Missing White Girl Syndrome: Whose Disappearances Make National Headlines?

Jada Jordan, left, and Katie Vega are both Bronx girls who have gone missing since 2014. Photos and more info are available at Black & Missing.

In June, New York Council Member Andy King released a list of 14 girls, all teenagers, who went missing from the Bronx since July 2014. Six of these girls were reported missing in June. Two vanished on June 23 alone. Nine of these girls have returned home safely, according to the New York Police Department. But the way the police classified these cases raises clear issues around the way class, race, and gender shape public priorities. Where is the national news coverage calling for action and change around these girls’ cases?

While King, who represents the northeastern part of the Bronx, feared that these girls were abducted and forced into prostitution rings, the NYPD classified these teens as runaways. This classification suggests that these children were unruly and disobedient. According to the the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services website, “It is often assumed that runaways are not at significant risk away from home. To the contrary, NISMART [National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children] found that many runaways engage in criminal activity; associate with a ‘violent’ person; use hard drugs (or associate with someone known to be abusing drugs); or are sexually assaulted or engage in sexual activity (for money, drugs, food or shelter) during the course of the ‘episode.’”

 

The number of missing girls was at over a dozen at one point. Treating these disappearances as mundane occurrences shows a lack of effort and interest by law enforcement officials in the Bronx. Most of the girls reported missing were Hispanic and Black. If they were white middle-class girls, these disappearances would have made national news. According to the New York Daily News, King said at a news conference, “Every other week our young girls are just vanishing off our streets. Something is going on. They are attractive girls. How do you get the numbers vanishing?”

The dismal reaction by law enforcement in the Bronx and in other poor communities is part of a bigger problem: White children are valued over children of color. In fact, “Missing White Girl Syndrome” is a term used by social scientists and media commentators to describe the excessive ways the media covers missing white upper-middle-class girls and women. This is just another way white children are considered more valuable than children of color in the United States. When a white girl goes missing, her life could be in danger. But when a girl of color goes missing, her disappearance is reduced to her running away.

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“Often the assumption is that the white girls are quote-unquote innocent victims whereas with poor children or children of color, there's some nefarious activities involved,” Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said in an interview with the Journalism Center on Children and Families. While missing white children get significantly more media attention, estimates from 2014 show that 37 percent of all missing children are minorities.

This is why things like the Rilya Alert are so important.

Rilya Alerts are for children under the age of 17 who have been reported missing to law enforcement and who are potentially in danger. The alert is named after Rilya Wilson, a four-year-old Florida foster child who was missing for 15 months before anyone in the Florida foster care system noticed. Rilya was never found; she is presumed dead and her foster mom was convicted of kidnapping and child abuse. Unlike Amber Alerts, Rilya Alerts are specifically for kids of color. Because cases of children who are not white and privileged largely go unreported, the Georgia-based nonprofit organization Peas in their Pods started Rilya Alerts. According to their website, Peas in their Pods  aims to help “find missing children of color, fight against child abuse, and provide information to the public.” They explicitly say that they do not take the place of Amber Alerts but “simply pick up where they leave off or never engage due to program criteria.“

Although nine girls have returned safely to their homes in the Bronx, there are still, by King’s estimates, five more girls who have yet to return home. The girls who have returned home, according to the Bronx Times, are: Karla Gross, 15; Jada Jordan, 12; Shanne Banzal, 12; Cassidy Santiago, 15; Brazae Howell, 16; Mayelin Inoa, 15; Miracle Mann, 15; and Emily Arroyo, 15. According to the New York Daily News, Sierra Rivera, who is still missing, was last seen on June 26. Police believe she ran away with her boyfriend. Ashley Bissal, 16, has been missing since June 23 and was last seen leaving her apartment on the Grand Concourse. She was supposed to pick up her sister from school but never did. In his press conference, King proposed safe haven zones in collaboration with merchants in the Bronx, which would house children in distress or danger and would notify the NYPD. He hopes that getting a call from these zones will signify to the police “that the call is real,” which will “result in faster response times.” How do we explain to children in these communities that some of their calls to law enforcement may not be perceived as “real”? How do we tell them that sometimes their lives aren’t seen as valuable as white children’s? 

As someone who grew up in the Bronx, I understand what it’s like to feel like law enforcement is not as concerned about your safety as they should be. I once had my book bag stolen at a park, and an NYPD officer told me, “What do you want me to do?” In another neighborhood, the response would have been different. If I looked different, I’m sure my book bag would have been recovered or I would have received a different reaction from this cop. Law enforcement must do a better job protecting the lives of these missing girls and all the children in the Bronx. The media also has to do a better job covering cases like these and not just those of white and privileged people.

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by Roberta Nin Feliz
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Roberta Nin Feliz is an Afro-Latina from New York City who writes at the intersections of race, feminism and social justice. She has written for places like Femsplain, TheFbomb and Women's ENews. She’s probably arguing about the erasure of black and women’s history somewhere.

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