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Carlee Russell’s kidnapping hoax shouldn’t distract us from the real issue of missing women and girls

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jenice Armstrong
July 25, 2023

Count me among those who feel duped by Carlee Russell.

The Alabama woman — who claimed she tried to help a toddler on a highway before disappearing, only to resurface two days later saying she had been kidnapped — got me good.

The nightmarish account of Russell screaming on the phone with her brother’s girlfriend before disappearing, and police rushing to the scene earlier this month and finding only her cellphone and wig had me shook — that is, before Alabama authorities and armchair investigators alike began poking holes in it.

Russell claimed she was abducted by a man with orange hair who emerged from the trees. She told authorities that a strange woman fed her cheese crackers before Russell managed to free herself and make her way to her parents’ house.

Eventually, it came out that before her disappearance, the 25-year-old nursing student had researched Amber Alerts as well as a movie about a woman who as abducted.

Then, on Monday, she admitted: She made the whole thing up. There was no kidnapping, no toddler on the highway.

It’s shades of Jussie Smollett all over again.

It’s bad enough that she wasted all of that police and media manpower with her manipulative charade. But she also took resources and attention away from women who are really missing and could have benefited from it most.

My friends and I have been talking about this story over the past few days. The fact that an African American woman garnered so much media attention for allegedly being missing was pretty much unprecedented. Now that we know it was a hoax, I’m concerned: Will the next report of a missing Black woman be taken less seriously because of Russell’s charade?

Roughly 40% of those who go missing are people of color, according to the Black & Missing Foundation. They don’t get nearly the type of media attention as their white counterparts. There’s even a name for it — “missing white woman syndrome” — which was coined by the late TV journalist Gwen Ifill.

Russell was a rare exception. And now it turns out she was lying.

“I ask your readers to name a person of color who has garnered the same attention as Natalee Holloway and Chandra Levy outside of Carlee Russell and you can’t, because it doesn’t happen,” Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation, told me. What’s more, she said, analysis by her organization has found that cases of missing people of color remain open four times longer than others, in part, “because they are not getting that media coverage.”

The Philadelphia Police Department sends out regular emails about missing people. I scan them when I can.

I occasionally try to cover some of the cases I see, but there are so many. According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Database, roughly 600,000 people go missing each year across the country. Thankfully, some cases are solved before a story about them can even make it into print. Just last month, I reached out to the mother of a local recent high school graduate who had gone missing only to get the good news just a few days later that she had been found alive.

Also, when it comes to people of color, racial bias can affect the response, as some may assume that many of the missing are up to no good, or somehow brought their disappearances on themselves. Studies show that Black children frequently are perceived as being older than their actual years which can make it harder for some people to view them as victims.

I hope that Russell’s fabrications won’t stop us from raising alarm bells when people of color turn up missing. And I hope that her case, if anything, is a lesson on the power of attention in resolving what happened to a missing person.

“Think about the influencers, the media coverage that the Carlee Russell case got,” Wilson pointed out. “Can you imagine if we put the same energy into finding other missing people? We can bring many more people home.”

She rattled off a host of names of women of color who are missing: Arianna Fitts, Keeshae Jacobs, Tiffany Foster, Alexis Ware, Joniah Walker, Jennifer Blackmon, Relisha Rudd, and Nakyla Williams.

There are hundreds of thousands more whose names we’ll never know. We can’t disengage just because Russell duped us. Don’t let one fake kidnapping distract us from a very real problem.

Photo credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer

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