Black women and young girls go missing every day across New York. Some have never been found. According to the Black And Missing Foundation (BAMFI) database, there are 26 open cases involving Black women and girls.
“This is a testament to how serious this is and how the lives of young black girls simply mean nothing to society,” said Stephanie McGraw, Founder and CEO of WARM. “I’m really sad and angry. We can’t fix what we can’t see, and if we can’t call it what it is, how are we supposed to begin eradicating it or dealing with it?
The earliest missing person case involves Ethel Atwell, who was kidnapped while on Staten Island in 1978. She would be 90 years old today.
The youngest person on the missing persons list is Selah Lee Davis, who was kidnapped in February 2008 when she was four months old. The baby was last seen with his mother and brother in a vehicle traveling from the Bronx to Rochester. Their vehicle was found abandoned in Rochester and the family have 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 mother, who went missing in Rochester, NY near the Northeast neighborhood in May 2021. She wore a black hoodie with pink leggings and had a floral tattoo on her chest.
“The number of missing persons is fluid as the investigation is active and constantly changing,” a DCPI spokesman commented on the status of the missing persons.
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of nonprofit BAMFI, said disproportionate media coverage of missing black and brown girls and people of color has gradually improved, but there is still work to be done.
Wilson said there appears to be a spike in cases in cities like 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 illnesses that have worsened during the pandemic and kidnappings are some of the reasons people are missing.
Last week, on December 6th, a 12-year-old autistic girl in Brooklyn went missing. Her mother found out a man in the Bronx had “lured her away” via Instagram and told her how to visit him. She was soon found in the Bronx and sent home to her father in Harlem.
“We spend a lot of time online, especially since the pandemic, as do our children and the predators,” Wilson said. “You know the right words to say to these kids to make them feel good. Make them think they are their friends and lure them out of the house. We definitely saw an increase and our case count doubled as a result.”
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center database of missing persons and unidentified persons shows that over the past year, 89,020 black women and girls of all ages were listed as missing persons. At the end of 2021, there were 14,323 active missing persons cases involving Black women among the 93,718 open files. And at least 119,519 of those missing were “adolescent” black girls and boys.
BAMFI statistics show that “almost 40%” of missing persons are black, but black people make up significantly less of the population at 13%. McGraw and Wilson noted that the ongoing media coverage of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old blonde white woman who went missing in 2021 and was murdered by her fiancé, motivated black outlets and social media sites to spotlight her disappearance .
“Because of the outrage over Gabby Petito, where she continued to dominate the news cycle, Black Twitter really came out and said, ‘Hey, what about missing young women and people of color?’ They don’t get the same attention,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the HBO docu-series Black and Missing, which came out last year, also went a long way in chronicling the organization’s work. BAMFI was founded in 2008 by Wilson and her sister Derrica. 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 classifying the “runaway” narrative typically associated with black girls and boys by law enforcement. She said it’s really impacting the case and recovery efforts because you don’t get a yellow alert, media coverage, or resources from the police to find someone.
A Phoenix University scholarly journal explained that the AMBER Alert system has strict criteria for issuing a message. When these criteria are not met, children are labeled runaways, allowing police to legally delay response and investigation time. As black children have been mislabeled as runaways over the years, affected families have pooled resources to try new transmission systems. The Jholie Alert scheme was launched after 16-year-old Jholie Moussa was found dead 14 days after she disappeared in 2018 and was described by police as a runaway. Rilya Wilson was 4 years old when she disappeared from custody of family services in Florida in 2001. She was not reported missing for almost two years, prompting a local movement for the RILYA Alert and the Rilya Wilson Act to tackle inequalities in media coverage and alerts that send out important information even when criteria are not met.
“We are trying to change the guidelines for classifying these children as outliers. Even if they left voluntarily, we need to find out why they are leaving their homes and, more importantly, what they are encountering,” Wilson said.
The Wilson sisters are now meeting with national news outlets to train reporters on how to handle missing persons cases involving black women and girls. Maybe not every case would get that media coverage, Wilson said, but at least newsrooms are starting to think about how to do their jobs better.
“For many of these news outlets, there are no guidelines and the decision is made by an editor who is typically a middle-aged white male,” Wilson said. “And they’re thinking about ratings and advertising money, so we have to make sure we stay on the front lines and stay connected with the media, who also have our missing persons stories to tell.”
For more information on these missing persons or to report an anonymous tip, please visit BAMFI.org.
Ariama C. Long is a member of the Report for America Corps and writes on politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this; Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1