Black and Missing: Finding Our Own

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. When a white woman is reported missing, it can spark national interest and round the clock television coverage. But when black people go missing, their families are often left out in the cold.

S2: Quite frankly, there’s really no sense of urgency. Is this notion that, oh, this child left, so whatever happens to him or her, they brought it on themselves.

S1: Highlighting the work of the black and missing foundation coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The story of Gaby Patino transfixed much of the nation earlier this year when the young blonde woman went missing on a trip with her boyfriend. Cable news and social media churned out endless updates and tips, which eventually contributed to discovering her body and revealing her killer. But for black families, black men, black women and black children that go missing, trying to find loved ones can be a lonely and devastating journey. They frequently fight to persuade police to do anything, even to take a report. You can forget cable news. Often, local media won’t take these stories seriously, and family members feel they have to lead their own investigations to have even the smallest chance of bringing their loved ones home. That issue is at the center of HBO’s recent documentary series Black and Missing.

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S3: Thank you for calling black and missing foundation. The police was like, how you know, she just saying, leave the detective out, saying she ran away and I’m like, she didn’t run away.

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S4: It was like a punch in the face when a black person is in distress missing. It’s not a big deal to law enforcement because they don’t think we have much to lose.

S1: The four part series highlights the work of the Black and Missing Foundation, and Derrica Wilson, the organization’s co-founder and CEO, joins us now. Welcome to a word.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Derrica give us an idea of like how many black people go missing every year compared to, you know, the white population. Like what is the scope of the problem we’re looking at here?

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S2: Nearly 14 years ago, when we started the organization, 30 percent of missing persons in the United States were persons of color, and that number has since increased to 40 percent. I would also like to add that when we send the organization, there were more missing black men than there were black women at that time. And we’re starting to see that uptick again just in 2021. We’re starting to see those numbers of missing black men elevate. So we’re speaking in scope of more than 200000 black and brown people reported missing, and that’s according to the FBI statistics. But I think it’s very important to focus in on the key word report it. That is the key word because there are times when the families go to report their loved ones missing and a police report is not even taken.

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S1: Oh wow, wow. Or they’re discouraged from filing the report and they’re told, you know, just go back home.

S2: Yeah, we show they are show up. Of course, yes. You know, they just needed some fresh air. Cool off. Yes, they hear it all.

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S1: So like the lack of police attention and care is a big part of the difficulty in bringing missing black people back. Now you’re a former police officer yourself. You talk about how the police not only treat missing black people differently, but treat the families looking for missing black people differently than they do white folks.

S2: You know, it just seems that we are dehumanize. We are criminalized in all aspects when it comes to our missing children. They’re labeled as runaways. Runaways are not receiving the Amber Alert, and quite frankly, there’s really no sense of urgency as this notion that, oh, this child left. So whatever happens to him or her, they brought it on themselves. And that’s the way it’s frowned upon. You know, if you looked at a flier now, once that’s missing and once there’s runaway, the messaging is not created equal. People are less likely to share a flyer that says runaway. And when it comes to missing adults, male and female again, they are considered impoverished or some sort of criminal. You know, and it really is in a sense of urgency. You know, we have families that, you know, reach out to law enforcement to have their cases taken and their loved ones to be sought after. And law enforcement would immediately put up a mug shot versus using the picture that the family has provided to law enforcement. So again, that really sends a negative message. And you know, people when you’re asking for community assistance and finding these missing individuals, they’re very judgmental on the back and they’re like, Well, you know, that is a mug shot. That person is a criminal. So whatever happened, they brought it on themselves.

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S1: So you know what? I feel used to talk about missing white woman syndrome, which you know we’ve all seen, right? Like a white girl goes missing for more than 24 hours. She doesn’t come back from work or prom or her wedding or something, and there’s 24 hour news coverage. And yet black people can be missing. I mean, what was it? The guy disappeared in Georgia. You’ve had you’ve had black adult scientists and, you know, professional

S2: geologist

S1: geologists exactly who can’t be found. Can you talk about some of the obstacles that you faced trying to bring awareness to the stories of missing black people?

S2: You know, we all know the names Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Caylee Anthony, Elizabeth Smart, Gabby Potato. But can you name one just one missing persons of color? You know, male female child that has elevated mainstream media. It doesn’t exist. And so with the decision-makers in the newsroom, they typically don’t look like us. So they don’t think our stories are sensational enough and they don’t want to cover it when it comes to law enforcement again. They’re not taking the cases seriously. You know, I think about Daniel Robison, who’s. As seen out of Arizona, the black geologist and his father who serve our country on the front lines. But yet he can’t even get the assistance that we paid for from our tax dollars. He can’t get those resources to help him find his son. It’s something broken in the system. We all have a responsibility to correct these issues with law enforcement. We have to correct the issues with the media, and then the community also plays a vital role as well.

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S1: So the film does like a deep dive into why police often dismiss missing black children as runaways, even when the evidence points in another direction. Here’s a clip of John Walsh, the founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

S4: I have dealt with so many cases that nobody look for him because a cop decided that kid was a runaway and that kid wasn’t a runaway. That kid was a kidnapped kid. Cops are gone. Yeah, and other black kid, they’re missing all the time, and nobody calls you out at the end when they find their body.

S5: Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, confirm that a body found this morning is that of 16 year old Jolene Moosa.

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S4: Who has the right to sign the death warrant of a kid by saying, run away? Forget about it.

S1: Talk a little bit about that attitude and how you saw it play out when you were on the force and in the work you do now.

S2: You know, John Walsh, he was absolutely accurate. I mean, this is the view of our community when our children are going missing, just another black kid, you know, and that’s how they look at it. You know, working as a police officer, I saw things firsthand and I know I wanted to be the change agent. We have to, you know, if you see a problem in order to correct a problem, you have to be willing to be the change. And so that is our goal to be the change I remember. And as you probably saw in the film, I talked about a young lady that was missing from the neighboring jurisdiction. She had been missing for days and she was stuck in a hotel. She was a victim of domestic violence, but she was stuck at a hotel in the City of Falls Church for days. And I never saw her flyer come across my desk. I didn’t know that she was missing until after I had rescued her.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on the work of the Black and missing foundation and the new HBO documentary about it. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing. Has got a word at Slate.com? Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the HBO documentary Black and Missing with Derrica Wilson of the Black and Missing Foundation. This documentary is new, but your foundation is not. You began this work a decade ago with your sister in law, Natalie Wilson. What inspired you to start and what’s the day to day work of like black and missing? Like, what do you actually do? You wake up, you hit the office or you hit your laptop, but you guys do every day.

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S2: So the inspiration behind the Black and Lucy Foundation was a young lady by the name of Tamika Houston. She went missing from my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. And despite the fact that her aunt, Rebecca, worked in media relations, she still struggled to garner mainstream media for her niece. Months later, Natalee Holloway went missing and of course, seeing her name alone, we all know her name. So we decided to channel our professions. My background is law enforcement now. His background is media relations, and those are two critical professions needed and find in our missing. So when we started the organization, the goal was to simply just bring awareness to our missing person cases across this country. But it has morphed into much more because we realized that these families need so much, they’re desperate. So a typical day for us because Nelly and I both work full time jobs. Our days start extremely early in the morning and they end very late at night. So what we’re doing is we are coaching them on working with law enforcement, coaching out with the media because we do have media partners and give them the opportunity to get their stories out there. Black press has been fantastic to us. We are creating flyers for them because what we are seeing is that too many of our families are being victimized when they’re at their lowest point without missing loved one because law enforcement is not taking the cases seriously. They are creating their own flyers. They’re putting their personal contact information on it and then they’re being scammed and receiving the ransom call. So we are creating those flyers and we are encouraging our community to be that digital milk cartons. So we’re putting this information out there because we can’t always wait on the five and 10 o’clock news cycle. And we understand that not every case is going to elevate to mainstream media. So we want to get this information out there because we firmly believe that someone knows something and we just need that someone to come forward with information. We assist families with prayer vigils, candlelight vigils, we help them distribute flyers. We actually create flyers for them for distribution and send it to them. We help the families. Sadly, when their loved one has been found deceased, we help them with the burial expenses. You know, we help them secure private investigation services and the list just goes on and on because they need it and these families become part of our family.

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S1: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of people being sort of scammed at their lowest time, right? But you put your information out there. Your son is missing. Your daughter is missing. Your husband, your grandmother, your aunt. What kind of scam artist targets a family that’s missing somebody?

S2: So we have the scam artists that are targeting families that we are working with. They are actually telling them, You send me money. I will tell you where your loved one is. Wow. So just ran and just ransom. They are getting those ransom calls. Those ransom text messages. We have seen families lose their life savings. We have seen families lose their homes, go into foreclosure because again, they’re desperate. And, you know, think about this. Think about if you misplace your keys or your wallet or your cell phone, you are in a panic. Your anxiety is through the roof. Now, multiply that times a million. For someone that has a missing loved one, you can’t even begin to imagine what they’re going through. So again, when people are contacting them directly, whether it’s my phone or text and they’re telling them, I know where your loved one is, and in order for me to share that information, you have to pay me. These families are desperate, and that is what we are doing to take away this element. You know, we don’t want them being scammed. We don’t want them falling victim. So we are creating these flyers ourselves and the flyers contain the contact information for law enforcement and for our organizations. And we have our information on it because we do understand and recognize that there is a lack of trust when it comes to the minority community and law enforcement. So we get tips before law enforcement in many cases and even in the documentary. You know, with the Kennedy High case, which was a success, the tip came into us. Instead of police because police wasn’t taking her case seriously anyway.

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S1: In this next clip. So we’re hearing from April Hall, whose daughter Memorial Hall, has been missing since July of 2019.

S3: I’m going to the state police, I’m trying to call the FBI, but I need help. My I love Christmas time, that’s my favorite time of the year. She loved to just sit and look at the lights on the tree was a mood setter for her. So this is hope for marriage every day that I look at it because I know that she liked looking at it and I feel like I will just leave it here so that she didn’t miss Christmas whenever she walked through that door would be here. I want her to see it OK, if it’s summertime. I don’t care if it’s next Christmas.

S1: You know, here we see how April Hall is keeping a fully decorated Christmas tree all year just in case her daughter walks through the door. It. It’s actually it’s really hard to watch what kind of emotional toll does this start to take on the relatives of missing people? What kinds of things are happening, the family? And then honestly, what kind of emotional toll does this take on you?

S2: Because this is a very traumatic experience. These families are dealing with PTSD is very, very tough. And of course, not wanting to change anything, you know, wanting to keep things, you know, the same, you know, for where your loved one comes home. As April indicated, Christmas is her daughter’s favorite time of year, so that makes her smile when she sees the Christmas tree. So anything that would put a smile on her face for that or give her the encouragement to continue to go on and like searching for her daughter? Anything that’s a sign of their symbolic, you know? But again, this takes a toll on these families. So this happens quite frequently. And then question comes up to Natalie and I all the time. You know, what do you all do for your mental health? Natalie, we share with you that she’s Caribbean. She loves to listen to her soccer, you know, to get her going. I’m from the south of South Carolina. Grew up in church, and I love listening to my gospel music because it has a way of ministering to my heart or my soul to keep me going. So, you know, I would cry it out and then I’ll have to keep going because these families need us. I mean, this is so much bigger than us. We’re doing this because we’re on assignment. We didn’t get into this for any accolades. We got into this because we saw our issue in our community. And again, in order to correct the problem, you have to be willing to be to change it. We had that area of expertise, you know, in law enforcement and the media to help these families.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on the work of the black and missing foundation. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word, the Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about searching for missing African-Americans with Derrica Wilson. She is the co-founder and CEO of the Black and Missing Foundation Inc.. What do you think needs to be done from a policy standpoint to ensure that black people have the resources they need when somebody they care about goes missing?

S2: First and foremost, we need to change the classification. When it comes to children going missing, we need to get rid of the term run away. They’re missing. That’s first and foremost. Secondly, we need to change the reporting structure. So in most states, you must wait 24 hours before you can file a missing persons report. But we all know that the first 24 to 48 hours are the most critical moments, so we need to get rid of that and have these police reports taken immediately. And then we need to just review the law enforcement needs to review their best practices. There needs to be enhanced training when it comes to missing person case because I can honestly say, after spending six months in the police academy, we only dedicated one to two hours to the missing person cases. So there’s much more training that needs to take place with that, as well as sensitivity and cultural diversity training. That is very important.

S1: So let’s say I’m a family right now. We have an aunt who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She’s disappeared, a son who has not come back from college and we expected him here, you know, two or three days ago. What do you tell a family at the beginning of this ordeal? What do you tell a family that may be listening to this right now and they are in that first 24 hours? What can they do?

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S2: What they can do is number one file a police report. They need to be very persistent. If police try to give them any pushback, they need to make those phone calls, establish that phone tree, who was the last person to see them? What were they wearing? You know, have a available photo. Contact the Black Community Foundation, allow us to help you

S1: and look into the future. Like, how do you see the black and missing foundation continuing to make an impact?

S2: Well, we’re going to keep going. This is a movement. Again, this is so much bigger than us. So what we want to do and we’re starting to see the narrative change. We want to have a seat at the table because we want law enforcement to look at us as partners. You know, we want to help them close these cases. They have to rely on advocacy groups because we understand that not enough resources are dedicated, you know, to the missing person units with these respective police departments. You know, we have started being invited to these newsrooms with these executives to talk about how they handle these cases. You know, whether it is unconscious are conscious. But that’s something that we have to face awarding scholarships to our youth who want to pursue careers in law enforcement, who want to pursue careers in public relations because those are those professions that you can drive change at those levels, you know, lawmakers. So there’s just so much more that, you know, we want to do. And we’re sitting down with our tea with our board to really strategize on how we can make a greater impact in the months and years to come.

S1: Derrica Wilson is the co-founder and CEO of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. Thank you so much for your time.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Saluja is the managing producer of Podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s Editorial Director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcast at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.