‘Institutional gaps within the emergency broadcast system, widely known as The Amber Alert, have critical flaws that have historically excluded victims who are 18 or older.’

NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services

A poster for Missing Children’s Day.

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Almost 60 years later, the words of Malcolm X from 1962 still ring true. The lives of Black women and girls are at risk as the world watches while they are assaulted, murdered, and systemically neglected. Taught early on to internalize how the odds are stacked against them, Black girls and families wait while the world is silent even when they are missing. 

Where is the angry protest, extensive news media coverage, or national institutional outrage when girls of color are missing? The National Crime Information Center reported more than 89,000 missing cases in 2020, where Blacks make up a third of missing cases. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported 421,394 missing children in 2019. Of those missing, 298,190 were female, and 205,802 were Black females. 

In 2016, NCMEC reported that 86 percent of the likely child sex-trafficking victims were missing from foster care or social services. It is often presumed foster children are runaways. Categorizing a foster child as a runaway rather than utilizing the proper resources to determine if a missing foster care child is in danger is more believable. Statistics from organizations such as the NCMEC highlight the lack of national attention girls of color receive when they are exploited and missing. But #sayhername hashtags, which distinguish racial and gender-based violence, are not enough to end an epidemic even as #whataboutus has become a common language enlisted to draw attention to missing girls of color.

If it weren’t for the unfortunate death of Gabbie Petito, missing girls of color would not be an internet phenomenon. The world relatively knew the name of missing Buffalo State College student Saniyya Dennis because her story went viral on April 24, 2021, after her father, a well-known rapper Calvin Byrd known as 40 Cal, posted about her disappearance. Saniyya is still missing. Meanwhile, homicide victim Destini Smothers, a Black mother of two with a domestic violence history, never made headline news. Missing for four months, Smothers was found deceased in Queens, New York, decomposing in the trunk of a car. Smothers’ case is still unresolved while her family pleads for help.

A national crisis has materialized in plain sight but is obscured from mainstream dialogue because the world disregards women of color as victims. The 2017 Institute for Women’s Policy report documented data indicating that four in 10 Black women have faced physical violence by an intimate partner, and also face the highest rates of psychological abuse. More than 20 percent are raped in their lifetime, and they are two and a half times more likely than their white counterparts to be affected by femicide.

Even scarier, nine out of 10 Black women’s killers are known to them. As the numbers point to a glaring problem, how many of us can recall the last time an Amber Alert was enabled for a woman or girl of color? How do we statistically account for the missing Latinx population? Latinx are often regarded as white, instead of endangered minorities. Such ambiguous racial classifications underscore a more significant problem where Latinx women become statistically invisible and exempt from resources. The 2020 FBI National Crime Information Centers Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics Report, for instance, categorizes Latinx missing persons as white.

Is it possible that failed systems are the reason there is no outrage? Did we forget and fail deceased 20-year-old victim Vanessa Guillen, the Fort Hood soldier who went missing from her base in Texas? Where was the media outrage for Saniyya Dennis, Destini Smothers, and most recently, 30-year-old Asian American Lauren Cho, who went missing in California this summer

Institutional gaps within the emergency broadcast system, widely known as The Amber Alert, have critical flaws that have historically excluded victims who are 18 or older. 27-year-old Tiara Lott is one of the latest New York State victims. Tiara was reported missing in January 2021, after her last video call where she appeared bruised and described the pain to a friend, according to a People magazine article. She was found on a train track two weeks after her disappearance. Although the Amber Alert is considered successful in law enforcement, there is an unnerving gap that fails to acknowledge that people aged 18 to 59 need protection. 

Created for children 17 and younger, The Amber Alert system was established after the abduction of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who went missing while riding her bike in an abandoned parking lot, only to be found deceased five days later. The emergency broadcast system has failed vulnerable people. New York State has a responsibility to expand the age range within the Alert system to provide safety, law, and order for all its citizens. 

The inability to expand the Amber Alert Act has critical implications for individuals outside of the indicated 18-59 age range. The stories and names of the missing are often obscured by race, socioeconomic class, lack of urgency, gendered racism, ageism, law, and invisibility. They are often Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and Black people who are forgotten. 

The Amber Alert has been a critical electronic monitoring system spearheading alerts for missing and endangered children until 17. Similar in nature is the Silver Alert system designed for missing seniors after 60 to protect their vulnerability. However, individuals between the ages of 18-59 are left behind as an unprotected population. 

To circumvent the age gap, President Donald Trump signed The Ashanti Alert Act of 2018 (Pub L. 115-401) into law after 19-year-old Ashanti Billie went missing in 2017. Located 350 miles from her home, an alert was never enacted for Ashanti; it did not exist. Perhaps if it did, Ashanti would be alive today. The Ashanti Alert Act is a necessary and critical adaptation essential to solving the longstanding gap for missing people older than 17 in New York, which every state must adopt now. 

There is a stark and documented reality of how institutions have failed women and girls of color. All missing person cases deserve media significance. Unfortunately, we live in a divided

America that reinforces systemic structural violence impacting several nationalities—as seen in untimely reporting, underreporting, lackluster media, and unforgiven social structures that regard missing and murdered women and girls of color as unworthy, second-class citizens.

Dawn Rowe is the CEO of Girl Vow and a faculty member at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who founded The National Taskforce for Missing and Murdered Girls of Color.

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