falsified paperwork and bribes erase the identity of the child.

According to the U.S. State Department, over 12,000 visas were issued in 2009 for adoptions from abroad. An intense controversy is raging over the issue of “child laundering” with the United States on one side of the issue and many in the international community embracing a different view. Exactly where the U.S. falls on the issue of “child laundering” will shock you. The current view of the U.S. State Department is that “child laundering” does not exploit children and that the end results are “humanitarian.” The adoption agencies in the United States that become the recipients of these children are not held accountable for the methods by which these children are obtained as they have “no prior knowledge” of the circumstances of their procurement before arriving in the U.S.

David M. Smolin, Professor of Law, Cumberland School of Law, Samford University, states in his 2005 publication on child laundering, “According to the U.S. government, a child trafficking enterprise operated in Cambodia between January 1997 and December 2001; in other words, during the entire period from the rise of Cambodia as a sending nation until the suspension of adoptions by the United States government. Although the plea agreement with the principal defendant provided criminal convictions only for conspiracy to commit visa fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and structuring, the government states that the criminal conspiracy involved “alien smuggling, visa fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, tax fraud, money laundering, and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

Although this was a child trafficking enterprise, no crime related to child trafficking was charged because of the lack of a federal law-criminalizing child trafficking for purposes of adoption. The conspiracy involved some 700 to 800 children, or almost half of all the children placed for adoption from Cambodia during the relevant period.

In 1993 The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption met to address the issues of child laundering and child trafficking. Since that time, eighty-nine countries agreed to the objectives of the convention.

The following is an excerpt from the objectives. “Intercountry adoptions shall be made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights. To prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children, each state should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.”

The United States, however, still retains its stance on the issue of “child laundering.” Infertile and wealthy couples in the United States, frustrated with the slow and agonizing process of adopting locally, have turned with increasing frequency to the overseas adoption market to satisfy their longing for a child. These parents have the noblest of intentions and seek nothing more than to give a child a loving and caring home. The problem lies in the journey that takes these children from their native families into the ranks of the adoption agencies that desperate parents turn to. Many of these overseas adoption agencies are unlicensed and unregulated, and the majority of the victims are impoverished families who are duped into giving up their children. In some cases, the families lack the means to pay for the medical care associated with the birth of the child and are left with no choice but to succumb to the lure of the scams that purveyors of “child laundering” perpetrate.

In a 1998 New York Times article entitled “Market Puts Price Tags on the Priceless,” Debra Harder, network director for Adoptive Families of America, a Minneapolis-based support organization, states, “Most of the long-established agencies involved in international adoptions have ”an altruistic, mission-driven sense that every child deserves a family. ‘Now, with additional programs opening up in Russia and China in particular, folks are seeing it as an entrepreneurial venture.”

In the same New York Times article, Barbara Irvin, state director of Family Adoption Consultants in Macedonia, Ohio, is uneasy about having more children than families waiting for placement. ”There are some real tensions now between the child focus and the consumer orientation, the human services model and the market forces,” she said. ”Some families start looking for the cheapest, the fastest, the ‘we promise you a child that meets your quote-unquote specifications in so many months.’ Some of us who have been in the field for 20 years get worried about this shift.”

The search for Madeleine McCann continues today with a vote on the continued funding of the investigation due in the British Parliament in the coming months. Sightings of Madeleine McCann have poured in from all over the world, but none have produced results. In October 2007 British forensic scientist David Barclay inspected the resort where Madeleine McCann disappeared. In his words the resort was a “pervert’s paradise” due to the ease with which a child could be taken undetected. The Portuguese Police suspended their investigation in 2008 due to a “lack of evidence.” In 2009 it was revealed that 72 hours after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann two British men vacationing in Barcelona, Spain, were approached by a woman who asked, “Are you here to deliver my new daughter?” She was described as a Victoria Beckham look alike with an Australian accent and spoke fluent Spanish. It is rumored British Police flew to Barcelona in 2011 to investigate this report but by then the trail was “cold.”

To bring an end to the practice of child laundering, the Hague Convention has to be extended to other countries and enforced by those who signed the agreement. The money involved in international adoptions must also be tracked and regulated. Licensing requirements for adoption agencies both domestically and abroad must also be examined. Penalties for child laundering must be increased and enforced for any type of change to occur.

We pray for the safe return of Madeleine McCann and all the children who continue to go missing each day all around the world.

I encourage all of you to join me in the fight against child trafficking, and all it takes is a few minutes of your time to become familiar with the faces of the lost and the missing we see on posters and web pages every day. If we all educate ourselves on the prevention of child trafficking and spend just a few minutes giving hope to those who are searching for loved ones, the tide of this fight could be turned. In the end, if we all work together, the next Madeleine McCann or Etan Patz may be saved from the darkness that leaves behind only the endless longing for their return.

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Jerome Elam
Jerome Elam is a survivor of child sex trafficking, child abuse, and child pornography. He is also the child of an alcoholic and a child survivor of domestic violence as well as a child of divorce. Raised in the south, Jerome enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen to escape the nightmare he had become trapped in. That day, Jerome’s life found a new beginning as he embarked upon a journey that would show him the world and open his eyes to the strength of the human spirit. After his enlistment was finished, Jerome attended college and graduated to work in the Biotechnology sector. Motivated by the painful memory of his past, Jerome began to speak out about his abuse and found the healing force of God’s unconditional love and the joy of starting his own family. He is a fierce advocate for all children deprived of their voices, a speaker, a Staff Writer and Columnist for Communities Digital News and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. When asked to describe his life Jerome says,” I have struggled against many things in my life and somehow I found a way to survive. Writing is my passion and it keeps me in touch with the wealth everyone holds deep inside their hearts and minds. I share my experiences in the hope that those suffering in silence will find the courage to speak out and share their voices. I have been blessed to have God reveal his purpose for me in saving innocent children from predators.”