Last night’s Panorama special revealed the inside story of the “kidnap that never was” and disclosed the truth about the mother of Shannon Matthews who was yesterday found guilty of kidnapping her daughter in order to claim a reward for her recovery. This article isn’t only about the programme though because I feel we as a society need to address the issues raised in this programme that pertain to how Karen Matthews and her family lived.
As we know, Karen Matthews and her co-accused Michael Donovan were convicted of kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice for holding the nine-year-old at Donovan’s flat in West Yorkshire for 24 days in February this year.
Shannon was kept drugged, subdued and hidden from the public while police led local volunteers in a massive search for her and Karen made tearful appeals for her return, however, on 14th March, after a huge investigation and search by West Yorkshire Police costing almost £3.2 million, Shannon was found in Donovan’s flat, less than a mile from her home.
Jeremy Vine interviewed officers involved in the operation as well as people from the West Yorkshire community in which Karen Matthews lived.
The programme revealed that when police first began to suspect that Karen was involved in Shannon’s disappearance, they unravelled the web of lies she’d spun out in the media and in private.
We heard about the moment officers, acting on a tip-off from a neighbour, broke down the door of Donovan’s flat and found the missing child – and her captor – hidden in the base of a bed.
What then transpired was a shocking indictment of what one of the interviewees had termed the “underclass” society in which the key players in this shocking drama lived, and it’s this that I primarily intend to address. Karen Matthews had seven children by five different fathers, none of whom she was living with when she hatched the plan to arrange the abduction of her own child.
She lived on state benefits, as did her boyfriend, Craig Meehan, who was later convicted of having child pornography on his computer. It was his uncle, Michael Donovan, who held Shannon for the days she was missing. The children – we were told via an ex-neighbour – lived in squalor and were poorly nourished and generally uncared for. It also transpired that Shannon had been given a cocktail of sedative drugs for up to two years before her abduction. Meehan and Karen Matthews however had expensive games consoles, a computer, internet access and Sky TV while their home looked like a filthy squat.
Social services had been alerted several times to the state the children were in and that “undesirables” including IV drug users were regular visitors to Karen Matthews’ home. However, while I don’t wish to ‘blanket’ defend social services – who we’ve seen recently are sometimes hesitant to the point of tragically neglectful – I agree with the senior police officer who was interviewed and told Jeremy Vine that responsibility for the family had to be, for the most part, down to the parent of that family, Karen Matthews.
She, he explained, felt that she was “disadvantaged” and should be pitied. It is this ethos that he felt Karen Matthews hid behind to try to distance herself from her actions. I agree entirely with this officer and what he had to say about the “underclass” society. He pointed out that for many – but by no means all – of the people who live like Karen Matthews did – claiming benefits, actively avoiding work and having children in order to boost their income – made for an insular society within a society which has its own set of laws and rules that are often very different to those of the rest of society. He commented that within this society, an unspoken rule was “get away with what you can” and again, I agree with him.
In my opinion, social services did very little about Shannon and her family because in circumstances like theirs and in this underclass, Shannon’s was not an uncommon story. Poorly nourished, poorly nurtured children are nothing new. Children who are brought up more by the TV than their parents, is nothing new. Children who witness drunkenness, violence, drug abuse and criminality is nothing new. If social services were to take into care every child in Britain who lives like this as a norm, they would have to build facilities that would be as large as cities.
I’ve seen first hand exactly the group of people he’s talking about and for a mercifully brief time, through unfortunate circumstances which I eventually got myself out of, lived on an estate very like the one the Matthews family did. It was considered odd if you worked when you could claim benefits and it was standard procedure for young girls to get pregnant in order to get a council flat. Cheating the benefits system and petty crime were norms of behaviour as was the communal raising of children and if you didn’t join in you would find yourself, as I did, ridiculed and ostracised.
The fact is this underclass exists and while there are always exceptions, as we saw in last night’s documentary and as I myself found, there are many good parents who love and care for not only their own children but those around them, and good people who will do whatever they can to help others. However, there are hundreds more people like Karen Matthews. Not that I’m saying the majority of those people would go to the lengths she did, they wouldn’t of course, but nonetheless, her life history is by no means extraordinary. Children are often seen as cash cows sadly and for Karen Matthews, she just took it a large step further than the norm.
Let me stress here that as with any group of people, not all of the individuals on the estate I lived on, nor those on the estate Karen Matthews lived on, are cheats, liars and bad parents. Some of these people are kind, good hearted and excellent parents and role models, but these are also the people who try to provide a better existence for their families. They don’t deliberately spend the entirety of their lives living on the dole and trying out ever more inventive ways of making money without working for it.
The ‘something for nothing’ culture, the absolving of personal responsibility because the state will pay for their living and wellbeing, the absence of any contact with people who live differently and the sheer amount of unproductive time on their hands leads to people like Karen Matthews. She’s not a victim, far from it, she’s an evil, calculating liar who has no concern for anyone but herself, but she is the type of person who I’m afraid this country is nurturing for all the wrong reasons.
The state benefits system was established to be a safety net for those who, through no fault of their own, much less deliberate engineering, found themselves in desperate financial straits. The system has been abused for decades and people like Karen Matthews and her cohorts are classic examples of where it’s gone wrong. It is also why when people in genuine need of state help ask for it, they are treated badly and with suspicion.
Greed motivated her to do what she did; she viewed her children as a means of gaining income through benefits so that she didn’t have to work and then, on seeing the generosity of the reward money offered for the return of Madeline McCann, she wanted a slice of that.
It was however also pointed out in the programme that there was a good deal more public concern and sympathy for the plight of Madeline than there was for Shannon, and again, we come back to money and status. Was Shannon a planned child? Possibly, but not I suspect because she was wanted for the person she could be. I believe she was born to increase Karen’s benefits, unless she was an ‘accident’. Was Madeline a planned and wanted baby? I’m sure she was, and she was a loved and cared for child so the fact that her family treasured her made us vicariously treasure her too.
It was a different matter when a potential Jeremy Kyle guest like Karen – ill educated, overweight, poor and lacking in social skills – appeared on our screens saying terribly false and trite things such as “my beautiful princess daughter”. But why did we have less sympathy for her than we had for Gerry and Kate McCann?
In theory, we should have had more; after all, Madeline was left unattended and alone in a holiday apartment whereas Shannon was on her way home from school. If Shannon had been abducted from her home where her parents were not in attendance, the children remaining would undoubtedly have been taken into care and we’d tut and shake our heads about how ‘these people’ can be such terrible and neglectful parents. Why didn’t we react in the same way toward Madeline’s parents? Is it because we all secretly suspected Karen was lying and had set it all up? I don’t think so.
It’s because we are all aware of this “underclass” and we don’t want to look at it, much less give it a name and sympathise with it. We know it’s there, we resent it, we don’t approve of it but there’s frankly not a lot we can do about it and what’s more, many view these people with disdain and even consider them expendable, and no great loss at that. We don’t value them as much as we value people like the McCanns who are educated, self-sustaining and contributors to, rather than drains on, society.
It seems that some of the underclass don’t much care about their own children so why should we? We do however find it much easier to identify with people like the McCann’s and we could accept that they didn’t leave their children unattended out of flagrant disregard for their welfare, which would be the first accusation we’d throw at the likes of Karen Matthews were the circumstances the same.
On seeing this documentary and making comparisons between Shannon’s disappearance and Madeline’s, it was both shocking and sad to realise that some children are much less valued than others and that, I believe, is the root of this entire issue. Shannon was a money making machine to her mother and the fact that the kind hearted people around her as well as some sectors of the media and local businesses managed to raise a reward of £50,000 was amazing, but nonetheless, the fund for Madeline reached millions within a very short space of time. Would it have reached that figure for Shannon had she remained missing? I doubt it.
Isn’t it time then that we as a society addressed these issues and did something about them given that the spotlight of Shannon Matthews case has illumined the wider issue of the ‘underclass’? Isn’t it time that we stopped allowing people with similar ‘values’ to Karen Matthews from bleeding the system and producing children that they have no intention of personally providing for? And how can that be done without penalising and victimising people who are in genuine need of state benefits and society’s support? Let us know your thoughts on the subject.