Everyone remembers when Natalie Holloway and Elizabeth Smart went missing. We also remember when Elizabeth Smart was found; it was all over the media and now has its own Wikipedia page. But what happens when the individuals who disappear don’t fit as easily into what I would call the “perfect victim” scenerio?
The “perfect victim” is generally a white girl from the middle to upper class demographics of society. Furthermore, these victims tend to have actually been kidnapped as opposed to possibly have run away. They are often described as well-behaved, ideal daughters who are almost angelic in behavior.
So when girls who disappear do not fit the profile of the “perfect victim,” there is little to no media coverage. According to the Congressional Black Caucus “(W)hen children of color go missing, authorities often assume they are runaways rather than victims of abduction.” Regardless of whether or not these girls turn out to be missing or have runaway, the media coverage compared to their white counterparts is dismal. Colloquially it is known as “missing white women syndrome.”
The lack of care given by society to missing girls and women of color has come to a head as social media tweets from the Washington (DC) Metropolitan Police Department ask for help in locating mostly black and Latinx missing girls. As you can see from the above image, websites have been posting and sharing pictures of the missing girls, along with their justified outrage that these cases are just now receiving coverage (There was a tweet being shared concerning 14 girls who went missing in the space of 24 hours. That tweet is apparently false, but this does not negate the seriousness of the missing girls).
There are some aspects of this story that need to be further clarified. These postings of the missing DC girls seems to indicate that the number of missing children, specifically black and Latinx girls, has increased. Apparently, that is not the case. In DC, the numbers of missing children over the years have stayed relatively the same.
What HAS increased is the media coverage. Two months ago, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department’s new commander, Chanel Dickerson, made a pledge to “find our missing girls” and thus the DC police began posting their pictures on social media – leading to the current outcry of the lack of media coverage before the tweets were released. According to Dickerson, most of these girls are runaways and return home, but this brings up further issues of why the children are running away in the first place. According to an interview with Dickerson,”It’s a deeper issue. We need to get to the bottom of why these young people feel that there’s no other alternative but to leave home. When they leave home, there’s a danger that they could be victimized, mental health issues. And then my biggest concern is they’re not going to school.”
She further states: “One missing person is one person too many.”
I think it is telling that the sudden media coverage of these missing girls of color is due to the appointment of a black woman as commander of the DC police. Not only are the girls themselves being publicized, but the issues that push the girls to runaway are also getting coverage. Such issues also apply to white girls, and even extend to boys, but are magnified when race factors into the equation.
According to Robert Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this sudden increase in coverage is positive:
“Our frustration is, we deal with a very desensitized public,” Lowery said. “The natural inclination (about a runaway) is the child’s behavioral problem is why they’ve left. We also see significant numbers of runway children who are running away from a situation, whether it’s abuse or neglect or sexual abuse in the home. These children face unique risks when they’re gone so we applaud the conversation and we applaud the attention that this issue is being given.”
For girls, these unique risks to which Lowery refer include being sexually assaulted and trafficked into prostitution. So although Dickerson has stated she doesn’t believe that these girls have been kidnapped for purposes of being trafficked, their status as runaways increases their chances of being trafficked into prostitution. Which reminds me of an interesting conversation I had several years ago when, stuck between nonprofit jobs thanks to the recession, I was working in retail in a store serving mainly upper-class white women. Somehow, the conversation came back to Natalie Holloway, and the women I was checking out began to describe the desire for white, blonde American girls in the brothels of Mexico. The implication, of course, is that not only is the idea of “white slavery” still alive and well, but that the TRAGIC and DESIRED victims of trafficking are white women and girls. She was very serious and concerned for the fate of all white girls at the hands of possible Mexican traffickers. Of course, this scenario runs completely counter to information on how American women and girls generally end of being trafficked in the United States: they are runaways or inhabit other vulnerable positions of race and class within society.
Children who run away tend to be of lower income, and, of course, poverty has a large racial skew in cities such as DC. It is an intersection of race and class that has kept such cases from the media and thus the concern of the larger public. When a white girl disappears from her respectable upper income family, it is a tragedy as her life is deemed of high value. When children, particularly children of color, disappear as a result of running away, as Lowery and Dickerson describe, the public is often not interested. And please note, I am not saying that any of these girls couldn’t have been abducted, but in general, runaways are more common than actual abductions.
This value placed on certain individuals is a travesty and certainly not new to anyone reading this blog. What is new, however, are the actions Chanel Dickerson has been taking to find these girls, which has led to a concerted public outcry and unification to help find the girls. And not just find the girls, but to also force the media and public to deal with the larger social issues which cause the children to run away in the first place. In other words, Dickerson wants to give these girls the value their lives deserve.
Let’s hope this isn’t just another media trend.
Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Harm, Edited By Maddy Coy