‘Promise I made’ Missing child expert helping families ‘going through same pain’ as McCann

Madeleine McCann vigil in Rothley, 15 years after going missing

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Charlie Hedges MBE, now a missing persons expert at Amber Alert, told Express.co.uk that with decades of experience he knew how “so desperately difficult” it was for families looking for answers to find guidance. The launch coincides with International Missing Children’s Day, and comes just weeks after Kate and Gerry McCann marked 15 years since their daughter went missing.

As well as the information hub, the former lead for the NCA’s Child Rescue Alert is hoping to develop a charity that investigates cold cases and unidentified bodies.

And he said: “Following up on a promise I made to some of the family members”, he will be writing guidance for families navigating the “whole journey” of dealing with a missing person.

While there was “a lot of focus put on the McCanns”, Mr Hedges said there were “loads more [families] who you never see, going through the same pain, the same difficulty”.

He added: “You might lose a relative in a car crash or there might be some horrible crime. But at least you’ve got an outcome.

“With missing [persons cases], you never have that; you’re left dangling and not knowing what’s going on. So there are people out there trying to make a difference.”

Mr Hedges hopes people looking at the information hub will help “raise their interest” in missing persons cases – and though it doesn’t provide help with individual cases, it is “associated” with his cold cases endeavours.

Previously, Aagje Ieven, secretary general of Missing Children Europe, told this website that since Madeleine disappeared in 2007, help for families dealing with missing relatives had improved massively. One such provision – a missing children’s hotline – was not operational when Maddie vanished, despite being reserved in February of that year.

As such, “whether we can highlight [Madeleine] McCann and say, well, actually, this is horrible. But there are some good news stories behind it, and some positive things are being developed to try and reduce the pain of this and make it easier when people do find themselves in this situation”, Mr Hedges said.

He added: “It’s a very sad case and one that we’d love to resolve. That same goes for lots of others. If you want a controversial line, I’d say: why the hell are we spending all those million pounds on one case when there’s thousands of others which could do with a little bit each?” Operation Grange, the Metropolitan Police investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance, is estimated to have cost £13million.

The “case that first got me involved in this 25 years ago” for Mr Hedges was when a 19-year-old boy disappeared at a licenced rave. His friends assumed he had gone home, but he never returned back.

His mother insisted he would have called if he were staying out somewhere, but Mr Hedges claimed the police brushed off the report believing he had met someone. His body was later found and suggested “difficult and challenging, but unexplainable” circumstances.

What opened Mr Hedge’s eyes, he said, was that though the boy’s death may not have been preventable, the “long period” of suffering the mother endured could have been by an earlier response from the authorities.

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Around the same time, in 1996, Val Nettles’ son Damien went missing. He has never been found.

She said: “When your child is missing you are lost in time and space. The world continues its momentum, revolving around you whilst you are rooted to that spot in time.”

During her “overwhelming need to understand the complexities of ‘missing’”, she found a “myriad of disembodied articles” when she was “searching for this clarity”.

Ms Nettles met Mr Hedges in 2016, two decades after Damien disappeared, around the time the BBC released a documentary on the case. He helped her campaign for Damien’s Law – calling for a family member’s assertion that a missing episode being out of character to be taken seriously by the authorities.

Mr Hedges said of his motivation to start the information hub: “Going back through all my time of working with missing [persons], one of the problems is it’s just so everything’s so desperately difficult to find.

“Even after the years I’ve been doing it, still I find it challenging. So if you imagine what it’s like for a family who are coming to it new, trying to find their way around, it is just horrendous.

He added that he wanted a “one-stop shop” for academics “trying to look for new areas that would be valuable to research”, professionals who may be able to help and families alike.

For families, Mr Hedges hopes to answer “what does it mean when someone talks about ‘you can’t report something for 24 hours’? What does ‘the cold’ now mean? What does it mean when someone wants to come and search your house?

“Following up on a promise I made to some of the family members as well is that the next piece of work is to write a full guidance document for families taking through the whole journey of: how you deal with missing person? What role do the police pay? What role do other organisations play? […] How you deal with their affairs, and deal with the loss?”

The information hub is already host to the University of Portsmouth Centre for the Study of Missing Persons research archive. Dr Karen Shalev Greene, director of the centre, said it would be “a crucial single point of reference”.

For Assistant Chief Constable Catherine Hankinson, missing persons lead for the National Police Chiefs Council, the hub will help “identify what support is out there for people affected during a time of crisis”.

To find out more about the Missing Persons Information Hub, visit here

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