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All missing persons not treated equally

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The Daily Gazette
Andrew Waite
October 14, 2023

When a 9-year-old girl went missing at Moreau Lake State Park two weeks ago, Jeff Humphrey felt a sense of terror.

Meanwhile, Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said he had feelings of deja vu.

Indeed, as the horrifying news about the missing 9-year-old quickly spread across the Capital Region, some in Schenectady quietly thought of one name: Samantha Humphrey.

Last November, less than a year before the 9-year-old was abducted in Saratoga County, Schenectady faced its own agonizing search for Samantha.

A freshman at Schenectady High School, the 14-year-old Samantha Humphrey disappeared Friday, Nov. 25, last seen at Riverside Park in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood. Her father, Jeff Humphrey, 53, told me this past week he was the one to find Samantha’s coat at the park the Sunday after she was first reported missing, injecting an intensity into the search that lasted a painful three months before Samantha’s body was found in the Mohawk River on Feb. 22.

As the Amber Alerts buzzed our phones earlier this month with reports of the missing Saratoga County girl, many in Schenectady feared another family in our region was destined to be dealt the most devastating loss imaginable.

“We just felt for the family, knowing how much the family has been going through here in Schenectady,” Clifford, the police chief, told me.

And then, 48 excruciating hours later, the 9-year-old in Saratoga County was found after fingerprints on a ransom note led police to a suspect’s home, where they found the girl hidden in a closet but mostly in good health.

Relief washed over the entire region and much of the country – the story of the missing upstate New York girl had made national broadcasts.

At the same time, some in Schenectady wished the Humphrey case, which never reached national consciousness, could have had a similarly happy ending.

Alas, it did not.

Samantha is dead. And nearly eight months after her body was found in the same area where she was last seen, there have been no arrests.

“The investigation is ongoing. The case file is on the desk of the investigator,” Chief Clifford told me. “It’s being worked on. That’s really all I’m comfortable saying right now as far as that case goes.”

When one girl is found safe after two days and another from a neighboring county is found dead after three months, with serious questions remaining about who and what killed her, there’s an inherent sense of injustice. One family gets its loved one back and the other doesn’t. That grave unfairness surely went through the heads of many whose thoughts turned to Samantha while the more recent missing-girl case played out.

We could stop there.

We could chalk up the different outcomes to the world’s randomness. And with these two cases specifically, that’s probably the grim truth. After all, despite similarities, these were very different incidents. The recent Saratoga County case was thought to be an abduction from its earliest stages. And the rapid response this engendered, combined with the alleged kidnapper making some very dumb moves, led to the happy resolution for which everyone is so grateful.

Contrast this with Samantha’s case, which has always been much murkier. Her disappearance initially seemed to suggest she ran away from home – her dad even told me it was common for her to spend the night with friends, so when he first saw she wasn’t in her bedroom he wasn’t initially concerned.

In addition, the investigation into Samantha’s alleged murder faces serious complications, including the fact that the forensic pathologist was unable to determine a cause of death, making answers even harder to come by.

So here we sit, two missing-girl cases that took place less than an hour’s drive apart and within a year of each other, and two drastically different outcomes. That’s how it goes, sometimes, right? One miraculous resolution can cause frustration and even resentment for those close to an unsolved tragedy.

But we’d be remiss if we didn’t take this moment to truly reflect on the fact that not all missing-persons cases are the same – and, more notably, on the fact that not all missing-persons cases receive the same level of attention.

When the missing person is a 9-year-old white girl, the entire world seems to grieve and pray, as it well should for any missing person.

But vary the victim’s biography even slightly, and the level of attention and panic begins to dissipate. Vary the biography further, and the responses diverge again. Even in these two local cases of missing white children, the fact that one received international headlines while the other garnered mostly local coverage shows this dynamic at play.

We should take this moment, while the subject is still so raw, to consider the disparity.

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons database, about 600,000 people in the United States go missing every year. Of those missing people, nearly 40% are persons of color, according to the Black and Missing Foundation, while white people make up 75% of the entire U.S. population.

Compounding this is the problem that the late-journalist Gwen Ifill dubbed “missing white woman syndrome.” Put simply, when young, well-off white women go missing, people pay far greater attention than when persons of color vanish. The Columbia Journalism Review recently put out a tool analyzing some 3,600 articles that puts missing white woman syndrome in sharp relief. It asks how newsworthy are you?

The examples of underreported people of color are numerous, but one that stands out for Derrica Wilson, a former police officer who co-founded the Black and Missing Foundation, is Alaiyja English. The 17-year-old English went missing in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June, but law enforcement didn’t put out public notification until August, Wilson said.

English was initially labeled a runaway. She’s since been deemed missing.

“Sadly, when people of color are disappearing, especially children, law enforcement tends to classify them as a runaway, and we know that ‘runaway’ does not meet the criteria for Amber Alert,” Wilson told me. “And, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem that there is a sense of urgency in finding the missing children because the perception in society is ‘well, they ran away, so whatever happens to him or her, they brought it on themselves.’”

Again, Samantha Humphrey was not a person of color. But the response to her disappearance helps highlight the difference in response when someone is seen as missing versus someone who left home voluntarily.

Kids labeled as runaways don’t typically get their faces shown on CNN, they don’t receive international headlines, they don’t get news of their disappearance widely shared on Facebook.

Chief Clifford told me an Amber Alert was considered when Samantha went missing, but, ultimately, “the incident did not fit the criteria.”

State guidelines detail that an Amber Alert can be activated when an investigation agency has reasonable cause to believe that an abduction of a child (under 18) has occurred and the child is believed to be in danger of serious bodily harm or death either due to the actions of another or due to a proven mental or physical condition.

Clifford said Schenectady police often deal with teen runaways, and activating Amber Alerts for all of these would essentially have the effect of the police department crying wolf.

“It’s not until more information surfaces that we have to go on that we can really focus our attention on it. And in Samantha’s case it was her coat being found that got us to do a full-court press on the investigation,” Clifford said. “Until then, it’s unfortunate that we just simply don’t have the resources to look for any teenager that leaves their home on their own will and doesn’t come home.”

The sad truth is that our society tends to want to blame the victim, said Frankie Bailey, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany. Her research includes a synthesis of crime, social history and popular culture.

Whether consciously or not, when someone goes missing, we often ask ourselves what level of culpability that person has in his or her own disappearance. Biases often impact such opinions, with people of color facing a higher barrier to being perceived as innocent, Bailey said. For instance, Black children are often perceived as being older than they really are, prompting people to falsely assume their disappearance was an act of their own volition, Bailey said. Meanwhile Black men are often stereotyped as being criminals and Black women tend to be stereotyped as being sex workers or drug addicts, Bailey said.

“There is a process in becoming a victim, and it works in the victim’s favor to be constructed as innocent, as not to be blamed,” Bailey said. “With people of color, they are more likely to be somehow blamed for whatever has become of them in terms of becoming a victim,” Bailey said.

Even as a young, white woman — the kind of missing person the Columbia Journalism Review’s research shows gets the most news coverage – Samantha clearly faced hurdles to gaining the kind of widespread attention we saw paid to the case earlier this month. Somewhere in the recesses of our collective consciousness, and in the hivemind that is national news production, Samantha’s biography as a teenager from a broken, working-class family from a small city, who was originally thought to have run away, undercut her perceived innocence.

Was there a certain amount of bias that emerged from these biographical details? Some modicum of to-be-expectedness that was entirely absent in the case of the missing 9-year-old who just wanted to complete one more loop on her bicycle?

In this moment of grief set against hope, we can all reconsider the way we respond to missing persons. If we find ourselves blaming a victim, why is that and how can we put that aside? We must be the “digital milk carton,” as Wilson, of Black and Missing, put it for all missing persons so that each case has a chance to receive the appropriate level of attention.

Wilson said she’s beyond thrilled the 9-year-old in Saratoga County was found.

“In her case, it showed the power that we all have – law enforcement, the media and the community,” Wilson said. “It shows what we can do when we work together.”

It showed the kind of response that can lead to the happy ending that families of all missing persons deserve.

Photo credit: The Daily Gazette

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