Image: Gerry McCann, Kate McCann
Sven Kaestner  /  AP file
The parents of missing Madeleine McCann accepted an apology and more than $1 million in damages over tabloid newspaper stories suggesting they had caused their 4-year-old daughter's death.
updated 5/2/2008 3:57:26 PM ET 2008-05-02T19:57:26

A small Portuguese town's search for a British girl who went missing during a family vacation broadened into a global quest.

But one year after Madeleine McCann disappeared in Praia da Luz, she is still counted among the many thousands of children worldwide who vanish without a trace.

Church services in Britain and in the Portuguese beachside resort will mark the first anniversary Saturday of the McCann family's widely publicized ordeal.

The disappearance of Madeleine, who was a few days short of turning 4 when she disappeared on May 3, 2007, has engaged public sympathy across continents, and advocates of improved child protection measures are harnessing the attention to press their case for change.

Ernie Allen, president of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., said the McCanns' high-profile campaign to find their daughter has helped galvanize international efforts.

"You have these transcendent cases that capture the attention of the media and people around the world and as tragic as they are, they shine a spotlight on the problem, and we need to be ready to seize those opportunities to make fundamental changes," Allen said in a telephone interview.

Parents maintain innocence
Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry — both doctors from central England — built a worldwide online campaign that recruited public help for their search.

"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling and soccer star David Beckham were among celebrities who made appeals, and a meeting at the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI further amplified their efforts.

The McCanns sustained the momentum even after Portuguese police named them as formal suspects in September. They deny any wrongdoing, and the investigation remains open.

The McCanns have used their fame to press for the adoption of an early warning system for child abductions in Europe.

Gerry McCann traveled to the U.S. in June to view a national program for such emergencies.

The Amber Alert system, which quickly airs descriptions of missing children and suspects, was adopted throughout the U.S. in 2003. It helped recover 68 kidnapped children in 2007 and several hundred over the past five years. Australia and Canada have similar programs.

At the European Parliament last month, the McCanns urged the continent's lawmakers to introduce a standardized child rescue alert for Europe.

The EU has no cross-border mechanism even though 15 of its 27 member countries, including Portugal, have removed border controls between them. EU countries have adopted a shared hot line number — 116000 — to enable early alerts, though not all member nations use it.

"Progress is always slow on these things ... and the effort of the McCanns is really timely," Allen said.

'Scale of problem is huge'
Some have voiced criticism that there is too much media emphasis on the Madeleine McCann case.

But Catherine Meyer, London-based president of nonprofit organization Parents and Children Together, said the family's endeavors have been "tremendously beneficial" for long-standing attempts to underscore the scale of the threat.

Public interest in Madeleine's disappearance shows no signs of ebbing. Detectives are still working on the case, and a man who lives near the Praia da Luz hotel where she vanished is a formal suspect along with the McCanns. He also has strenuously denied involvement.

Police declined to speak about their investigation, saying it is confidential.

A U.N. study in 2006 estimated that 1.2 million children are trafficked across the world each year, though there has been no indication that Madeleine was snagged by criminal rings.

But Kate McCann wrote on the family's Web site that their ordeal had brought them into contact with a shadowy global menace that they, like most people, were barely aware of.

"The scale of the problem is huge. In fact, it is terrifying," she wrote.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments