Voices: My daughter went missing like Jay Slater – then I was targeted

I can only imagine the pain Jay Slater’s mother, Debbie Duncan, must be going through.

Not only is her son lost in Tenerife after a night out – the most traumatic experience imaginable – but she’s now been forced to hit back at Facebook users mocking the missing teen.

“I really am saddened by all your comments,” she posted on a group set up to raise funds to find the 19-year-old. “You seem to be so bothered about this GoFundMe page. I really hope I am not taking my son home in a body bag.”

Something similar happened to us when our child went missing – and I’ve never forgotten it.

Against all expectations (the police had searched up and down the Thames, throughout our vicarage and garden and church for her body) our twelve-year-old was found alive and well. I can’t remember ever being more overjoyed.

And then it began…

Just like Debbie Duncan and her family, we were everyone’s target. The hatred. The accusations. The blame. Even before the internet, it was toxic beyond belief.

Our daughter disappeared on a Saturday night. Our working vicarage on Sunday was so busy – our church such a large and welcoming family where she might have gone safely off with almost anyone – that nothing felt amiss until she failed to turn up for a church football match that afternoon.

We still weren’t worried… until it became evident the police assumed the worst. That night we reconciled ourselves to her death. By Monday morning it was national news, not least because I was a columnist for a national newspaper.

That evening, she was found. We were lucky.

She had no idea why she’d gone: she said she “needed space”. It was only later that we’d discover she was suffering from mental illness and her pain had become unbearable.

At the time, by Tuesday morning it felt as though we were every newspaper’s worst parents. People said we should have told her off. But believe me, when your child comes back from the dead, your first thought isn’t annoyance.

Others said she had wasted huge police resources – yet the officers reassured us: they have the helicopters anyway and that’s what they’re for.

Most memorable of all was a rebuke by a fellow columnist, who I’d naively expected to be supportive. She claimed that the fact that our daughter shared a bedroom with her younger brothers (as was her choice) – and that we watched TV with our children – had prompted her to run away.

The backlash was devastating. In our case, it was made bearable because we’d had the good news by then. And it was long before the days of social media, where everyone in the country can publicly loathe and accuse you of wrongdoing.

I can only imagine how Jay Slater’s family is feeling. It must be bringing them close to despair.

The reaction when children go missing can be starkly judgemental, even supicious. I remember having lunch with the editor of a national newspaper, who you might expect would be both intelligent and empathetic. Yet: “They did it,” he said of the McCanns, in all seriousness. “Cover-up.”

I was almost too flabbergasted to respond.

I’ve been asked so often by one BBC radio station to defend the McCanns that I’ve told them to book me for a different topic. Among the most shocking was the view that because the parents were “neglectful” we should stop looking for the child. “And how is that Madeleine’s fault?” I asked. The caller didn’t have an answer.

What causes so much loathing and green ink? In my opinion it’s one thing: schadenfreude.

Human beings can be unbelievably selfless, loving and kind… but we can also be vicious pack animals out to survive in a cruel world. And at a very atavistic level, it goes like this: if you are down, I must be up.

Ask yourself this. Have you ever heard a dear friend’s misfortune – frightening diagnosis; redundancy; even losing a loved one – and your split-second first shameful reaction was to be glad it wasn’t you?

And now we have the technology for all of these dark, base thoughts to be magnified and projected to millions of people across the world… yet to stay completely anonymous.

That first Monday morning when our daughter was gone, I asked the police if there was anything we could do. “Publicity always helps,” I was told.

So, before 7am I made two calls: to my BBC producer and my newspaper editor. “Am I doing something I’ll regret terribly by going public?” I asked the latter. “Anne,” he said, “when she walks through that door you won’t care about anything else.”

He was right. That is all that matters. And if and when Jay is found safe and well, all the hatred in the world will be utterly insignificant compared with having him back alive. I just hope his mother can cling on to that.