Saga of missing 4-year-old shows Europe's culture clash

Would you leave your child at home at night?

Published May 18, 2007

PRAIA DA LUZ, Portugal - The disappearance of 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, the British girl who vanished from her hotel room in Portugal while her parents dined 50 yards away, has captivated hearts and triggered debate around the world.

Were her parents negligent to leave Madeleine and her 2-year-old twin siblings alone, even for a brief time? Or should they have been able to expect a certain level of safety in this family-friendly southern resort town?

The questions cut to the heart of a universal vulnerability that terrifies parents everywhere. Yet answers differ widely - revealing cultural differences within Europe and across the Atlantic.

In Portugal and much of the rest of southern Europe, where parents often take their young children along with them to smoky bars, many have accused the McCanns of neglect, despite the fact that they were at a poolside restaurant just seconds away from the room and say they checked on their sleeping children every half hour.

"You shouldn't leave (young children) alone, " said Francisco Vieira, a 77-year-old father of two grown children who works as a parking lot attendant near the beach in Praia da Luz.

He said an abduction is "not the kind of thing you'd expect here, but you still shouldn't risk it."

Many Portuguese travelers express distaste over attitudes toward children in Britain, particularly notices in some British pubs that make clear that children are not welcome.

British parents, and many of their American counterparts, object to the secondhand smoke and loud music to which kids are subjected on nights out in Spain and Portugal.

Some U.S. examples

- In 1997, a toddler was left in a stroller outside a New York restaurant while her mother dined and drank inside, prompting diners to call police. After being arrested for neglect, the mother said the practice was common in her native Denmark and sued the city for false arrest. The charges were dropped and she was awarded $66, 401.

- A British couple was arrested in May 1999 in St. Pete Beach on felony child abuse charges after leaving their 1-year-old and 5-year-old sleeping at Tradewinds Resort while they watched fireworks. Charges were dropped against Philip and Jill Adam. They sued the resort and the city.

Information from Times files was used in this report.