Editor’s Note: Sonia Pruitt is a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police captain. She is on the board of directors and a speaker with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, which advocates for criminal justice and drug policy reform and is the founder of The Black Police Experience, which promotes the education and history of the intersection of law enforcement and the Black community. She is also an assistant professor of criminal justice at Montgomery College in Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Gabby Petito’s tragic case kicked off a national conversation about the lasting spotlight that is often given to missing White people, compared to their non-White counterparts. While Petito’s family should of course be allowed to use everything at their disposal to get to the bottom of exactly what happened to Gabby, we cannot ignore the effects of that same level of access not being extended to the Black and brown, who are just as desperate to find missing loved ones.
As a former police captain, it is particularly concerning what message this could be sending to perpetrators: that young people of color are easy targets because few will care to look for them.
Combating this perception first begins with recognizing how young girls and boys of color are often labeled as “runaways” when they go missing, although there may be no proof that they left willfully. The categorization deprioritizes their missing status and makes them the responsible party in their own disappearance, rather than a victim. This also results in the use of fewer resources to find them, if any effort is made at all. Lack of effort includes insufficient media exposure.
To address the disparity and bias, some police departments have changed the terminology and parameters used in reporting missing youth. Terminology such as “critical missing” or “endangered missing” rather than “runaway” are used to report all missing children, regardless of why they went missing. Many police departments have also removed the time limit for which any person has to have been missing before a report can be filed and started using social media in their efforts to find missing people.
For the thousands of young people who vanish in the United States, and are deemed “runaways,” these changes could be the difference between life and death. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that of the nearly 30,000 reports the center receives concerning missing children, 91% of them are considered “endangered runaways.” NCMEC’s definition of an endangered runaway is “a child under the age of 18 who is missing on his or her own accord and whose whereabouts are unknown to their parent or legal guardian.”
There are many reasons why a young person may intentionally leave. Some leave physically comfortable homes that may hide risks unknown to others. Some may have unbearable living situations, such as poverty, abuse, or mental health issues. Some may be homeless or live in a shelter with their family. While the reasons a child “runs away” can be many, what we can be assured of is that for each time this occurs, a young person is headed into potentially dangerous situations. There are times when a child may not leave willfully, and may be kidnapped, trafficked or worse.
The devaluing that occurs to people of color heightens the risk for them. Black and brown girls and boys are often perceived to be older, more mature and more sexually advanced than their White counterparts, making it less likely that their missing status will be taken seriously, but more likely that they will be exploited and hurt. A glimpse of this was shown in a 2014 Urban Institute report, in which pimps and traffickers admitted to believing they would get less jail time if they were caught with Black girls.
According to a 2020 report from Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center, about 36% of missing persons (age 0-17) are Black, even though they account for only 14% of children in the US. That’s a cause for concern, and so is the fact that the 57% of missing juveniles who are categorized as White includes Hispanics. While the data captured includes missing Asian and Indian children, it is unknown what percentage reported is Hispanic. In other words, this is likely adding to the strong underrepresentation of the number of missing children of color.
When you stop to think about all of the barriers that families of color face to get answers and help, and how those obstacles may lead to the victimization of more young people of color, you can see why the prolonged attention on Gabby Petito elicited such a strong reaction from communities of color, particularly from families who have been looking for missing loved ones.
Without a doubt, it is crucial that we do everything we can to bring all vulnerable young people home, including demanding a robust investigation in cases where missing children meet a tragic end.
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To do this, we must hold law enforcement agencies accountable for bias in reporting and use of resources; lawmakers must be pressured to provide funding for targeted efforts to find children of color and the media must be answerable for the lack of coverage of the cases of this vulnerable missing population.
We can also use the assistance of reputable organizations such as Black & Missing Foundation, which has a long-standing reputation of making children who may not otherwise be found, a priority.
It is our duty to amplify the voices of missing children of color because they cannot do it themselves. Their lives are valuable. Let’s bring them home.
Anyone who believes they may be a victim of human trafficking can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 888-373-7888 or visit the hotline’s website. The FBI also has a human trafficking section on its website.