By Ariama C. Long
Originally appeared in Word in Black
Throughout New York, Black women and young girls go missing every day. Some have never been found. According to the Black And Missing Foundation (BAMFI) database, there are 26 open cases of Black women and girls.
“That’s evidence of how serious this is and how young Black girls’ lives just don’t mean anything to society,” said Stephanie McGraw, founder and CEO of W.A.R.M. “I’m just really saddened and angry. We can’t fix what we can’t see and if we can’t call it for what it is, how are we going to start eradicating or deal with it.”
The earliest missing person case is of Ethel Atwell abducted outside her job on Staten Island in 1978. She’d be 90 today.
The youngest person on the missing list is Selah Lee Davis, who was taken when she was four months old in February 2008. The baby was last seen with her mother and brother in a vehicle heading to Rochester from the Bronx. Their vehicle was found abandoned in Rochester and the family has not been seen or heard from since. Davis would be 15 today.
One of the more recent cases is that of 19-year-old Marshae Ivey, a young mom who went missing in May 2021 in Rochester, N.Y. near the northeast neighborhood. She was wearing a black hoodie with pink leggings and had a flower tattoo on her chest.
“The number of missing persons is fluid as investigations are active and constantly change,” commented a DCPI spokesperson about the status of missing persons.
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the BAMFI nonprofit, said that disproportionate media coverage of missing Black and brown girls, and people of color, has improved incrementally but there is plenty of work to be done.
Wilson said there seems to be an uptick in cases in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore and in rural areas like North and South Carolina and the midwest. Sex trafficking, domestic violence and abuse, mental health conditions that worsened during the pandemic, and kidnapping are among the several reasons people go missing.
Last week a 12-year-old autistic girl went missing in Brooklyn on Dec. 6. Her mother found that a man in the Bronx had “lured” her away via Instagram and told her how to visit him. She was found soon after in the Bronx and sent home to her father in Harlem.
“We’re spending a lot of our time online especially since the pandemic so are our children and the predators are as well,” said Wilson. “They know the right words to say to these kids to make them comfortable. Make them think they’re their friend and lure them out of the house. We have definitely seen an uptick and our caseload has doubled because of it.”
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center Missing Person and Unidentified Person database indicates that over the course of last year, there were 89,020 Black women and girls of all ages recorded as missing persons. At the end of 2021 there were 14,323 active missing cases involving Black females out of the 93,718 open files. And, at least 119,519 of the missing were “juvenile” Black girls and boys.
BAMFI stats show that “nearly 40%” of missing persons are of color but Black people make up significantly less of the population at 13%. McGraw and Wilson noted that the persistent coverage of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old blond white woman who was missing in 2021 and found to have been murdered by her fiance, motivated Black outlets and social media sites to shine a spotlight on their missing.
“Because of the outrage with Gabby Petito, where she continued to dominate the news cycle, Black Twitter really stepped up and said, ‘Hey what about missing young women and people of color.’ They’re not getting the same level of attention,” said Wilson.
Wilson said the “Black and Missing” docu series on HBO that came out last year has also gone a long way in chronicling the organization’s work. BAMFI was started by Wilson and her sister, Derrica, in 2008. Wilson was in public relations and her sister was in law enforcement. They were trying to help find 24-year-old Tamika Huston who disappeared from Spartanburg, South Carolina in 2004.
Wilson delved into the classification of the “runaway” narrative that’s usually attached to Black girls and boys by law enforcement. She said it really impacts the case and recovery efforts because you don’t receive an amber alert, media coverage or resources from police to find someone.
A Phoenix university scholarly journal explained that the AMBER Alert system has strict criteria for issuing a message. If those criteria are not met, kids are labeled runaways which allows cops to legally delay response and investigation time. Because Black children were consistently mislabeled runaways over the years, impacted families have pooled resources to attempt new broadcast systems. The Jholie Alert system was launched after 16-year-old Jholie Moussa was found dead 14 days after she had gone missing in 2018, labeled a runaway by police. Rilya Wilson was 4-years-old when she disappeared from family services custody in Florida in 2001. She wasn’t reported missing for almost two years afterward, prompting a local movement for the RILYA Alert and Rilya Wilson Act to combat disparities in media coverage and alerts that send crucial information out even without criteria being met.
“We are trying to change the policy around classifying these children as runaways. Even if they left voluntarily we need to figure out why they leave home and most importantly what they are running into,” said Wilson.
The Wilson sisters now meet with national news outlets to coach reporters on how to cover missing persons cases involving Black women and girls. Maybe not every case would get that media coverage, said Wilson, but at least newsrooms are starting to reflect on how they can do a better job.
“There is no policy for many of these news outlets, and the decision is made by an editor who is typically white, middle-aged man,” said Wilson. “And they’re thinking about ratings and ad dollars, so we need to make sure that we stay in the forefront and stay connected to the media outlets who have our missing persons stories to tell as well.”