Girl's Disappearance a Fraud?

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A police handout image of Shannon Matthews (L) and mother Karen Matthews before her April 9 court appearance

When 9-year-old Shannon Matthews went missing in the Northern English town of Dewsbury on Feb. 19, it had all the tragic and all-too-familiar earmarks of any missing child case. Her mother gave a tearful appeal to television cameras, police started searching nearby woodlands and ponds, and neighbors set up a fund for the family. But since Matthews was found, 24 days later, underneath a bed at a relative's address less than a mile from her home, her own family has been linked to her disappearance in a bizarre case that puts the spotlight on the impoverished housing estate where they live.

On Wednesday, Shannon's mother, Karen Matthews, appeared in court accused by police of child neglect and concealing information about the whereabouts of her daughter. She is joined in custody by Shannon's 39-year-old step-uncle, Michael Donovan, 39, who was charged on March 17 with abducting the schoolgirl and falsely imprisoning her at his home.

British law restricts details of the investigation from being published, but several British papers reported that police were examining alleged similarities between the case and a storyline from a British television drama series, Shameless, shown less than a month before the 9-year-old vanished. In that episode, the head of a dysfunctional family staged a fake kidnap of his son in an attempt to obtain a ransom.

Several other members of Shannon's families have also run up against the law since her disappearance and return. Shannon's stepfather Craig Meehan, 22, was remanded in custody earlier this month on charges of possessing indecent images of children. His mother, Alice Meehan, 49, and his sisters Amanda Hyett, 25, who lives next door to Shannon's family, and Caroline Meehan, 29, have been arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

On the day she went missing, Shannon Mathews was last seen in front of her school after an after-school swimming lesson. Her disappearance sparked one of the largest searches in British history. Three hundred police officers interviewed 6,000 people and searched 3,000 homes in an investigation that they estimate cost more than $2 million.

The case provoked a roller-coaster of emotions in the Dewsbury Moor council estate where Shannon lived. The impoverished public housing project seemed to find in Shannon's disappearance a cause around which to rally. The local community started its own fundraising campaign, to which one retired resident offered his life savings: $1000, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper. But initial jubilation after Shannon was found safe turned quickly to anger as a flurry of arrests turned suspicion towards her family.

Shannon's mother, initially held up as a paragon of noble stoicism, appeared to incorrectly state how many children she had in media interviews (she said six; in reality she has seven children from five fathers). Then came the connection to the television show, Shameless, a satire on residents of council estates, and their harebrained schemes to claw themselves out. As anger turned on the Matthews family this week, police boarded up the house Shannon and her family had inhabited and distributed leaflets to local residents instructing them "not to jump to conclusions about people who may be involved in the inquiry."

It is easy to understand the community's frustration. With the exception of several tabloids aimed at the working class, the British media largely ignored the Matthews story until some of its more lurid revelations emerged. That lackadaisical approach contrasted with the rolling coverage given to the high-profile abduction last year of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann, the doe-eyed daughter of a prim pair of young professionals. That case seemed to play out as a distinctly middle-class drama: the McCanns were dining at a sun-splashed Portuguese resort when their daughter went missing. The Shannon Matthews case, on the other hand, has provided a stark reminder to the residents of the Dewsbury Moor council estate — and to Britain as a whole — that the lives of the poor are too often of interest only when they become too desperate to ignore, or too bizarre. with reporting by D.J. Siegel