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Ignored by police, a mom tried to find her missing daughter. She wound up in jail

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The San Francisco Standard
Jennifer Wadsworth and Joel Umanzor
April 24, 2024

When Latricia Hartley realized her daughter went missing, she did what any parent would do. She called the police.

The Bayview-Hunters Point mom told them why she was scared for her 14-year-old daughter’s safety. She told them about the girl’s mental illness, suicidal thoughts and social naiveté. She told them why she had reason to believe she was lured from home by a 16-year-old boy with a predatory impulse and a history of self-harm who expressed a desire to kill his parents. She told them about the troubling note the girl left, saying that by the time anyone found them, it would be too late.

“I let them know that my daughter’s life was in danger,” she said.

She let the San Francisco Police Department know when she first reported the girl missing on April 4, again a day later and twice more after that. Each time, she said the police told her nothing about what they did with the information.

No Amber Alert was issued because the girl was categorized as a runaway. So Hartley asked police to issue an Ebony Alert, a new type of advisory California rolled out this year to help find “Black youth, including young women and girls, who are reported missing under unexplained or suspicious circumstances, at risk, developmentally disabled, or cognitively impaired, or who have been abducted.”

“They didn’t even do that,” she said. “So here I am telling you my daughter’s high-risk, and you’re telling me all I can do is go home and wait?”

With not so much as a call back from SFPD, Hartley said, she took matters into her own hands. She phoned hospitals all over the Bay Area. She showed up at her daughter’s San Francisco school to beg the principal to give police information about the boy the girl likely ran off with, to no avail. She posted missing-person alerts online and mobilized a neighborhood search that extended online, where people spread the word about her disappearance on TikTok and other social media sites.

On the third day, with still no word from authorities, Hartley followed a lead about the girl hiding out at the boy’s mobile home in the East Bay. Accompanied by a Bayview violence prevention worker named Raymond Whitley, Hartley showed up at the Castro Valley address and frantically banged on the door, demanding to see her daughter.

Within minutes, the cops showed up—but not because of reports about a missing Black girl.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office records obtained by The Standard show that deputies responded because of a 911 call from the boy, who is white, about what he described as three Black men with a gun trying to break in.

Instead of approaching Hartley as a mother desperately searching for her little girl, deputies cuffed her up and sent her and Whitley to jail on charges of felony burglary and child abuse.

‘They basically vanish a second time’

Racial disparities in missing children cases are stark and well-documented.

Though Black people comprise just 13% of the U.S. population, they account for nearly 40% of people reported missing to the FBI. Despite the disproportionate risk, however, Black families often struggle to get their loved ones classified as missing or covered by journalists.

According to the Black and Missing Foundation, police are more likely to treat Black children as runaways, disqualifying them from Amber Alerts that draw widespread attention and media coverage. Designating children as runaways allows police to devote fewer resources to finding them and relieves them of the pressing time constraints involved in missing-person cases.

Ebony Alerts were designed to address the lack of attention given to missing Black children and young Black women up to the age of 25 by giving law enforcement a tool with less stringent requirements than the Amber Alert. Similar advisories exist in California for missing elderly people (Silver Alert) and Indigenous people (Feather Alert).

“When someone who is missing is incorrectly listed as a runaway, they basically vanish a second time,” state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who authored the bill that created Ebony Alerts, said in announcing the legislation last year. “They vanish from the police detectives’ workload. They vanish from the headlines. In many ways, no one even knows they are missing. How can we find someone and bring them home safely when no one is really looking for them?”

Language of the legislation says classifying missing kids as runaways can be “a legal loophole for law enforcement, because when a child is listed as a runaway, the police are allowed to delay response and investigation time. In cases where the child is mislabeled as a runaway, this delay is crucial time that could be spent locating a child in danger.”

The law also notes how Black women and girls are at greater risk of being harmed, pointing to a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation study showing that 40% of sex-trafficking victims identified as Black and FBI data that found more than half the nation’s “juvenile prostitution” arrests involve Black children.

Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, said that’s largely because Black girls and women go missing four times longer than their counterparts, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation.

“They’re not getting the resources needed to bring them home,” Wilson told The Standard. “The Ebony Alert was supposed to address that.”

‘He clearly had his hooks in her’

If administrators at the girl’s school had done more to help, Hartley said they may have led police to act with more urgency—if not prevented the girl from running away in the first place.

The girl’s codependent attachment to the 16-year-old boy with what Hartley describes as a history of stalking, self-mutilation, coercive control and soliciting sexually explicit pictures and videos was enough of a concern for Hartley to get the San Francisco Unified School District to transfer her to an entirely new campus. Hartley said she saw texts the boy sent her daughter about his intention to “groom” her as well as images of his self-inflicted cuts.

“My daughter is on medication and has special needs,” she said. “He knew that.”

Yet the day before her daughter left home, Hartley said school employees saw the girl with him on a couch at the new campus. Yet, to her knowledge, no one told the boy to leave.

“He clearly had his hooks in her again,” Hartley said. “And the next day, she was gone.”

‘Black girls aren’t treated as victims’

The tendency of police and the public to exert less effort to find missing endangered children if they’re deemed runaways has led advocates to call for an end to the designation. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stopped using the term on its posters because of public perception of runaways as attention-seeking or rebellious, a stigma that obscures the reality that many children slapped with the label were either fleeing abuse or enticed into leaving.

Disproportionately, those are children of color.

“Many times Black girls aren’t treated like victims,” Wilson of the Black and Missing Foundation told The Standard. “It’s like, ‘You left home voluntarily, so you’re not really at risk.’ But we don’t know what they’re wandering away from or what they’re being enticed into. We really need to change the narrative and the mindset about what it means to be a runaway.”

To that end, she said, missing-person advisories for non-abduction cases—and the media attention they garner—can be a powerful tool for bringing them home.

Just three days after the Ebony Alert law went into effect, the California Highway Patrol issued the state’s first such advisory on Jan. 4, which helped police find a missing 17-year-old girl from Long Beach. San Francisco issued one in mid-February to find a 16-year-old girl deemed endangered because of a mentally impairing central auditory processing disorder.

According to an unofficial tally by Bradford’s office, 13 Ebony Alerts have been broadcast statewide since the tool became available for law enforcement.

It’s unclear why San Francisco police didn’t order an Ebony Alert for Hartley’s daughter, whose mental illness alone should arguably have classified her as high-risk. It would seem to align with the approach prescribed in the department’s duty manual, which requires officers to conduct an immediate search for someone reported missing if there are “exigent circumstances.” Such circumstances include the missing person being unable to care for their safety, requiring immediate medical attention or if there’s reason to suspect foul play. SFPD has yet to respond to The Standard’s request for comment.

The missing-person policy SFPD has available online hasn’t been updated since 1999 and doesn’t explicitly address runaways. But the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training—the agency that sets standards for law enforcement in California—notes several reasons investigators should treat such cases with urgency, like the vulnerability of runaways to child sex trafficking.

POST curriculum, which trains officers on how to handle missing-child reports, advises officers to prioritize runaways, even if they ostensibly left of their own volition, over crimes involving property. It also directs law enforcement to give “special attention” to reports of missing or runaway children with physical or mental limitations.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office policy for finding missing youth was updated at the end of last year and reflects much of the language outlined in the POST manual, requiring officers to treat even runaways with more urgency than property crimes and including language about when to trigger an Ebony Alert.

When asked why the East Bay agency opted against broadcasting the advisory, spokesperson Capt. Tya M. Modeste explained that “the Ebony Alert, if activated, is done on the front end” and that the girl “was reported missing out of San Francisco, not our jurisdiction.”

Hartley also wonders why administrators at her daughter’s high school didn’t consider the case serious enough to alert police under California’s mandated reporting laws, which require educators, among others, to notify police about suspected child abuse or neglect. A report from the school may have given Hartley’s case more weight.

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick defended the school’s adherence to the district’s version of that policy, which requires employees to tell police about cases involving violence, weapons or drugs but mentions nothing about suspected abuse or neglect.

“Our school principals and staff care deeply about their students, and work hard to ensure their safety and wellbeing every day,” she wrote in an email to The Standard. “Principals and school staff work directly with families to provide support if there is a concern.”

‘My daughter’s life was in danger, and y’all didn’t care’
When Hartley got a tip about her daughter being at the boy’s home in Castro Valley, she and her sister promptly relayed the information to 911. SFPD, for its part, notified the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which sent deputies to the mobile home early in the morning of April 6.

In their official reports about the incident, deputies say the 16-year-old boy answered the door when they arrived shortly before 7 a.m. and told them he hadn’t seen the girl in about a week. Deputies say they walked through the house and didn’t find the girl.

Hours more passed before Hartley decided to see for herself.

Joined by Whitley and a group of Bayview residents enlisted in the grassroots search effort, Hartley arrived around 2:30 p.m. and marched to the door to find her daughter. That’s when the boy called 911.

The boy told deputies that Hartley pointed a silver handgun at him, which she denies. But she doesn’t deny shouting expletives and verbal threats, some of which the 911 dispatcher overheard from the boy’s call.

“Open the motherfucking door, or I’m breaking the window, bitch, and coming up in that motherfucker, I swear to God,” a woman’s voice could be heard saying, according to the incident report.

The boy said he didn’t know where her daughter was and “pleaded to be left alone,” the report states.

“I don’t give a fuck,” Hartley replied, according to deputies. “I will shoot your ass. Open up the motherfucking door. Where is my motherfucking daughter?”

Hartley told The Standard that the boy lied about her having a gun and that her threats weren’t literal but fueled by desperation and protective anger over her daughter who’d been missing for three days. Deputies said they never found a weapon but they arrested the mother on suspicion of child abuse because she grabbed the boy by his shirt. They arrested Whitley on suspicion of burglary because they say he kicked the door open to confront the boy.

Just minutes after arriving, deputies had Hartley and Whitley handcuffed. In reports about the incident, deputies described Hartley as threatening and Whitley as an unreliable narrator who gave them “inconsistent statements.” They described the boy as a victim, though he reported no injuries, and turned him over to his uncle because his father was in South America.

When deputies interviewed the boy after Hartley’s arrest, he detailed how he met the girl at a McDonald’s in Daly City a couple days earlier and brought her across the bay via Muni and BART to stay at his place while his father was vacationing in Colombia. He said the girl planned to spend at least five days with him until the end of spring break.

Hartley’s daughter was finally found hiding under a bed, where she’d been when deputies searched the house earlier that morning. Her aunt picked her up hours later from a police station because Hartley would be locked up at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin for the next five days. Whitley walked free sooner because he posted his bail.

If police hewed to the POST guidance by treating the girl as an endangered runaway by dint of her mental health issues and the manipulative behavior of the older boy she was with, Hartley says, she could have avoided the confrontation that landed her behind bars.

Whitley echoed the sentiment, saying that if deputies assessed the scene and treated Hartley’s anger as the natural response of a protective parent, they could have de-escalated the situation. Or, Hartley added, they could have prevented her from driving all the way out there by finding the girl when they walked through the house first thing that morning.

Though the felony charges against Hartley and Whitley were downgraded to misdemeanors, they say they’ll fight to get them dropped entirely. Meanwhile, the pair hope police reexamine the way they respond to endangered missing children—particularly Black and Brown ones.

“I know my daughter, and I told them I knew she was at risk,” Hartley said. “That should have been enough. Instead, it’s like, my daughter’s life was in danger, and y’all didn’t care.”

Photo credit: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

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