March 21, 2023
In May 2021, Kamaria Johnson, then 16, walked out of her father’s Radcliff, Ky., house in the middle of the night after an argument with him. A man later admitted to police that he picked up Kamaria and let her out at a gas station convenience store, where she was last seen on surveillance video. After that, there was no trace of her for more than a year, not even on social media.
The odds were heavily against Kamaria’s family finding her alive and unharmed.
In 2018, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database listed 424,066 missing children under age 18. About 37 percent of them were Black, even though they account for about 14 percent of the population, according to CNN.
In these investigations, time is critical. The chance of children getting harmed increases the longer it takes authorities to find them, according to a USA Today study. Unfortunately, missing Black children represent a disproportionate number of cases unsolved within six months.
Other data from Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force suggested that Kamaria, as a Black teen girl, was particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
But against the odds, Kamaria’s case had a happy ending. The Radcliff Police Department announced on Dec. 3, 2022 that Kamaria, then 18, was found safe in Memphis, Tenn.,WDRB reported.
Kamaria was found after the television police series “On Patrol: Live” broadcast a segment on her case, in one of the relatively rare instances of missing Black girls getting media coverage.
“The On Patrol: Live” segment on missing children was done through a partnership between independent television network REELZ, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Black and Missing Foundation.
“Awareness is key in finding and bringing home those missing from our communities. We are honored to be part of On Patrol: Live to help amplify those stories that may otherwise be overlooked, Natalie Wilson and Derrica Wilson, founders of the Black and Missing Foundation, said after the partnership was announced.
Here are five reasons why so many missing Black children and teens are never reunited with their families.
1. Age cutoffs and police officers’ racial biases
In general, two factors determine whether the police thoroughly investigate missing children reports: the age of the child and the officer’s personal discretion.
A USA Today analysis found a patchwork of rules. When a child disappears, most police departments have a cutoff age that determines whether to launch an immediate investigation.
It’s 10 years old in Louisville, Ky., but 17 for the New Hampshire State Police. So, according to the police manual, there’s no immediate urgency when a mother in Louisville reports her 11-year-old daughter missing. But state police in New Hampshire start searching right away if parents don’t know the whereabouts of their 16-year-old minor.
However, investigating officers can override age limits if they determine that special circumstances exist, such as the child is in immediate danger or health conditions. That gives officers who initially interview the family enormous power.
Their opinion of the child and the home environment – which can be shaded by racial bias – matters. Officers who believe certain stereotypes about Black children and their families could easily decide that there’s no urgency to quickly investigate a missing Black child who’s over the age limit.
2. Adultification, especially of Black girls
A 2017 Georgetown University report titled, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” offers insight into why missing Black children, especially Black girls, are often deemed less urgent than missing White children.
Data showed that adults view Black girls as physically older than their chronological age, less innocent and more self-reliant than White girls, particularly in the 5-14 age range.
The “adultification” of Black girls means authorities often don’t view Black girls as children but as savvy individuals who could manage potential threats of violence and sex trafficking if they’re missing from home.
Adultification makes Black girls more vulnerable to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation than their White counterparts, according to a 2022 study by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force. Black girls accounted for more than half of the Minneapolis Police Department’s reported cases of sex trafficked minors from 2008-2013.
3. DNA database
Science provides an invaluable tool to identify the remains of a missing child: DNA. But people of color “have a smaller footprint in the DNA databases” compared to people of European descent, John Bischoff of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told KSBH.
Part of the problem stems from trust and privacy concerns many Black Americans have with how companies use their DNA.
At the same time, law enforcement DNA databases, which include a disproportionately high number of Black genetic samples, can’t use DNA from the relatives of the missing to find a match with a living person, according to USA Today.
4. Missing White woman syndrome
The late Gwen Ifill famously coined the phrase “Missing White Woman Syndrome” at a 2004 journalism conference. Ifill, a veteran broadcast journalist, was describing the coverage priority newsroom managers give to missing White women and girls.
“If it’s a missing White woman, you’re going to cover that, every day,” Ifill said, referring to the directive journalists receive.
A 2013 study by Northwestern University sociologist Zack Sommers appears to support Ifill’s observation, NPR reported. Although White women account for about a third of the national population, news coverage of missing White women represented half of the media’s missing person coverage. He based his study by cross referencing the archives of four news outlets – The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN.com – with the FBI’s national database of missing persons.
“It is not that these White women should matter less, but rather that all missing people should matter equally,” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote. “Race should not determine how newsroom leaders assign coverage, especially because those decisions often lead to disproportionate allocation of government resources, as investigators try to solve the highest-profile cases.”
5. Social media user racial bias
A preference for missing White children, especially girls, isn’t limited to newsroom decision makers. Social media users tend to view, share, and like posts about missing White children more than Black children.
A USA Today analysis of responses to Facebook videos posted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found social media engagement higher for posts about missing white children than Black children – even though posts about missing Black children outnumbered White children.
The organization said it featured more posts of Black children (139) compared to White (118) and Hispanics (91) because missing Black children received less media coverage than other racial and ethnic groups and are also the most vulnerable.
Of the 375 videos on the organization’s Facebook page, from October 2019 to June 2022, White girls attracted the most views at an average of 63,100 views per post among its 1.2 million followers. Hispanic girls (62,000) and Hispanic boys (58,400) placed second and third, followed by White boys (50,700).
Posts about missing Black girls (38,300) and boys (37,600) were at the bottom of the list.
Photo credit: Getty Images/BET