Missing Black Children Deserve Justice Too

MISSINGPERSONS: Hundreds of Chicago residents joined KOCO organizers at the 6th annual We Walk For Her march. June 7th, 2023. Photo by Sebasti‡n Hidalgo for City Bureau Credit: Photo by Sebastián Hidalgo for City Bureau

by Trina Reynolds-Tyler, Invisible Institute, and Sarah Conway, City Bureau

This story is part two of Chicago Missing Persons, a two-year investigation by City Bureau and Invisible Institute, two Chicago-based nonprofit journalism organizations. This series looks into how Chicago police handle missing person cases and reveals the disproportionate impact on Black women and girls, how police have mistreated family members or delayed cases, and how poor police data is making the problem harder to solve.

For this investigation, City Bureau and the Invisible Institute requested the Chicago Police Department’s missing person reports from 2000 to 2021, analyzed them, and interviewed more than 40 sources. Police missing persons data was cross referenced with underlying investigative documents, Chicago Police Department homicide data, medical examiner death data, and news reports.

The analysis shows that of the approximately 340,000 cases in this time period, Black children make up 57% of cases. Black girls between the ages of 10 and 20 make up nearly one-third of all missing person cases in the city, according to police data, despite comprising only 2% of the city population as of 2020. This racial disparity has remained relatively constant over the past two decades, even as cases overall have fallen. (Since 2000, missing person cases have fallen by about 50%, and experts are unsure why.)

Hispanic people make up 15% of all cases, but experts believe this figure is underreported due to immigration enforcement concerns.

Despite this, media attention for white victims is still far more pervasive — so much so that “missing white woman syndrome” has become part of our lexicon. “A lot of families, they said, ‘Hey, we didn’t get any kind of attention. Nobody cared about my missing family members,’” says Damon Lamar Reed, a local artist who co-runs the Still Searching Project, a series of portraits of missing Black women and girls, with his wife, Nicole Reed.

Data visualizations by Aïcha Camara and Trina Reynolds-Tyler

In 2017, the Chicago City Council questioned police officials about the racial disparity in missing person cases, with at least one alder pushing for solutions to protect Black women and girls.

Instead, “CPD brass were short on answers. In fact they deny there’s a problem,” according to a report by the Chicago Reader. When Sgt. Jeffrey Coleman was asked by an alder if police needed more resources to work on missing person cases, Coleman said only that “it’s important to communicate to the city’s parents that they must stay aware of their children’s activities and whereabouts,” the Reader wrote.

Young people do make up a large portion of missing person cases, in Chicago and beyond, according to police and FBI data — and these cases are often referred to as “runaways,” assuming that runaway people do not want to be found. In fact, the term “runaway” has become synonymous with police putting less effort into searching for a missing child, according to a USA Today review of 50 police procedural manuals across the country. (This analysis did not include Chicago.)

Community advocates say when police dismiss runaway cases, parents of missing children and adults don’t get the services they deserve. This attitude ignores the fact that Black women and girls are at higher risk for violent crime. Black girls are more likely to be victims of sex trafficking, making up more than half of all child prostitution arrests nationwide, according to 2019 FBI crime reporting data. The number of Black female homicide victims in Cook County from 2017 to 2022 was three times more than white and Hispanic female victims combined, according to the medical examiner’s office. Black women make up more than half of all domestic violence survivors. Missingness is both a symptom and a cause of these risk factors.

Data visualizations by Aïcha Camara and Trina Reynolds-Tyler

“Redlining, racism — we literally create the landscape for murdering Black women and girls in Chicago,” says Beverly Reed-Scott, a former sex worker, journalist, and community organizer who advocates on behalf of victims of gender-based violence.

Six years ago, researcher and retired investigative journalist Thomas Hargrove identified 51 murdered women in Chicago as potential victims of a single serial killer. His theory led to a cascade of headlines and evening news stories, bringing the issue of missing persons to broader public attention and stepping up anxiety in Black neighborhoods where these cases were well known. Since then, police investigations have re-examined DNA evidence and determined it was unlikely all 51 women were murdered by the same person.

Local advocates close to the issue still believe there are multiple serial killers targeting Black women and girls. The victims identified by Hargrove were almost all Black women, often strangled or asphyxiated, their bodies discarded in South or West Side abandoned buildings, alleys, trash cans, lots, and parks. Many had histories of substance use and sex work.

Community members point out that the roots of the problem extend beyond violent individuals to complex societal problems like segregation and disinvestment, underfunded and inaccessible mental health services, intimate partner violence, and domestic violence.

That’s why the new Illinois Task Force on Missing and Murdered Chicago Women, which convened for the first time in May, will focus on root causes for missingness and violence, and police practices, such as data collection, that impede their ability to solve these cases.

The task force has no budget, but its impact may lie in its recommendations to the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, according to state Sen. Mattie Hunter, who, along with state Rep. Kam Buckner, is co-chairing the task force.

“Families keep asking for and waiting for answers, and they never receive answers from law enforcement,” says Hunter.

Chicago police data show clear racial discrepancies in missing person cases.

The task force hoped to rely on police data to help develop solutions. However, when City Bureau and the Invisible Institute analyzed CPD data from 2000 to 2021, it was difficult to come to definitive conclusions beyond looking at demographics.

For instance, police recorded 99.8% of all cases were closed and not criminal in nature, indicating the person was “likely found.” Missing person cases are not simply labeled “located” or “not located.” Interviews with multiple police sources indicated that even internally, it’s unclear if this means nearly every missing person in Chicago is found alive and well, and not the victim of any crime. CPD media affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

CPD data also claims that fewer than 300 missing person cases out of over 340,000 were reclassified as a crime, and only 10 were reclassified as homicides. But reporters found at least 11 additional cases where individuals who were reported missing were later the subject of a homicide investigation — and where the original case remains labeled “non-criminal.”

If it’s true that police are not linking missing person cases with criminal investigations, “Well, that’s obviously bad record-keeping,” says Hargrove, who first suggested a pattern between 51 murdered women in Chicago. “The mistakes that humans make with the data [are] the primary driver of this real problem everywhere. … You want those records to be linked [or] you can’t come up with meaningful analysis.”

Tracy Siska, founder of the Chicago Justice Project, adds that errors in CPD data collection are common. He has found similar issues with data on how police officers respond to 911 calls. “It is an institutionalized problem,” he says. In 2022, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation revealed how half of murders considered “solved” by CPD did not result in an arrest, despite police officials publicly touting the high “clearance” number.

Chicago police data show clear racial discrepancies in missing person cases — but to understand why people go missing and how they are treated by police when they do, reporters dug much deeper to speak with current and former police officers, families of the missing, and nationwide experts.

This story is part of the Chicago Missing Persons project by City Bureau and Invisible Institute, two Chicago-based nonprofit journalism organizations. Read the full investigation and see resources for families at chicagomissingpersons.com

This story was originally published in Word in Black

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