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I was bewildered by the rate of these children going missing in Atlanta, especially after everyone knew of the notorious Atlanta Child Murders from 1979-1981. Why was no one talking about this, and why is no one worried that history could repeat itself? 

Atlanta’s Missing Teens: Why Aren’t We Talking About Them? [Opinion]

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At the end of the day, I would scroll through Instagram stories in my bed and I’d see multiple missing teens after missing teens. They are all in Atlanta, they are all people of color, and they are all under the age of 18. I constantly asked myself questions about who these teens were, how did others know them, and why haven’t their cases been heard beforehand. Almost every week I see different teens getting reposted on Instagram but I had seen nothing else on them. They were never on the news, there weren’t any Amber Alerts on them, and I needed to know why. Why had I seen Gabby Petito’s missing story on every morning show, a woman who is not of color has national news cover her for months, but not one of those missing Black Atlanta teens? I was bewildered by the rate of these children going missing in Atlanta, especially after everyone knew of the notorious Atlanta Child Murders from 1979-1981. Why was no one talking about this, and why is no one worried that history could repeat itself? 

One reason is Missing White Woman Syndrome, a term first coined by the late pioneering Black journalist and PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifil. In a report broadcast this week, National Public Radio described the syndrome as “the media’s fascination with covering missing or otherwise endangered white women, and the media’s seeming disinterest in covering the disappearances of people of color.”

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice reports that in 2021, “there were 337,195 reports of missing persons, involving youth, entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC).”  As part of my research for this story, I followed three open cases in Metro Atlanta for two weeks. The case of a Black girl, Makayla Collins, 16, has had no developments in the past month. She’s been missing since April 28 and police and family are still seeking help. However, Lelia Novljakovic, 15, and Nevaeh “Ashley” Bell, 14, were just reported to be missing eight days apart from the same Parkview High School. Though Lelia is white and Nevaeh is Black, the shocking details raise questions about the close disappearance of two teens in Gwinnett County. In an 11 Alive interview the father of Nevaeh “Ashley” Bell said, “she has never run away before and this behavior is out of character.” All three teens have gotten local coverage but not once have they been on national news. I saw them on social media multiple times before the news. There were no Amber Alerts for them. What will it take for someone to notice the problem? 

One way a police department can close a missing person case is by calling on the public through an emergency alert message. Did you realize there’s a criteria a child has to meet for Amber Alerts to be issued? It is as if they need to be judged and evaluated to even be considered crucial enough to help. I don’t believe it makes sense that a person who is clearly absent requires specific parameters to be considered absent and important. Law enforcement officials have four main and essential “Guidelines” for issuing Amber Alerts. Number one would be if they believe that a missing child is in imminent danger of bodily injury and death, or is thought to be abducted. If the child is 17 years or younger, and they have enough descriptive characteristics to be able to issue an Amber Alert, then they will. However, if more than one of these criteria is not met then the guarantee of the missing teen to have an Amber Alert issued drops. Police told USA TODAY most children who receive an Amber Alert are soon found safe. However, “the alerts worked best for White and Hispanic children, helping in about 1 in 3 cases, compared with 1 in 7 involving Black children,” according to the  nonprofit advocacy group Black and Missing Foundation (BAMF). 

Many minority children are classified as runaways by police; they do not receive an Amber Alert to begin with. I feel as though Amber Alerts are already slightly discriminatory because of the immediate opinion that minorities are runaways, and therefore should not be prioritized. The Amber Alerts then go out in the already biased world to be either looked over or to not be seen at all. When people hear the loud ringing of an alarm and the constant vibration of their phone for a short period, what are the chances they’ll focus on the information long enough to provide help?

According to the Black and Missing Foundation (BAMF), Amber Alerts only help 33% of missing children cases and only 14% of those involve Black children. The question of if an Amber Alert is the most efficient and effective way to get a kid back to their home safely should be continuously discussed especially when it comes to Black teens. As the rate of missing teens in Atlanta rises, so does the concern of other teens. “It’s devastating to see Black teens go missing in Atlanta because a lot of them are really close to my age or my little cousins. It’s hard especially when you see them on posters, and you kind of know no one’s looking for them. It makes you think, ‘Oh, that could be me or my cousins’, and it’s kind of sad because we normalize it, which is hard to say,” said Zoey Little, a rising Black junior at Woodward Academy. 

The alarming statistics that have been accumulated make me think the constant systemic racism that goes on in America also justifies the government to instill essentially a numbered prioritized list of missing kids. In addition to Black individuals consistently facing the daily challenge of being noticed and acknowledged amidst individuals who are not of color, now when we are missing, we also contend for the need to be prioritized with a sense of urgency. If we do not have that drive to make sure we are seen, then we won’t be on the news because we are missing — we will be on there because we are dead. 

It is heartbreaking that the Black and Missing Foundation reported in 2021 that more than 460,000 children are reported missing in the United States each year. But on top of that, only 40% are people of color although only 13% of the population are African Americans. I constantly see multiple missing Atlanta teens, especially those of color getting reposted on Instagram and TikTok, and yet I can’t remember the last time I got an Amber Alert about a missing teen. I see youths more interested in helping to find missing teens on social media than those in local law enforcement in charge of issuing said alerts and bulletins. Police constantly plead for the public to repost their stories or links just to give more recognition to the teen’s family and their case. They want us to like their story, they want us to acknowledge that there is someone of our age missing, they need us to know.

But most teens don’t watch the news, so their way of spreading this vital information is through social media. Having an extra outlet to share a missing person’s case is very effective, given that it could enhance the popularity and the rate of time for solving. I interviewed a classmate of mine from North Atlanta High School, Kingston Paden, 15, and asked if he believes there is a growth of missing Black teen cases that aren’t shown on the news. Kingston answered, “Yes, I do think there’s growth, and I tend to see more cases on social media than the news.” I asked the same question to a fellow friend and VOX Media Cafe participant and Maynard Jackson High student Haile Irving, 14, and she said, “Yeah, the growth is crazy. I’m always scared especially due to the fact of all these predators.” 

Besides the fact that there is little to no media coverage of missing Black teens in the media, there is also a significant difference between the coverage in the local news versus the national news. Local news focuses on the issues and events that are more regionally specific. If missing teens coverage sticks to local news channels, then the reach of the case is minimal as well as its awareness. In 2022, the nonprofit Pew Research Center reported, “The audience size for local television news programming has decreased over the past decade in most time slots studied.” Apart from the fact that many missing teens make local news but never national news, they also don’t even reach all of those local citizens since the viewership has declined. 

Imagine a kid went missing in Atlanta but it’s been six days and they’re already in Texas. They’ve been seen by multiple people but no one knows who they are and if they are in danger because they never touched the news outlets that they watch. This makes it harder for the case to evolve with new details because no one is getting information to potentially solve the case. Kingston Paden also commented on the lack of news coverage on national television, “I do feel some sort of lack of news coverage on Black teens because it may be so many that you don’t have time to notice. Social media is better, such as Instagram because if something is posted, it can be either sent to someone or reposted so that other people can too.” If a 15-year-old teen considers social media as a better way to get the news than television, then it poses the question: are new generations relying less on TV news?

The missing teens of Atlanta aren’t getting the recognition they deserve, especially those who are Black. Whether they’ve been lured or they’ve been abducted, they still need to be prioritized. The continuous disappearance of missing Black Atlanta teens and the cases having no further information creates fear to the other teens of Atlanta. Unaware and uninformed individuals won’t bring those teens home safely to those pleading families. The relentless “Missing White Woman Syndrome” is a real issue that should be acknowledged and delved deeper into. On top of the lack of attention from those who think the topic isn’t important enough is probably due to deep rooted bigotry; that in itself is upsetting. Disparity in the national news between those of color who are missing versus those who aren’t is blatant. Thus, creating the question: how will you respond when another Black teen goes missing?

 

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