Three days before 11-year-old Candela Sol Rodríguez was kidnapped, sparking a nationwide search and media frenzy, the organisation Missing Children held a small rally of parents to attract press attention for missing children throughout Argentina who had not yet been found.
Argentina’s most popular national newspaper Clarín published a spread about the event, reporting that according to Missing Children on average three children per day disappear.
Adriana Sellán, a member of Missing Children believes that the event somehow primed the country and the media to focus, from the first moments after her disappearance, on the fate of Candela.
From the day she was discovered missing, media outlets fixated on the case, thousands of police officers were deployed to search the streets, and Argentine actor Ricardo Darín joined other celebrities and NGOs to launch an awareness-raising campaign, “48 hours for Candela.” After nearly two weeks of round-the-clock coverage of the search, the discovery of her body, and the ensuing murder investigation, press coverage has just begun to die down.
But whatever the reason for the eventual “media circus” (as many have termed it), the intense media coverage of Candela disappearance and murder in late August has brought Argentina’s missing children—and the organisations in charge of finding them —to the centre of attention.
An Atypical Case
There have been other high-profile cases reminiscent of Candela’s kidnapping, though none has been the subject of nearly as much press attention. In September of 2008, four-year-old Sofia Herrera disappeared while on a camping trip near Río Grande with her family, and galvanised the nation in the weeks that followed. She has still not been found.
The case of Yesica Mariela Martínez, called ‘Marela’ for short, bears some striking similarities to Candela’s case. The 9-year-old was kidnapped and murdered in October of 2003, and her body was found four months later. Her death was later revealed to be an act of revenge against her father, who like Candela’s father, was a member of a gang of highway robbers, referred to in Argentina as ‘piratas del asfalto.’
However, according to Sellán, Candela’s was a very atypical case of a missing child. The majority are runaways who leave their homes “due to the personal problems of adolescence,” and who receive “zero press coverage,” Sellán explains.
Most children who go missing are “not gone for more than two days, a week at the most” says Sellán. In 2010 alone, of the 1,088 children disappeared from their homes in total, only 281 were taken from their home, of whom 90% were taken by their mother or father.Children run away from a variety of circumstances, according to Sellán. Some experience violence in the home, and some leave because of conflicts over what their parents allow them to do or because they don’t want to tell their parents that they failed a class. In situations of runaways, Sellán explains, “The problem is the risk they encounter when they’re alone in the street.”
The National Register of Information of Young Missing People reports that since 2003 it has resolved 16,076 of the 17,924 cases of missing children in its database, which include 11 deaths. According to the registry’s records, 80% are from working-class families.
Missing Children’s database, which is about a third the size of the National Register, shows that the majority of children who go missing are between 13 and 17-years-old, and that 62% are female.
Too Much Attention
When a child disappears, Sellán describes how Missing Children will go through a series of steps to collect the facts, first by talking to friends, family, and schoolmates to find out where the child was seen last, then by putting up their picture with a phone number in areas where the child normally hangs out.
In a process that is usually starved of public attention, some believe that Candela’s case attracted too many people looking to help, and that their good will actually hindered the investigation. As Sellán describes, “Everyone came out with good intentions” but they often “repeated the same work two times, or contaminated clues that existed because one enters and then another enters and so on.”
Nora Schulman, Executive director of the Argentine Committee of Monitoring and Application of the Convention for Children’s Rights believes that the presence of Ricardo Darín and other big name artists in the search did not necessarily help either. “People did not call in to give true facts about the girl but rather to speak with the artist that answered the telephone,” she notes. “They told lies, and this derailed the investigation a lot.”
Schulman also adds that a lot of the press coverage violated the rights of children. “There shouldn’t be a media exhibition that shows all aspects of the intimate life of an 11-year-old girl, showing her in costume, or the photos of her communion.” To Schulman this kind of exposure would not have been respectful “even when the girl was alive.”
The Use of Photos
There is some question as to whether the widespread publication of a missing child’s portrait is an effective means of finding them. Schulman says in general she does not believe photos of missing children should be circulated at all because in the majority of cases, “we don’t find children that way.”
Speaking at a press conference at the beginning of September, the Chief Coordinator of the National Register of Information of Young Missing People, Cristina Fernández, warned that in cases of kidnapping or human trafficking showing a photo could harm the child “because the kidnapper feels panic-stricken and looks for a way to discard the victim.”
Schulman adds that organizations like Missing Children poorly manage the circulation of photos, and often continue “publishing the photos of kids who have already been found.”
But Sellán emphasises the importance of the distribution of photos. “All we ask from the press is to show the photos” because “the reality is that it helps. It helps a lot.” Sellán remembers cases of missing children who are found when “someone recognises them because they saw a photo printed on a receipt.”
Who’s in Charge?
The dispute over the circulation of photos could be the result of a more general tension in Argentina between private and governmental organisations charged with finding children who have disappeared.
Missing Children in Argentina was founded in 1999 as an arm of the US organization, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and operates with a team of volunteers. The National Register of Information of Young Missing People was created just a few years later, in 2003, through the passage of law 25.746.
Nora Schulman believes that The National Register “has adequate professionals” and that the best way to help is to provide information to the government “because we can’t all go out and look for kids on the street.” She adds, “Sometimes private institutions with only good intentions will make mistakes with these things.”
Although Sellán believes that a unified protocol is needed to coordinate efforts, she emphasises that “The truth is that they don’t give it too much importance” she said, referring to the police, who she says often don’t want to use up resources launching searches for children who are not actually in any danger. For this reason, according to Sellán, Missing Children continues to be of great importance in Argentina.
In her press conference, Cristina Fernández charged, “We should leave the search in the hands of those that are capable.” The question remains, who is?