Before she went missing August 22, Dashanae Huffman, a 12-year-old girl with long braids, was last seen around an apartment complex on the 1100 block of West 110th Street in Morgan Park, wearing pink leggings and gold Air Jordans. Maleena Irvin, a tall 16-year-old with long, straight hair, was reported missing from Grand Boulevard on August 8. Fifteen-year-old Haniyyah Woods, a girl with a wide grin and dreadlocked hair, was reported missing on August 1, and was last seen by the Emmett Till Math and Science Academy in Woodlawn.
They are part of the largest demographic of missing people in Chicago: young black women and girls. Nearly a quarter of the city’s 838 open missing persons cases as of August 1 were black women between the ages of 11 and 21, according to a Reader analysis of Chicago Police Department data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Advocates say that black people in general and young black women in particular are overrepresented in the Chicago data in part because law enforcement and the media are not paying sufficient attention to their cases.
While African-Americans represent about one-third of Chicago’s population, black people of all ages make up around two-thirds of the city’s open missing persons cases—an imbalance that’s consistent with national trends. The majority of those cases, 68 percent, are both boys and girls ages 11 to 21. And while 11- to 21-year-old black girls account for a quarter of all open cases, white girls, by contrast, account for just 4 percent. Missing black women outnumber white women four to one.
Black youth could be missing at higher rates because they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other demographic. A 2013 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that a disproportionate number of child sex-trafficking victims are African-American. Young women and girls are at particularly high risk for sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Still, some experts are skeptical that black people in general and young black women in particular are going missing at higher rates than white people. Rather, they say that the more likely explanation is that cases of missing black people are staying open at higher rates.
Nationwide, most missing persons cases are quickly resolved—98 percent of children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are found, “typically within days,” says Bob Lowery, a vice president at the center. While cases from this year make up 80 percent of CPD’s database, the remaining 20 percent, or 167 open cases, encompass the previous 15 years. African-Americans appear among these older cases four times as often as either whites or Hispanics.
Media attention, especially in the first few days after a person goes missing, is crucial, experts say, especially when a child goes missing. But when people of color—and children of color in particular—go missing, “they don’t get as much media coverage,” says Gaetane Borders, head of Peas in Their Pods, a national organization that has been tracking cases of missing minority children for ten years.
Borders is not alone in noticing this. In 2005 sisters Natalie and Derrica Wilson were gripped by the case of Tamika Huston, a black woman who went missing from her home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The case had little national media attention, while every channel was saturated with coverage about Natalee Holloway, a white high school student who also disappeared that year during a trip to Aruba.
“We wanted to understand why there’s such a disparity [in media coverage],” says Natalie Wilson. In 2008 the sisters founded the Black and Missing Foundation, dedicated to spreading awareness of missing African-Americans.
Without pressure from the media, Wilson and others say, law enforcement can sometimes drag its feet on resolving a case.
In addition, experts say, missing minority children are often initially classified as runaways, a distinction that draws less scrutiny and attention from police.
P. Foster, a Chicago-based private investigator, has observed this trend while working on 20 missing persons cases in 16 years. Runaway youth are not a priority for detectives, Foster says, and youth who have been classified as runaways multiple times are branded as “frequent flyers.”
“In my experience those that are classified as runaways aren’t handled any differently,” when it comes to investigative protocol, says Foster, “but there may be a delay of handling their case.”
Foster adds that police sometimes discourage families from reporting their loved ones as missing if they call for help within the first 24 hours, even though Illinois law allows missing persons files to be opened immediately.
Borders cites the 2009 disappearance and murder of 12-year-old Jahmeshia Conner of Englewood as an example of this sort of oversight.
“She by all accounts was a strong student, active in church,” says Borders. “The police report listed her as a runaway.”
When Conner’s body was found dumped in an alley near her house two weeks after her disappearance, her parents and Congressman Bobby Rush accused the police of not taking her case seriously enough.
The police department didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
In recent years, Wilson says, social media has helped cases of missing people of color garner wider attention, though she also notes that since founding Black and Missing, the percentage of missing people of color nationwide has grown from 30 percent of the total to 40 percent. The work of foundations like hers needs help from authorities, the media, and the vigilance of local communities, she argues.
“We cannot do this work by ourselves,” Wilson says.