Most children who are not where parents expect them to be are “missing” for a very short period of time and reappear on their own, with no evidence of foul play. However, some children are missing against their will. The great majorities of those children, even though they have undergone a traumatic experience, arenot harmed seriously and are returned home alive. Many of them are taken by estranged parents or other family members. A small group is victimized by more predatory abductors, who want to make money by ransoming the child, to sexually molest the victim, and/or to kill the child.
It was discovered that 22 percent of the victims were still alive at the time they were reported missing, and a related and, perhaps, even alarming finding is that 42 percent had already been killed before they were reported missing (including the “dead body” cases).
Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of missing child reports eventuate in a murder, but for those that do, the belief that killers keep their victims alive for long periods of time is simply not true. Obviously, the dictum that the first 24 hours of an investigation are the most critical needs to be modified in child abduction cases.
Approximately 800,000 children under the age of 18 are reported missing each year in the United States, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Of those reported missing, 42 percent are African-American.
There is a growing concern within the black community that missing black children have not received their fair share of media coverage. Getting the information out to the public is crucial and the media has played that role for Caucasian children and so why not the same for men, women and children of color? When have you last seen or heard a media outcry for a missing woman, man or child of color? If you lived in a soap box you would think that children of color never was reported missing by their loved ones because there is virtually no press or media coverage on the issue.
Missing white woman syndrome (MWWS) or missing pretty girl syndrome is a term used by some media and social critics to describe the seemingly disproportionate degree of coverage in television, radio, newspaper and magazine reporting of a misfortune, most often a missing person case, involving a young, attractive, white, upper-middle class (frequently blonde) woman or girl. This degree of coverage is usually contrasted with cases concerning a missing male, or missing females of other ethnicities, socioeconomic classes or physical attractiveness.
While the disappearances of Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway became sensational news stories, a pregnant black/Hispanic woman named LaToyia Figueroa disappeared from Philadelphia three years later and attracted less national attention, despite efforts by her family to enlist the media to help find her. (Figueroa was later found murdered.) One observer also saw contrasts between the attention received by Peterson and Evelyn Hernandez who was nine months pregnant when she disappeared in 2002.
Kim Pasqualini, president of the National Center for Missing Adults, opines that the media tends to focus on “damsels in distress” – typically, affluent young white women and teenagers.
A report called Racial and Gender Representation of missing Children in the News reports that non-White children and girls are underrepresented in media coverage compared to actual missing children statistics. It also reports the lack of media reporting of missing boys or men, especially boys or men of color.
According to Connie Marstiller of the National Crime Information Center, there were 614,925 people missing in 2008 under the age of 18. About 16 percent were Black men. During that same year there were 163,239 people missing over the age of 18, according to Marstiller. Approximately 14 percent, represent missing Black males over the age 18. According to FBI missing persons report, there are more missing Black men in the United States than Black women. Like many other issue that affects the black community at a dispaportionate rate, these issues are not spoken by our elected politicians and rarely discussed from the pulpit of the black churches.
Experts agree that whites account for only half of the nation’s missing children. But white children were the subjects of more than two-thirds of the dispatches appearing on the Associated Press’ national wire during five year period and for three-quarters of missing-children coverage on CNN, according to a first-of-its-kind study by Scripps Howard News Service.
Are we to think that missing black people are not news worthy? Or is it the assumption by media executives that a missing black man is usually due to drugs, crime or violence? How a famous Black person? Black Award winning singer and actress Jennifer’s Hudson nephew was missing and Hudson’s mother and brother were found shot to death in their home on Chicago’s South Side. Jennifer Hudson’s story took the backseat to the Caylee Anthony story.
In January, The mother of missing Black Teen Phylicia Barnes and a spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department was critical of the national media in its slow reaction in covering the case of the missing black teen. Baltimore police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi was very clear in blaming the national media for not providing adequate coverage early on in the girl’s disappearance. Guglielmi singled out CNN’s Nancy Grace and said that he and the commander of the homicide unit were set to appear on Nancy Grace’s national program to discuss missing teen Phylicia Barnes but were bumped from the program for an hour long report on missing white teen Hailey Dunn who is a cheerleader at Colorado Middle School in Colorado City, Texas.
Despite the unwillingness of mainstream media to cover missing people of color. Organizations like Black and Missing and Peas in Their Pods are national organizations that assist missing children and adults of color throughout the nation.
As a national law enforcement organization we understand that the first 48 hours is critical to any missing person’s case. The media is a powerful tool to bring witnesses forward but unfortunately, the decision to cover missing black children the same as missing white children brings concern in the law enforcement community, especially black law enforcement. The media and the public should not fall into the typical stereotypes of the communities of color and only focus on crime. It’s the national image and the local image that the mass media promotes of crime. Crime is acceptable in the inner-city and in most major cities for the media to report and missing black children is something that our local or mainstream media has yet to deem important.
Damon K. Jones, BLEA, New York