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As more children go missing in Ohio, advocates push for change

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Tuesday, December 5, 2023   

By India Gardener / Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.

According to Attorney General David Yost's office, 15,335 children have gone missing in Ohio in 2023. There were 1,698 reports of missing children in October, up from 1,621 in September.

Ninety-five percent of missing children in Ohio have been safely found so far this year, said deputy press secretary Dominic Binkley. That's similar to the success rate in 2022 and other recent years. In general for cases where authorities know the circumstances, most missing children have either run away from home or are taken from their custodial parent by their non-custodial parent. But some children have never been found. One of them was Ashley Summers, who disappeared in Cleveland in 2007 at the age of 14.

"I think that unfortunately, our law enforcement failed us, especially in the beginning and to elaborate on that a little bit...they considered her a runaway and didn't do anything about her case for months," said Linda Summers, Ashley's grandmother. "It was nine months before she was put on any kind of state missing database and over a year before she was reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and when they did, they labeled her as an endangered runaway."

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) report from 2013 to 2022, 94% of missing children from care were categorized as endangered runaways like Ashley was. In 2020, the NCMEC received around 30,000 reports of missing children, with 91% involving children who had run away. Around 77% of these endangered runaways were between the ages of 15 and 17.

When missing children are classified as runaways, it decreases specialized attention and resources crucial for locating individuals who might be in distress, potentially prolonging their absence and endangering their safety.

Summers advocates for measures that would increase the likelihood of missing children being found, including improved responses from police departments that are often short on staff.

"There are shortages, not only just statewide, but around the country," said Wilfredo Diaz, public information officer for the Cleveland Police Department. "The approach has to be consistent every missing person case that we receive has to receive the same investigative approach regardless of the situation."

Law enforcement agencies are forging partnerships with external organizations like Cleveland Missing, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about abductions and human trafficking while offering vital support services to families and survivors.

"Law enforcement is doing a ton of work behind the scenes, and it's just things that we can't share with the public." said Devan Althen, law enforcement liaison of Cleveland Missing, "Seeing just the amount of collaboration between law enforcement families and organizations like ours trying to combat these is probably one of the biggest things that I've noticed in the last few months once these numbers have started rising."

According to the Black and Missing Foundation, nearly 40% of missing persons are people of color. A problem arises when examining missing Black children cases: the statistics consistently reveal a stark disparity in media coverage and law enforcement response times between cases involving Black children and their white counterparts.

"Runaways do not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert, and honestly, there isn't a sense of urgency in finding them because the perception in society is if a child runs away, whether it's a male or female, whatever happens to them, they brought it on themselves because they decided to leave," said Derrica Wilson, the co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. "We know that one in every three children who run away are solicited for sex, and we also know that human trafficking is a huge issue across this country but specifically in Cleveland."

During the first two days after a disappearance, a series of factors come into play that can significantly impact the child's safety and the chances of a successful recovery.

"Number one, we need to terminate the classification of runaways; they're missing and endangered," Wilson said. "Number two, we need to stop telling families to wait 24-48 hours when we all know the first 24-48 hours are the most critical moments when someone is missing."

The lack of equal attention and response time in missing children cases extends to the broader societal phenomenon known as "Missing White Woman Syndrome." This term refers to the disproportionate media coverage and public attention that missing person cases, particularly those involving white women, tend to receive.

Media coverage of cases like Gabby Petito's and those like Relisha Rudd's is evidence of deeply ingrained systemic biases. Gabby Petito's case received widespread media attention, drawing the nation's focus for weeks. In contrast, cases like Relisha Rudd's, which involve a missing child from the Black community, only receive limited coverage.

"There was research conducted by the Urban Institute, and they had the opportunity to interview traffickers," Wilson said. "During this interview, they admitted that they target Black women and girls for two reasons: Number one, they knew law enforcement would not look for Black women and girls. Number two, they knew they would get less jail time than if they targeted a white woman or child."

Like the well-known Amber Alert system for missing children, California will become the first state to institute an Ebony Alert in January 2024. The new system will alert communities regarding missing Black youth and women between the ages of 12-25.

According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, over 140,000 Black children were reported missing across the country in 2022. Advocates for missing Black children in Ohio say an Ebony Alert might help draw attention to those cases.

"I think that if we were able to implement something like that [Ebony Alert] it would be beneficial because a lot of our cases are more from the marginalized community rather than someone who is not," Althen said. "Having those kinds of alerts could benefit the population we tend to see as runaways in the Cleveland area."

This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.

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