Portuguese Child Abduction Alert System starts only in March and for now the information and communication means that are used by the authorities remain the same as before the Maddie case
Although the case is being handled by the Polícia Judiciária (PJ) with the same seriousness as a disappearance, Sara Sofia Lopes dos Santos, aged three, disappeared on the first day of 2009 within the frame of a parental abduction.
According to information from the PJ’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Portimão, Sara was abducted by her mother and has been taken abroad, probably into Spain, where the investigators try to locate her with the cooperation of the Spanish authorities.
According to the same source, since the couple split in 2007, Sara’s parents have been in conflict concerning the exercise of parental rights over the child, that had been officially entrusted to her father, who accuses the mother of abandoning the child. Sara’s mother and her relatives tell a different version, accusing the father of abusing the child, a fact that was never proved.
Although Sara’s abduction took place on the 1st of January 2009, it was not until now that the information was placed on the Polícia Judiciária’s internet site (www.policiajudiciaria.pt), where a recent photograph of the child can be seen.
According to information that was now publicised by the PJ’s CID in Portimão – the same that was responsible for the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann -, the last time that Sara Sofia was seen, she was wearing a pink Nike track suit and pink sneakers.
The little girl, of Portuguese nationality, has brown eyes and brown hair, and a red mark on her back as a distinguishing feature.
According to a PJ source in Portimão, there is no connection whatsoever between the disappearance of Sara Sofia and the Madeleine McCann case, yet the investigators fear that their work may be harmed by the intervention of English media, as the fact that both children are of the same age and disappeared from the same relatively close geographical area “will certainly be used to re-launch the media focus on the Maddie case and to concentrate attentions on the Algarve, thus diverting suspicions from the McCann couple”.
English press associates disappearance of Sara with the Maddie case
The information about Sara Sofia’s disappearance would have gone completely unnoticed in England if it hadn’t been for the intervention of a source that is close to the British authorities and to the McCann couple, who, unofficially, alerted a few journalists while stressing the fact that the investigation is under the responsibility of the PJ’s CID in Portimão, the same one that investigated the Maddie case.
The information that was forwarded to the journalists doesn’t even contain a single line about the possibility of a parental abduction, and the focus rests on the fact that Sara Sofia is of the same age as Madeleine McCann and disappeared “mysteriously” in the Algarve, the same geographical region where the British child disappeared from in May 2007.
According to the information that was offered to the English journalists, the disappearance of Sara Sofia in Portugal’s Southern region is evidence of the possible existence of a predator, a fact that the Portuguese police had excluded in Madeleine’s case.
Portugal adopts French Alert System model
From March onwards, the disappearance of children in Portugal starts counting on an “Abduction Alert” system which, through messages every 15 minutes, publicise the case and request for information through various platforms, from local radios up to public transportation terminals.
The system that is to be adopted in our country follows the French model, named “Alerte Enlèvement”, which has proved its effectiveness in practice, on several occasions.
The Portuguese version that was studied by the Justice Ministry counts on the media to join the project, and to publicise a common alert message, that can be local, regional or national, during the first three hours after the child’s disappearance.
Just like in France, the decision to launch the alert will be taken by the Attorney General in conjunction with the PJ through a “Crisis Cabinet”, in the case of an abduction or sequestration, and not yet including cases of parental abduction or simple disappearance.
In November last year, the Justice Minister, Alberto Costa, had already assured that the “Abduction Alert” system would soon be available, nevertheless stressing that in order for the system to be able to function, the cooperation between the Public Ministry (PM) and the Polícia Judiciária (PJ) would have to improve.