When I was little, I remember the images of missing children, usually white boys or girls, that appeared on milk cartons and often led me to wonder how anyone could allow something so terrible to happen to their children. At the same time, I also remained confident in the thought that my parents would never let anyone hurt me or take me away from their loving arms and protection.
With that and given my then-short attention span, I’d pick up the carton and pour some milk into my bowl of Cap’n Crunch or Sugar Smacks and proceed with my day.
Tragically, it seems that my childlike, lackadaisical attitude about the lives of thousands of missing or exploited children reported each year in the U.S. receive about the same amount of attention from those who could do something about it that I allowed decades ago.
Here in the District, mainstream media paused a few days ago to remember the sad case of then-8-year-old Relisha Rudd — a young girl from D.C. who lived in a homeless shelter with her mother and brothers and vanished on March 1, 2014. Forensic artists with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has released a new age-progression image for how she may look now at 14.
And while the chance that she’ll ever be found seems little more than a pipe dream, her family and friends promise to keep up the search until she’s brought safely home. Relisha has, in a sense, become the District’s poster child for missing children. But her story is not unique. In fact, given the frequency with which Black children and youth go missing in America, I wonder if we’ve almost become desensitized and apathetic — more concerned about abused puppies and kittens or sick pandas at the national zoo then Black and brown children whose disappearances receive short shrift from mainstream media and local elected officials.
Perhaps the simple truth is we really do not care. Or maybe, as in the cases of Jayme Closs, 13, a Wisconsin girl kidnapped after her parents were killed that gained national attention, and the lesser-known tale of Arianna Fitts — the 2-year-old who went missing in 2016 before her mother was found brutally murdered in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s just a case of white versus Black. Some believe the Closs case became a talking point because she was white while Fitts’s case would be ignored and forgotten because she was Black. I want to refute such claims but the data seems to give credence to the idea that the lives of Black and brown children have less value than those of little white boys and girls.
Data shows that missing white children receive far more media coverage than missing Black and brown children, despite higher rates of missing children among communities of color. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center database lists 424,066 missing children under 18 in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. About 37 percent of those children — that’s more than a third of missing child cases — are Black, even though they only make up about 14 percent of all children in the U.S.
It’s ever harder to say with any accuracy how many Hispanic kids are missing as the FBI’s report groups white and Hispanic children together. About 20 percent of missing children are Hispanic or Latino, according to Robert Lowery, vice president of the missing child division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but he believes the real number likely higher.
“I think there’s a false belief that white children make up the biggest number of missing children when in fact (proportionally) it’s just the opposite,” Lowery said, adding that the high number of Black girls reported missing is particularly concerning.
And there are reasons experts say we don’t hear more about missing children of color: families are hesitant to call police whom they often distrust, even if they think their child is missing; families might not report that their child is missing because they fear it could have unintended, negative consequences.
Lowery thinks Latino children are underreported because some families with undocumented members refuse to contact police for fear of being deported.
Statistics notwithstanding, Black (and brown) boys and girls face the likelihood that whether they’ve been abducted or have run away, once they’ve gone missing, chances are they’ll never be seen or heard from again.
They don’t get as much media attention — something considered vital to helping solve those cases. Their families don’t have the financial resources to respond appropriately when their child is missing, like hiring a private investigator or taking off from work to help look for their child and following up with law enforcement and the media. In some cases, they may not know what to do.
Additionally, some falsely believe they must wait 48 hours before filing a police report, when that waiting period varies by location. Places like Illinois or the District don’t have waiting periods to report a child missing so knowing the laws in one’s state helps.
But who could wait two days when their child has disappeared. I know I couldn’t. I know I would be unable to eat or sleep. And I know I would not rest until my child had been found — prayerfully safe and unharmed.
Relisha Rudd vanished six years ago. No one knows what happened to her or if she’s even alive. We all mourn for her family and try to remain hopeful that one day — perhaps against all odds — we will see her again.
As for today’s children whose safety and welfare rests in the job that their parents and guardians perform, I’d like to ask you one question: Do you know where your children are?