Editor’s Note: This story appeared on the Daily Montanan website on March 4, 2021.
WASHINGTON — Parents at a Thursday congressional hearing about missing and murdered women of color detailed their frustrating attempts to get the attention of law enforcement and adequate media coverage.
“This is a crisis that is hiding in plain sight,” said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat and chairman of the U.S. House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Advocates told lawmakers about the struggle of not having complete and accurate data to fully understand the scope of missing women of color because the federal government does not collect that data. In 2020, 40% of women and girls reported missing were of color, despite making up 16% of the population, according to the U.S. Census.
“The epidemic of missing persons of color is not a new topic but one that has been dismissed because society does not care about us,” Shawn Wilkinson of Baltimore said.
Wilkinson’s daughter, Akia, was eight months pregnant when she went missing in 2017. He told lawmakers that law enforcement only took the case seriously when no baby was reported being born in a nearby hospital a month later.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, expressed his frustration at how Akia’s case was handled as well as the lack of media coverage around her disappearance.
“We’ve got to keep reminding people again of the breadth and the scope of this problem in our country,” he said.
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, said that “race is clearly an underlying factor in the disparity in these missing person cases,” as well as the media coverage that follows when a person goes missing.
Black and Missing Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Maryland that brings awareness to missing persons of color around the country.
She pointed to examples of missing white women who dominated national and international headlines such as Natalee Holloway, Gabby Petito and Chandra Levy.
Wilson said that it’s a struggle to highlight the depth of the issue without accurate or reliable data.
One problem she and advocates have run into is when Black girls are reported missing, law enforcement will typically classify them as runaways. She said that 9 out of 10 missing girls are reported as runaways, which was reported by USA Today. If a child is classified as a runaway, police don’t issue Amber Alerts or assemble the resources needed to search for a missing person.
“Black and brown girls are not seen as victims and oftentimes they are adultified,” Wilson said. “So the perception is that whatever happens to them, they deserve it.”
The top GOP lawmaker on the panel, South Carolina’s Nancy Mace, said she was concerned about the high levels of intimate partner violence that women of color face as well as sex trafficking of Black girls.
“I’m especially interested in what policies we should be advocating for to improve access to education, and economic opportunities for all women to decrease their vulnerability and risk for being targeted by criminals,” she said.
Mace was the only Republican on the panel to show up for the hearing. GOP lawmakers on the panel include Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Clay Higgins of Louisiana, Pete Sessions of Texas, Andy Biggs of Arizona and C. Franklin and Byron Donalds of Florida.
Mace said she was concerned about this issue since women, particularly Black women and girls, have gone missing in her own district. She asked the GOP witness how the pandemic has affected women and girls of color.
“Lockdowns early in the pandemic led to an 8% increase in domestic violence,” Patrice Onwuka, the Director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum, said.
She advocated for more funding for law enforcement to direct resources for missing person’s cases and for looking at home life to help “prevent people from disappearing in the first place.”
When it comes to law enforcement’s role in missing women who are Indigenous, tribal officials are in a bind. Tribal officials generally are not allowed to bring charges against those who are not Native American but commit crimes on tribal lands.
Angel Charley, the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, based in New Mexico, said that families in Indian Country often take on the burden of searching for their missing family members on their own.
Charley is from the Pueblo of Laguna Pueblo.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, asked Charley about the correlation between “fossil fuel extraction sites and abductions and murders of Indigenous women across the United States.”
“Many tribes do not have jurisdiction over non-Native offenders, which a majority of these oil workers are,” Charley said. “We know that when these man camps or temporary establishments are created, that there is an increase in violence and particularly sexual violence against our Native women.”
Charley implored lawmakers to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which has several tribal provisions that would “expand oversight and thereby protection for our women and children.” The U.S. House passed the reauthorization bill last year, but the Senate has not.
Pamela Foster, who is Navajo from the Navajo Nation, told lawmakers about how two of her children were kidnapped on her reservation while at the bus stop. Her 9-year-old daughter Ashlynne and 11-year-old son Ian were taken miles off the reservation and while her son was able to escape, her daughter was murdered.
Foster said that law enforcement could not issue an Amber Alert and she said it wasn’t until her son was found wandering by a passerby that local law enforcement started the search for her daughter.
“Since the (kidnapping) happened on the reservation, the resources that I needed weren’t available for her to start the search,” she said. “It took her death to start something.”