Growing up, advocate Rose Speaks was surrounded by stories of missing persons cases in which the victims—children and young women—were Black and their family members weren’t taken seriously. When she was a young child, a little girl her age went missing in her neighborhood; years later, a family member disappeared after attending her aunt’s funeral. As she got older, there were other cases that caught her eye: Maleah Davis, Noelani Robinson. “They’re just runaways,” was the ubiquitous dismissal she kept hearing that families faced.
That bias is built into California’s AMBER Alert law, which passed in 2002 and mirrors the laws elsewhere: Law enforcement agencies can only activate the AMBER Alert system if the child (or person with disabilities) has definitively been abducted, if that person is in danger and if there is information that can help the public assist law enforcement in finding them.
“The AMBER Alert cannot be used for …. runaway cases that don’t meet the criteria,” the California Highway Patrol says.
The Black and Missing Foundation found that, in 2021, 38 percent of children reported missing in the U.S. were Black. They’ve also reported that Black children are disproportionately classified as runaways during initial investigation, which makes them ineligible for AMBER Alerts.
The refusal to issue AMBER Alerts for underage kids who police believed could’ve run away didn’t make sense to Speaks: Even if a child has run away, do they not still deserve a search? Especially when runaways are at an increased risk of trafficking?
“When someone who is missing is incorrectly listed as a runaway, they basically vanish a second time,” California Senator Steven Bradford said in a March statement. “They vanish from the police detectives’ workload. They vanish from the headlines. In many ways, no one even knows they are missing.”
To address the disparities, Bradford introduced legislation (SB 673) at the end of March that calls for the establishment of an Ebony Alert system in California to notify law enforcement, news and social media sites of missing Black children and young women in California to combat both the disparities in how such cases are handled and the lesser degree to which such disappearances are covered on a national-news level.
If approved, the Ebony Alert could follow in the footsteps of laws like 2022’s Feather Alert Program (a resource providing information to the public to aid in the recovery of missing indigenous persons) and the Silver Alert (a notification activated for elderly, developmentally, or cognitively-impaired missing people deemed at-risk).
“How can we find someone and bring them home safely when no one is really looking for them?” asked Bradford.
Speaks was driven by similar questions when, in 2019, she began developing her own Ebony Alert system as an app on the Google Play store.
“We need something to mitigate this,” says Speaks. “I wanted something more grassroots, hands-on, and communal.”
Unfortunately, Speaks ran into a challenge with her app — one symptomatic of a much deeper problem: Racists began deliberately tanking her app’s Google Play ratings because it was meant to solely serve the needs of the Black community.
In response, she developed an online social media campaign, also named Ebony Alert, that circulated news of missing people, cold cases and, perhaps most crucial, support resources for families.
“People often forget about these people once they’re reunited,” Speaks says. She wanted to be able to better connect families and survivors with mental healthcare providers, with manpower from the community to help with searches, and even with just the funding to print missing flyers for their loved ones.
While she is optimistic that a measure like Bradford’s is urgently needed, she still wonders and worries about how the wider population will react to any system put in place specifically for the Black community, concerned that some people will target, rather than assist, missing people’s loved ones.
“I’ve learned to stop reading comments on certain articles about Black missing kids because they often target the moms,” Speaks says. “And usually, it’s these women doing the footwork to find the children.”
She believes that, if a system like Bradford’s does become law, the Black community must be involved in the development of the system and help cultivate deeper, more sustained support for the families of the missing.
Los Angeles-based scholar-advocate Sikivu Hutchinson, who has been part of the Women’s Leadership Project since the early 2000s, calls Bradford’s bill a useful start because it underscores how demonized victims from Black communities are.
“They’re also typically perceived as expendable and disposable. So they don’t get the same kind of exposure and visibility and treatment that non-Black victims—particularly white victims—might get,” Hutchinson says.
On April 15th, the Women’s Leadership Project and the #Standing4BlackGirls coalition are hosting a day of community action in L.A. dedicated to the Missing and Murdered.
“There continues to be a structural problem providing support and visibility to African American youth and queer youth,” she says of the action. “An Ebony Alert could raise awareness and marshal resources to find these victims.”
But she doesn’t see it as a panacea.
“My reservation is the involvement of law enforcement given, that we know that victims of any age who are African American can be re-victimized by law enforcement, can not be believed by law enforcement, can be subject to abuse and harassment from law enforcement,” she added. “So those would be questions that I have about the implementation of this.”
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