America’s Black Children are Missing at Disproportionately High Rates, and How the Amber Alert is at Fault
A News Article by Julia Kearney
(Not CNN) – On December 16th, 2019, security camera footage of a Black teenager went viral; sixteen-year-old Karol Sanchez was being abducted by two men and forcibly pushed into a sedan. Despite this, it took the police 12 hours to issue an Amber Alert (Minutaglio). Fortunately, Sanchez was found unharmed two days later and it was reported that the kidnapping had been staged; however, the fact that it took the police so long to issue the Amber Alert shows the underlying racial disparity of this Alert system.
In the United States, approximately 600,000 people go missing every year (“The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster”). Of this number, youths under the age of 18 account for about 35% of these reported cases (“FBI Releases 2019 Missing Person Statistics”). Missing children have become more publicized in the United States over the past two decades, which has resulted in nearly 98% of these missing children being located (“National Child Kidnapping Facts”). While this is promising, there are severe racial disparities in the statistics of the 2% who are still missing.
According to data from the 2019 United States Census, people who are Black or African American make up 13.4% of the United States population (QuickFacts). However, nearly 40% of missing persons are people of color (“Statistics,” Black and Missing). Black children make up about 33% of all missing child cases. However, a research study published in the 2015 Communication Research Reports found that missing Black children only compromised 7% of media references. This lack of media coverage, as discussed by Jada Moss in “The Forgotten Victims of Missing White Woman Syndrome,” is likely related to the fact that there are four times more unsolved Black missing person cases than there are cases of missing whites and Hispanics (Moss 740).
Frequently in the media, missing white children are given more coverage time. This disparity in media coverage time has been frequently called “Missing White Woman Syndrome” or “Damsel in Distress Syndrome” since it highlights the tunnel vision on young, white, attractive, wealthy females (Moss 741). Without addressing Missing White Woman Syndrome, missing Black children will remain underrepresented in the media and will continue to contribute to the disproportionately high volume of unsolved cases.
One of the best ways for a missing child to be given media coverage is via America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) Alert system, which was founded in 1996 after the kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old, Amber Hagerman (“About Amber Alert”). The system relays information on the kidnapped child to the public so that people in the local area can help spot the child in question or their abductor. As of December 2020, the AMBER Alert system had successfully assisted in the rescue of 1,029 kidnapped children (“Statistics,” US Dept. of Justice).
One problem with the AMBER Alert system is the strict criteria that a case must fulfill for the message to be broadcast. It is because of these criteria that many missing Black children are pushed aside. To be labeled an AMBER Alert, there must be reasonable evidence that an abduction has occurred, the child must be believed to be in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, there must be enough descriptive information about the victim and the abductor, the child must be under the age of 17, and the child’s information must be entered into the National Crime Information Center system (Guidelines for Issuing AMBER Alerts).
If these guidelines are not met, an AMBER Alert cannot be issued, and the child is labeled as a runaway. When a missing child is listed as a runaway, they receive no media coverage, and less police and government resources are available for their recovery. Being listed as a runaway can also 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 (Moss 752). In cases where the child is mislabeled as a runaway, this delay is crucial time that could be spent locating a child in danger. Based on Moss’s extensive research, Black missing children are disproportionately labeled as runaways, which ultimately means that fewer resources are allotted to their safe return (Moss 752).
Jholie Moussa was a sixteen-year-old girl from Virginia whose parents reported her missing on January 13th, 2018. Since the police categorized her as a runaway, they did not begin looking into her disappearance until three days after she was reported missing. Moussa was found dead 14 days after she had gone missing. If she had been properly labeled as an endangered missing person, the police and the community would not have wasted three days assuming she would come home (Moss 753). In 2019, 59% of children who had been given an AMBER Alert were recovered by an individual or law enforcement official that recognized either the vehicle used in the abduction, the child, or the abductor (“2019 AMBER Alert Report”). If Jholie Moussa had been given an AMBER Alert or the community had been made aware of her disappearance, it is hard not to think that she could still be here today.
Following her death, Moussa’s family created Not A Runaway Inc (NAR), which has worked to produce the Jholie Alert system. This system was created to gather the community to search for all missing children, no matter how they are labeled in the system. NAR believes that the Amber Alert criterion is too strict and that children deserve to be given media attention no matter the circumstances in which they are missing. By rallying the communities of children who are missing, NAR believes that a higher rate of children would be located, and it could also reduce some of the racial disparities in the media if all children are given the same amount of attention. The Jholie Alert has not been enacted into any state or federal law and has only been carried out by volunteers, but the idea of creating an updated alert system has been thrown around more than once (Moss 734).
The RILYA Alert is another attempt to combat racial disparities in the media. Coming out of the disappearance of 4-year-old Rilya Wilson, the Rilya Wilson Act allows for an alert to be broadcasted even if the missing child does not meet all of the criteria for an AMBER Alert. It works similarly and alongside the current AMBER Alert to relay critical missing child information to the public. Without having to list the abductor’s name, vehicles, or other specific information, the RILYA Alert could make it harder for law enforcement to use loopholes when it comes to searching for missing children and easier for the public to learn about missing children in their area (Moss 756).
While the RILYA Alert has potential to address some of the issues that exist surrounding the way Black missing children are reported in the media, it currently only exists in Florida (Moss 757). As of today, there is no data on whether the RILYA Alert has reduced the disproportionate amount of media coverage given to missing Black children, but as new research is released on how to close the gap, the RILYA Alert or other similar alerts may become a “new normal.”
Sharing information can be one of the most crucial ways to help locate any missing persons, and resources like The Charley Project exist to continue to keep the public informed. The Charley Project is a public database where missing person cold-case data from multiple news sources are combined in an easily accessible place. While The Charley Project does not do any form of investigation into the cases that are featured, by making the information easily accessible, it allows those who wish to help to investigate or to bring awareness to cases that would otherwise be lost in the mainstream media. As of September 19th, 2021, the online database features 13,308 cold cases, 2,401 of which are Black missing persons. Reducing the number of Black cold cases and finding Black missing children starts with bringing awareness to these updated alert systems and closing the report disparity gap.
“2019 AMBER Alert Report.” National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. PDF. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/amber/2019%20Annual%20AMBER%20Report%20and%20Map%20Final.pdf
“About Amber Alert.” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs – AMBER Alert. https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about
Barber, Haylee. “The Amber Behind Amber Alert Still Waiting for Justice 20 Years Later.” NBC News. January 17th, 2016. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/cold-case-spotlight/amber-behind-amber-alert-still-waiting-justice-20-years-later-n497696
Borders, Gaétane & Harris, Anita. Peas In Their Pods. https://www.peasintheirpods.com/rilya-alert-history
“FBI Releases 2019 Missing Person Statistics.” FBI. March 31st, 2020. https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/cjis-link/fbi-releases-2019-missing-person-statistics#:~:text=As%20of%20December%2031%2C%202019,records%20are%20people%20under%2021
Good, Meaghan. “Alexis S. Patterson.” The Charley Project. January 20th, 2021. https://charleyproject.org/case/alexis-s-patterson
Good, Meaghan. “Andrew Thompson.” The Charley Project. December 1st, 2018. https://charleyproject.org/case/andrew-thompson
Good, Meaghan. “Shakeima Ann Cabbagestalk.” The Charley Project. February 25th, 2018. https://charleyproject.org/case/shakeima-ann-cabbagestalk
Good, Meaghan. “Shy’Kemmia Shy’Rezz Pate.” The Charley Project. August 26th, 2017. https://charleyproject.org/case/shykemmia-shyrezz-pate
“Guidelines for Issuing AMBER Alerts.” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs – AMBER Alert. https://amberalert.ojp.gov/about/guidelines-for-issuing-alerts
Hill, Jessica. “Why People of Color Get Less Attention Than Whites When They Go Missing.” The Patriot Ledger. February 1st, 2021. https://www.patriotledger.com/story/news/2021/01/30/jalajhia-finklea-missing-persons-african-americans-indigenous-people/4291086001/
Johnson, Clara & Woods, Joshua. “The Overrepresentation of White Missing Children in National Television News.” Communication Research Reports. July 2015, Volume 33, Issue 3 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08824096.2015.1052898
Kong, Kristi. “Ex-Boyfriend Pleads Guilty in Murder of 16-year Old Fairfax girl.” InsideNova. June 13th, 2019. https://www.insidenova.com/news/regional/ex-boyfriend-pleads-guilty-in-murder-of-16-year-old-fairfax-girl/article_302c649c-8dcf-11e9-9c42-63137bae48bf.html
Kaur, Hameet. “Black Kids Go Missing at a Higher Rate Than White Kids. Here’s Why We Don’t Hear About Them.” CNN. November 3rd, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/03/us/missing-children-of-color-trnd/index.html
Minutaglio, Rose. “Karol Sanchez Confessed Her Bronx Kidnapping Was A Hoax. Here’s What You Need What To Know.” Elle. December 18th, 2019. https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a30262053/karol-sanchez-bronx-found-amber-alert/
Molla, Rani. “America’s Missing Persons by Age, Race and Gender.” The Wall Street Journal. October 10th, 2014. https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-NB-1814
Moss, Jada L. “The Forgotten Victims of Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Examination of Legal Measures That Contribute to the Lack of Search and Recovery of Missing Black Girls and Women.” William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice. April 2019. Volume 25, Issue 3 https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1508&context=wmjowl
“National Child Kidnapping Facts.” Polly Klaas Foundation. http://www.pollyklaas.org/about/national-child-kidnapping.html
“QuickFacts.” United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219
Seong-Jae Min & John C. Feaster. “Missing Children in National News Coverage: Racial and Gender Representations of Missing Children Cases.” Communication Research Reports, 27:3, 207-216, DOI: 10.1080/08824091003776289 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08824091003776289
“Statistics.” U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs – AMBER Alert. https://amberalert.ojp.gov/statistics
“Statistics.” Black & Missing Foundation. 2019. http://www.blackandmissinginc.com/cdad/stats.htm
“The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.” NamUs. https://www.namus.gov/
Author Interview – Julia Kearney
Q: Why did you choose to write about your particular topic for the project?
A: I got into researching missing persons, specifically missing children, after the 2017 disappearance of Mariah Woods. Since then, I have actively monitored amber alerts and spent much of my free time browsing The Charley Project, a website dedicated to spreading awareness on missing persons. I knew that I wanted to write about missing children and that there was a chance that this could reach a large audience. Due to this, I chose to write about an issue related to missing persons which I am passionate about and hope to see change within my lifetime.
Q: With this contest, we want to feature pieces that challenge and discuss Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. How do you feel your piece accomplishes that goal?
A: My piece highlights the issue of the current Amber Alert system and how it affects missing Black children. I want to spread the word about this injustice because while it is always relevant, it is an issue that most people are not thinking of on a daily basis. Some of the things that I focused on to help spread this message are statistics on missing Black children, the current Amber Alert criteria, and other alert systems that have been created in an attempt to combat this issue. I think that while I feature a lot of different aspects, my article highlights the base issue that failure to provide an Amber Alert can lead to less resources and media coverage which can impact whether a child is found or not.
Q: How do you feel the genre of the project helped you effectively communicate to your audience? What were the advantages of this genre in particular?
A: The genre that I used was a mock CNN article. I picked CNN because I thought that the format was easy to understand and could be taken seriously at the same time. I liked using the news article format because I got to be creative in placing my images. Additionally, I got to expand on some information by “advertising” other sources that I liked, but didn’t get to use.
Q: What did you learn through the process of research and completing this project, and/or the experience of preparing it for publication?
A: One thing that I struggled with in preparation for submission was finding reputable sources that didn’t contradict each other. Despite being an everyday issue, a lot of missing person data is not updated on a regular basis and the information available is unorganized. When it came to putting facts into my essay, a lot of the numerical data taken from government databases had to be deciphered into a way that made sense. Through the process of combining all of this data, I like to think that I improved my skills of collecting information and condensing it so it was easier to comprehend.
Q: How has your writing process changed throughout your time at Elon? How do you feel English 1100 fostered that change?
A: In English 1100, something that my class put a focus on was putting value in other media platforms besides the standard research paper. I think that my English 1100 class allowed me to branch out of my comfort zone and explore genres that I normally would not have, which allowed me to place more attention on who the audience of my piece is. As a result of this, I can better format my content to not only fit the audience, but also to take full advantage of the platform that I am using to share information.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?
A: It can be scary to submit something that you’ve created to a contest, but use this as a way to step outside of your comfort zone. When I started this project, I had a general idea of what I wanted to write but I was able to use the contest guidelines to expand my thinking and do some research. Use what you know but never be afraid to get creative and step into a writing genre or parts of a subject that you like but may not have explored before.
ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Lina Kuhn
Q: What is your overall approach to teaching ENG 1100?
A: My ENG 1100 classes are focused on two main goals, both of which are meant to serve my students beyond the 1100 classroom, and even beyond their time at Elon. The first goal is for students to learn how to identify, pull apart, and emulate rhetorical genres of various kinds, so that they will gain the confidence to write in any style or form that comes their way in the future. The second goal is for students to learn about writing as a process, to take time and come to know themselves as writers, and practice the many smaller steps that go into creating a well-crafted larger project.
Q: What do you hope students get out of completing this particular project?
A: The project that Julia submitted was actually the last one of the semester, where students are asked to pick their own topics and their own rhetorical genres. In other words, they design their projects from start to finish. My goal with this project is to have students take everything we’ve discussed over the semester, and put it into practice on their own. Most importantly, I want students to work on something that is meaningful to them, something they connect with and want to pursue.
Q: In completing this project, did your student face any particular challenges? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?
A: I think working in the news article format can be challenging, in terms of hitting the right tone and language, but Julia did an excellent job of deciding on her stance/angle, and she did a lot of good research to back up her piece. In general, I think the most difficult aspect for students is picking and framing the right topic, and my role in that is just to have continuing conversations with students, to encourage them and help them shape their topics based on their goals.
Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with your student on this project?
A: It was really interesting to see the wide range of different topics that students chose for this final project, and Julia picked a topic that I didn’t know much about beforehand. I think the most rewarding part, therefore, was getting to learn about this topic from my student, and seeing her take on the “teaching” role in her writing, especially for such an important topic.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?
A: Above all, pick a topic that you care about! It makes the writing process more fun and meaningful, and it comes through in your writing; your interest in the topic will make us also interested.