Shannon Matthews case; Five fathers, one mother and a muddled family saga

Life goes from bad to worse for Karen Matthews, now charged with child neglect
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The Independent Online

If Shannon Matthews is one of the most famous little girls in Britain after her 24-day disappearance, her mother, Karen, 32, is hardly less well known. Last week, when she was led away in handcuffs by police, charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice, she might have thought things could hardly get worse. But they could.

Yesterday, The Sun's headline read "Shannon Mum is benefit fiddler". She has seen her daughter only twice since she was found. On the second occasion, they had a three-hour meeting, at the end of which, according to Karen's parents, the little girl refused to come home, saying she preferred to be with the kitten that police had given her. That must have been a dreadful day for Karen Matthews; her boyfriend, Craig, had earlier been charged with possessing child pornography.

There have been several serious allegations about Karen Matthews in connection with her daughter's disappearance. But amid the speculation, one solid fact is that she has had seven children by five different fathers. Indeed, she is said to have referred to two of the children as "twins", because they had the same father. The youngest of them was fathered by her present boyfriend, Craig Meehan, 22. In a now-famous interview on Radio 4's Today programme, Sarah Montague asked: "You've got seven children by six fathers?" "Five," said Karen, deadpan. There was an irate response from Lyn Costello, co-founder of Mothers Against Murder and Aggression: "The question asked of Karen Matthews about the numbers of her children and their fathers is very typical. How is that in any sense relevant to what has happened to Shannon?"

Quite a bit, it would seem. But it also suggests a life that has been anything but easy, even if the difficulties have been largely of her own making. Karen Matthews has never been in full-time, long-term employment. She may have £400 a week on benefits but her home life suggests anything but affluence. Her family has three computers and one widescreen television. In our inverted scale of material values, the absence of a widescreen TV would be a surer indication of respectability. Her boyfriend earned £16,000 a year on Morrison's fish counter.

The father of her eldest child is unknown. When he was a baby, Karen began a relationship with Leon Rose, father to Shannon and her brother Ian. Karen and Leon split up when Karen was pregnant. Leon has since said that domestic problems prevented him from seeing much of Shannon when she was smaller. After that, Karen started a relationship with Paul Hooker, father of one of her sons – and he says that she has had little contact with the child since he was a few months old. That relationship lasted two years. She later took up with William Marshall, by whom she had a daughter. Her relationship with Craig Meehan has lasted four years, her longest period with a boyfriend.

Her parents, Gordon and June, say that "Karen was a great mum before she met Craig" – whom they detested. They claimed that Karen had once turned up at their home with a black eye, after a row. Recent accounts suggest that she had been thinking of leaving Mr Meehan, and indeed had packed a plastic bag of clothes. Her sister, Julie, from whom she is estranged, disputes that she was ever a good mother. She would, she said, drop off one of her children with her when he was six months old. "He would have a carrier bag or a towel taped to his bum. Instead of spending money on nappies, she would spend it on stuff like crisps, sweets and pop."

A portrait of a chav? And yet, and yet. There were five fathers for Karen Matthews's seven children. Yet the accusations of fecklessness have been applied only to her. The most telling contrast is between her life and that of her parents, Gordon and June, and her sister Julie. All of them had large families – six children in Julie's case, seven in their parents'. But whereas the families of Karen's parents and sister were underpinned by marriage and at least one parent in work, Karen's life has been conspicuous by serial relationships and benefits dependency. What was once a working class is now, in some places, an underclass. It is a decline that this unfortunate woman seems to embody.