In May last year, four-year-old Madeleine McCann went missing from an apartment in Portugal where her family was on holiday. Her disappearance dominated the news in Britain and across the world. Despite a reward of £2.5 million being offered for her safe return, nothing has been seen of her.
But one mother's anguish proved another's opportunity.
Back in England, watching daytime television in her council house in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, 32-year-old Karen Matthews got to thinking about that reward. She contacted Michael Donovan, her present partner's uncle, with a plan to abduct her own nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, and hide her at Donovan's house. After a few weeks, when a reward was offered, Donovan would claim to have found Shannon and the two conspirators would then split the money.
In February this year, Matthews put the plan into action and reported Shannon missing. With 300 police officers searching for her daughter, she appeared before television cameras with tears in her eyes, appealing for Shannon's safe return.
About three weeks later, police discovered Shannon at Donovan's house. She had been drugged and tethered. This week, Matthews and Donovan were found guilty of kidnapping her.
Most people in Britain are appalled that a mother could subject her daughter to an ordeal such as this in the hope of making money. But this case is about more than just one woman's heartless indifference towards her child.
As details have emerged of this family's lifestyle, middle England has been confronted with stark evidence of how the country's welfare state has enabled a destructive underclass culture to take root and thrive. The only good news is that, at last, the Government seems ready to tackle the problem by radically reforming the way the welfare system works.
Matthews has never done a day's work. She has relied on the Government to house her and to give her an income of £287 ($644) every week. Nor has she ever married. She has had seven children, sired by five or six different fathers (she isn't sure exactly how many). Three of these children live with their fathers. The other four were living with Matthews and her latest partner, who is 22 and awaiting trial on child pornography charges. He thought he was the father of Matthews's youngest child, but DNA tests showed he wasn't. The four children who lived with them were badly neglected and beaten. The state fed the older children breakfast at school. Dinner may have consisted of a bag of lollies.
Much of the cash stumped up by taxpayers to look after these children was spent on cigarettes (60 a day) and alcohol. Shannon was regularly drugged with anti-depressants, painkillers and travel sickness pills to keep her quiet, especially during school holidays.
The British public is gradually waking up to the realisation that this Hogarthian scene of debauchery, selfish irresponsibility and gross neglect is not exceptional.
The Conservative Opposition has taken to describing Britain as a “broken society”, although the core of the problem is concentrated at the bottom end of the social structure, where the middle classes rarely go. This is where the collapse of the family has had its most devastating impact and the corrupting influence of unconditional welfare is most keenly felt.
Almost one-fifth of British households live in public rental housing (four times as many as in Australia). Some of the biggest council estates in the country have become welfare ghettoes where almost nobody works.
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