California may create a new Amber Alert for missing Black women and girls. Here’s how

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Amid ongoing concerns that missing Black women and girls are too-often ignored by law enforcement and the media, a California legislator has proposed alert notifications to mandate immediate action when those cases happen.

Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Los Angeles has proposed Senate Bill 673 to create special “Ebony Alerts” for missing Black women, girls and youth, similar to Amber or Silver Alerts used for missing children and senior citizens.

Bradford said his proposal would ensure Black women and girls receive the same level of resources and commitments as other missing persons cases, to help locate them and bring them home.

Ebony Alerts would make missing Black girls and women a high priority, Bradford said, just like any other racial or ethnic group. “We want it to be activated and use those same media resources that you see (for) Amber Alert. We want to do exactly the same thing, no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Bradford said.

“That’s our intentions with this legislation, to make sure that you get it on your device, you see it on the freeway on digital boards, you see it across the screen on TV or on cable. So now we want all those things that you currently see now when you get an Amber Alert.”

Bradford’s bill would authorize a law enforcement agency to request California Highway Patrol to activate an Ebony Alert when Black youth, including young women and girls, are reported missing ”under unexplained or suspicious circumstances,” according to the bill’s text.

The bill would require the alerts to be sent “within the appropriate geographical area requested by the investigating law enforcement agency.”

Bradford’s proposal coincides with an effort in Minnesota, where groundbreaking legislation is also being discussed to help missing Black women and girls.

Minnesota Rep. Ruth Richardson aims to establish the nation’s first Office for Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls. Her bill, HF 55, was passed by Minnesota’s House of Representatives and is now being heard by the Senate.

The new agency would cost Minnesota $1.2 million annually to staff, in addition to providing resources, outreach, and training, according to Richardson.

Richardson was moved to create her bill after hearing about a Minnesota teen named Brittany Clardy who went missing shortly after her 18th birthday in 2013.

“I really started to dig around the data and understand the disparities of missing person cases involving Black women or girls,” Richardson said.

Richardson said although Clardy’s family notified law enforcement, they were told she was an adult and probably with a boyfriend. About 10 days later, her body was found inside the trunk of a vehicle. Clardy’s killer was sentenced to 40-years-to-life in prison.

Data backs up need

Many legislators for years have said more needs to be done to highlight cases of missing Black women and girls.

During a congressional hearing on the topic of missing Black, indigenous, and people of color earlier this year, Rep. Jamie Raskin said although Black women and girls make up just 13% of the female population in the U.S. they accounted for 35% of all missing women in 2020.

About 100,000 of the quarter million women and girls who went missing in the U.S. in 2020 were black, brown, or indigenous.

Still families and advocates say the cases of Black women and girls who go missing are treated differently by law enforcement and the media than when the missing person is white.

For example, two missing Northern California 16-year-old girls vanished in similar ways in the past year. But some said their cases were treated drastically differently.

Nykari Johnson, a Black female teenager, was originally reported missing by her mother, Tiearrar Subia, who woke up in the early hours of Dec. 28 and noticed her daughter was not in their Carmichael home.

Nykari left the house shortly after midnight to meet with a friend but Subia said they never met. She was subsequently missing for the next 38 days.

Kiely Rodni, a white female teenager from Truckee, was reported missing last year on Aug. 6 after she had left the day before to attend a party at a Nevada County campground and never made it back home.

Rodni was supposed to meet with friends for a camping trip the following morning but friends told Rodni’s mother, Lindsey Rodni-Nieman, that she never arrived.

An all-out effort to locate Rodni was initiated by Placer County Sheriff’s Office, starting with a social media post from their Twitter account alerting followers and urging community members to help locate the missing child.

Further efforts included posting a video of Rodni’s mother pleading for help from nearby communities, surveying camera footage from nearby businesses and involving multiple agencies to assist with search efforts. Her body was discovered two weeks later.

Nykari eventually found her way home and later reunited with her family when she reappeared on an early February morning. “It was scariest and saddest time of my life, next to my mother passing,” Subia said.

Nykari originally went missing in December but was never labeled at-risk by Sacramento Sheriff’s Office.

Sacramento sheriffs told Sacramento community activist Berry Accius that Johnson wasn’t considered at-risk because she “voluntarily left” the home and was not kidnapped or abducted.

Accius had advocated for the family during the initial search for Johnson at a Jan. 23 press conference where he pleaded for equal concern and outrage in response to the teenager’s missing case.

Accius, during their press conference, compared Johnson and Rodni’s missing cases, bringing attention to the disparities in coverage between the two. He believes that Johnson’s case was mishandled.

“Give Black kids the same energy as the white kids,” said Accius. “Where’s the sense of urgency? Does (Nykari Johnson) have to end up dead, under a highway or trafficked on Stockton Boulevard before something gets done? It’s carelessness as a whole community and society.”

‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

The term “missing white woman search syndrome” was coined by late journalist Gwen Ifill during a 2004 journalism conference where she explained that a media frenzy surrounding missing white girls.

In the most simple definition, missing white woman syndrome is the excessive – and to some extent, obsessive – coverage or documentation of white girls when they go missing.

“If there’s a missing white woman (media outlets) are going to cover that everyday,” said Ifill.

A 2019 article from the Journal of Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law and Society (CCJLS) was co-published by Danielle Slakoff, Sacramento State assistant professor of criminal justice. It discusses the media’s coverage of missing white girls or women compared to women and girls of color.

Slakoff, along with co-author Henry Fradella, examined four years of coverage of missing women and girls, from 11 major newspapers across the country. She found that white missing women and girls received more initial coverage – and more repeated coverage – compared to the Black missing women and girls.

When young girls, women of color are harmed or go missing, according to Slakoff, they are often portrayed much differently than their white counterparts who are stereotyped as innocent, blameless, or in need of protection.

“Women and girls who don’t conform to that stereotype are often shown in much less sympathetic ways,” said Slakoff. “They’re portrayed as ‘risk-taking’ at the time that the crime occurred. They’re portrayed as living in an unsafe environment, a bad neighborhood, therefore, basically normalizing what happened to them.”

Derrica Wilson, co-founder of Black and Missing Foundation (BAMFI), said law enforcement are the “gatekeepers” as the first point of contact when a person goes missing.

Derrica and her sister-in-law, Natalie Wilson, started the nonprofit BAMFI 15 years ago, after a Black girl in Derrica’s hometown went missing and did not receive media attention.

“Sadly in the Black and Brown community our cases don’t seem to bring about urgency with law enforcement,” Derrica Wilson said. “With persons of color, law enforcement typically classifies children as runaways. Runaways aren’t receiving Amber Alerts because it does not meet the criteria.”

Derrica Wilson believes race, age, or zip code should not be a barrier or determining factor in providing media coverage or resources from law enforcement.

According to the California State Department of Justice, 3,356 children were reported missing in Sacramento County in 2022, 96% of them were labeled as runaways.

Statewide, 62,000 children were reported missing in California last year, 55% were girls.