When Kennedi High, a 16-year-old with autism, didn’t come home from school in early March, her family in Baltimore knew something was terribly wrong.
At a press conference assembled by city police in the days following the disappearance, her mother pleaded for the teen’s safe return.
About 24 hours later, authorities announced that the youngster had been located alive, miles from home. Thanks in part to media publicity, social media and tipsters, the 10th grader was found in an apartment in Prince Georges County, Maryland. She wasn’t alone — the teen might have met someone via a dating app before being “taken advantage of,” law enforcement officials said.
The case, still under investigation, is far from isolated. Across America, thousands of Black women, girls and gender non-conforming individuals are among the missing. They may be snatched by strangers, or abducted by family members. Some are mentally ill or injured. Still others are runaways.
“We see that girls run away more frequently than boys,” said Robert Lowery, Jr., vice president of the Missing Children Division at the Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “And young people in foster care homes face heightened risks.”
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“They may be fleeing an abusive situation or have been lured away by an adult offender,” he continued. “Sadly, even if they’ve left of their own volition, they’re very vulnerable to the dangers of child sex trafficking or gang activity.”
In the nation’s capital, Mayor Muriel Bowser recently joined top brass in the Metropolitan Police Department to highlight D.C.’s use of technology to improve public safety and combat crime. It followed an outcry over media reports and chatter in the blogosphere, which suggested an alarming number of reports of missing persons, many of them Black and Latino women and girls.
Yet officials insist they've actually closed about 90 percent of cases, and said the situation wasn’t what it appeared to be. In 2016, a new commander in the department’s Youth and Family Services Division opted to begin aggressively using social media to generate immediate public attention for missing persons.
On March 9, 2017, the department’s Twitter feed noted: “There isn’t a spike in missing people in D.C., we’re just using social media more to help locate them. Sorry to alarm you.”
Still, those tweets generated significant public attention, what with photos of the missing that were at times haunting, disquieting, or strikingly normal. Brief descriptions hinted at their lives.
There was the 13-year-old Black girl with a wide smile and eyeglasses, whose outfit included pink sneakers. A 15-year-old Black girl with brown hair and brown eyes who had on her school uniform. “Have you seen her?” the posts asked.
According to the latest FBI data, as of February 2017, there are a total of 13,591 active missing person records for African American women stored in its National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Of that total, 8,042 were of the ages of 18 and under; 1,419 were between the ages of 19 to 21.
The numbers trouble Natalie Wilson, 47, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., (BAM FI), a nonprofit she launched with her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, 38, back in 2008.
“Black women and girls are going missing and it’s not just in Washington D.C. It’s happening in Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta and other urban areas around the country,” she said.
Black and Missing works with law enforcement officials nationwide, the Justice Department, and related stakeholders to spotlight missing persons of color. The organization provides vital resources to families, delivers educational training on personal safety, and more.
Derrica Wilson, a law enforcement veteran, said while many cases involving missing White women tend to garner publicity and sympathy, Black America's missing sons and daughters, mothers, fathers and elders, are often obscured or ignored.
“We know Blacks and Latinos or any persons of color who go missing, oftentimes don't receive much-needed media coverage, which could drastically increase the odds of their safe recovery," said Wilson.
The organization has a robust website and maintains a database with hundreds of profiles. It serves as a free clearinghouse, complete with a tip line, where visitors can share photos of the missing, utilize social media, access emergency alerts and more.
While the Black and Missing team can cite numerous success stories, and has helped reunite families with loved ones, there are outstanding cases that prove vexing.
Phoenix Coldon, a young woman with expressive brown eyes and natural curls, went missing in December 2011. Earlier that day, the then 23-year-old college student had attended church with her mother, near their house in a St. Louis, Missouri suburb.
"After service, we stopped at the grocery store on our way home,” said Goldia Coldon of her only child. “She changed her clothes, and shot some hoops."
Around 3 p.m., Phoenix hopped in her SUV, sat for several minutes in the driveway, then pulled off. Her parents figured she'd gotten a call or text from a friend, or perhaps was headed to a nearby convenience store.
That was the last time the couple—retired professionals— saw their beloved daughter. The young lady they describe as intelligent, funny, athletic, who played the piano, and even knew how to fence, had seemingly vanished.
Her Chevy Blazer was found abandoned the next day, about 20 miles away in another state—East St. Louis, according to her mother. The keys were in the ignition, the engine was running, and her purse was on the front seat.
"Phoenix was very trusting," said Mrs. Coldon, crying softly. "Somebody knows, and we're praying for answers. We want her back home. Lord, where is she?"
Thomas Lauth is a private investigator who heads Lauth Investigations International in Indianapolis. Over the years, he has periodically collaborated with BAM FI.
Having solved hundreds of missing person cases, Lauth notes that in his experience that young Black and Hispanic girls are "especially vulnerable" to predators, particularly in the age of social media.
He says it’s not uncommon for girls and young women to be tricked by recruiters who pose as boyfriends, then deliver them to “guerilla” pimps who lure them into the sordid, often brutal world of prostitution. “They groom these girls, get them to fall in love, get them to leave home. Sometimes it takes months or years. The family may actually meet them and be unaware of the danger.”
But young men aren't immune. Lauth was hired by a mother to find her teenage son, who disappeared in 2010. The young man, who had autism, wound up far from home in a major East Coast city. The investigator said he'd been forced into same sex prostitution, and had been heavily drugged with heroin, before being rescued.
In a more recent case, two teenage girls in Long Island, New York were beaten to death in 2016 after one reportedly tried to save her friend from trafficking at the hands of a gang.
"Watch your kids," Lauth advised.
“Be nosy,” said Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith during a media update. “Try to know what your child is doing.”
The Black and Missing founders —who are wives and mothers —say they lose sleep at night over the anguished families they meet and cases that currently remain mysteries.
They include toddler Arianna Fitts, a three-year old from California’s Bay area who has been missing since February 2016 after her mother was found dead.
Tarasha Benjamin, then 17, of Selma, Alabama, was headed to a local flea market in the summer of 2010, when she vanished. Unique Harris, then 26, a mother of two young boys, from Washington, D.C. She hasn't been seen by her family since October 2010. Nor has Relisha Rudd, an eight-year-old whose family was living in a homeless shelter. She was last seen in 2014 with a janitor who worked there.
Shandell McLeod, then 35, was en route to her job as a cook, when she disappeared outside her home in Lithonia, Georgia back in fall 2011. Police searched with canine units, dragged a lake near her home, but there's been no sign of the single woman.
And in Baltimore, 33-year-old Joanna Clark and her 15-year-old daughter, Shariece (one of seven siblings), have been missing since early February.
Keeping folks safe — particularly those who are most vulnerable — will require the entire community being vigilant, say officials.
The FBI works human trafficking cases under both its Civil Rights program and its Violent Crimes Against Children program. The majority of human trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, according to information an agency spokesperson shared. They take a “victim-centered,” collaborative, multi-agency approach with federal, state, local, and tribal partners. In concert with this concept, FBI investigators participate or lead task forces and working groups in every state around the country.
“When we make more people in the community aware of open cases, we can work together to keep our neighborhoods safe,” said Mayor Bowser at the press conference. “Through the use of technology and social media, our public safety agencies have found new ways to solve tough cases.”
Meanwhile, the ladies of BAM FI remain passionately engaged. They have planned an upcoming 5K Run/Walk on June 3, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland.
"This is a calling," says Derrica Wilson.
Natalie Wilson agrees. "We’re very passionate about what we do. We're on assignment from God."
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Hotline: 1-800-The-Lost
If you believe you are the victim of a trafficking situation or may have information about a potential trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.