As Cleo Smith and her family attempt to transition back into regular life, Australia is growing increasingly concerned over one aspect of the case.
At the centre of arguably one of the biggest missing person investigations in recent history is innocent 4-year-old Cleo Smith – a little girl who loves make-up and collecting rocks.
She had been sleeping in a tent with her family when she was allegedly stolen and kept by a stranger for 18 days, with no clue as to when she would next see her parents or baby sister.
Since Cleo’s miraculous rescue on Wednesday, her ordeal has captivated the nation, and seen public figures racing to give their best wishes.
But some of the attention Cleo and her family have received has drawn the ire of the public.
WA Premier Mark McGowan visited Cleo and her family in Carnarvon on Thursday, later fronting media to discuss his interaction with the little girl, just 36 hours after her rescue.
The visit and subsequent media frenzy left a sour taste in the mouth of critics, frustrated that Mr McGowan’s personal interest had seemingly been put ahead of Cleo’s wellbeing.
Mr McGowan told reporters of how he had given Cleo two teddy bears dressed in police uniforms.
He joked they should be named Cameron and Rod, after Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine and Detective Superintendent Rod Wilde.
“Cameron and Rod didn’t seem to like that but I think it’s appropriate. [I’m] not sure those names will stick, Cleo didn’t seem too enamoured with those names,” Mr McGowan said.
He added that from what he could tell, Cleo appeared to be a “very bright, upbeat, sweet little girl”.
Later in the same press conference, Mr Blaine suggested that one of the teddies be named Mark, after the Premier.
The fact he visited the family at what was undoubtedly a sensitive time rubbed many up the wrong way.
“I don’t think there’s any need for the Premier to be there. It’s great that he wanted to wish her and her family well, but he could have done that via Zoom,” former Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone told ABC programme The Drum.
“My own view is that we should all butt out. I know we’re all interested and there’s an endless demand for information on this, but none of our interest comes ahead of the interest of the child and the family.”
Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg also expressed concern that fallout from the notoriety of Cleo’s case could pose an ongoing threat to her mental health.
“I think (her) mum and dad are going to have to do a lot to shield her from her newfound notoriety because I don’t think that’s going to be helpful,” Dr Carr-Gregg told The West.
“She’s been through enough – she now just needs to resume a normal life.”
Dr Carr-Gregg added it was possible that Cleo could develop a fear of people as a result of her experience.
“She might withdraw. I would be looking for signs of avoidance of reminders of anything remotely to do with tents or the camp, or scary men,” he told the publication.
But since Cleo was rescued, the public has been fed reminders of the little girl’s ordeal, with several photos, audio and video snippets released by WA Police. And Cleo and her family have faced constant media attention, visits and police and specialist interviews as they attempt to resume their regular lives.
Cleo was first pictured waving from a hospital bed while holding an icy pole, then in video being carried away from the Carnarvon house she had been locked inside.
Hype escalated further on Thursday afternoon when WA Police released audio from the moments after four police barged into the house and found her in a lit room, playing with toys.
Since then, some have become fed up with the slow release of material, with social media users calling on authorities to “drop it” and “give it a rest”.
Broadcaster Zoe Marshall was among critics, saying the picture of Cleo grinning in hospital made her feel “so uncomfortable”.
“Why is there someone taking a photo and sharing it with the world at all? What this little girl has endured. I just don’t get it. Let her recover, be with her family, get the camera out of her face,” she wrote.
Others shared the sentiment in comments on footage and photos WA Police had released.
“Come on, enough with these posts. Leave these people alone,” a comment responding to dashcam footage of the suspect’s arrest read.
“Give it a rest. Let the family focus on each other and police do what they do,” another read.
A PR expert from InsideOut PR agreed that it was crucial the public “recognise the importance of giving Cleo and her family the space to reconnect privately”.
Touching on backlash following the premier’s visit, Ms Reaney suggested “sending a gift with a personal letter and allowing the family time before a personal visit may have eased some of the negative sentiment”.
She also argued that WA Police “drip-feeding” material following the rescue was potentially not ideal for Cleo or her family.
“Rather than drip-feeding information by the police, a more detailed account of the culmination of events in due time would appeal to the greater public here,” she said.
Fanfare over the little girl will likely continue well into the future as information on what occurred during her 18-day alleged abduction comes to light in court.
Detective Superintendent Rod Wilde said on Thursday Cleo was “physically fine” but police still needed to establish what happened during the 18 days she was missing, describing it as a “traumatic event”.
“Obviously there’s a process to go through with our child specialist interviewers that are here now,” he told reporters.
“Depending on how she is … we intend to start that [part of the investigation] today.”
Detective Senior Sergeant Cameron Blaine – one of the officers to find Cleo in the house – said while she appeared to be adjusting incredibly “from the outside”, it was yet to be seen how the ordeal would impact her moving forward.
“I can only see her from the outside, but from that point of view I’m amazed that she seems to be so well adjusted and happy,” he said.
“It was really heartwarming to see that’s she’s still bubbly and laughing.”
Police on Thursday afternoon charged Terence Darrell Kelly, the 36-year-old man who allegedly stole Cleo from inside a tent at the Blowholes campsite, north of Carnarvon, on October 16.
He was charged with offences including one count of forcibly taking a child aged under 16. He was to be remanded in custody for four weeks.
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