What happens when a child disappears in America?

It takes cooperation among police, the media and the public to find a child who disappears — and all three groups are less likely to give their best efforts for missing Black children.

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 98% of children reported missing are located within days. Of those who are not, most are Black.

Earlier this year, the USA TODAY Network set out to identify, for the first time, the reason for this disparity. Reporters around the country have been fighting for public records and interviewing families, advocates and experts to understand why Black children are less likely to be found.

They are following a few leads:

And they welcome your help. If you know of missing children in your community, please reach out through this form. (Note: We will not use your information without your permission.)

Take Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old Milwaukee girl who disappeared in May 2002, about a month before Elizabeth Smart. Elizabeth’s story hit national news immediately, while Alexis’ took six weeks. Elizabeth was found nine months after her abduction, while Alexis is still missing.

“By her being a little African-American little girl who disappeared, they just wasn't focused on her enough, as if she was a little white girl,” Alexis’ mother said of the police. “And that hurt me. That affected me for many, many years.”

This series of investigations will uncover what goes wrong after kids go missing and how that affects the families left behind.

Help USA TODAY investigate disparities in missing children cases.

If you know of missing children of color in your community or have experienced these disparities firsthand as a parent, friend or law enforcement officer, we want to hear from you.

Alexis Patterson has been missing since 2002. Odds are you don’t know her story.

Ayanna Patterson, the mother of Alexis Patterson who has been missing since 2002,  reacts during the singing of gospel song, “The battle is not yours, it’s the Lord”, during a program called  “20th Year Awakening Celebration” on Sunday, May 1, 2022. During the event many shared fond memories about the child like her former Head Start teacher Benedicata Graves, “She always had a beautiful smile for everyone,” she said.
Ayanna Patterson, the mother of Alexis Patterson who has been missing since 2002, reacts during the singing of gospel song, “The battle is not yours, it’s the Lord”, during a program called “20th Year Awakening Celebration” on Sunday, May 1, 2022. During the event many shared fond memories about the child like her former Head Start teacher Benedicata Graves, “She always had a beautiful smile for everyone,” she said.

On the morning of May 3, 2002, Alexis Patterson’s stepfather walked her to the corner and a crossing guard guided the 7-year-old across the street toward Hi-Mount Community School in Milwaukee. At the end of the day, she didn’t come home. A month later and more than a thousand miles away, Elizabeth Smart, 14, went to sleep in her bedroom in Salt Lake City. By the next morning, she was gone. The cases differ in many ways but one fact is unassailable: Elizabeth, who is white, was found nine months after her abduction. Alexis, who is Black, is still missing.

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Timeline: Here’s how the cases of Alexis Patterson and Elizabeth Smart played out

Alexis Patterson and Elizabeth Smart
Alexis Patterson and Elizabeth Smart

Twenty years ago, as police worked to locate the two girls, some advocates and experts argued that race was a key factor in how authorities and reporters handled their cases. It marked the first time the national media paid serious attention to such disparities.

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States of America explores disparities in cases of missing children

USA TODAY’s States of America Episode 2 explores how the media and police handle cases that involve missing children of color. Highlights include interviews with Alexis Patterson's mother and with the current chief of the Milwaukee Police Department who acknowledges that, “trust is a continuous process.” Catch all episodes of States of America on USA TODAY's free streaming channels here.

Watch more States of America episodes 

Distrust of police by Black Americans means DNA falls short in searches for missing children

In recent years, DNA analysis has become one of the most promising avenues for finding longtime missing children. But for families of color, it has yielded few reunions. Black Americans’ distrust of law enforcement combined with a mishmash of DNA databases means this new technology isn’t living up to its potential.

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The attention a post about a missing kid gets on Facebook depends on their race

Consuela Jobe sits n a swing at the Big Four Lawn in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sept. 27. Jobe said she would often bring her children to play at the park. Her daughter, Kamaria Johnson, was 16 when she went missing in 2021 and Jobe believes that a delay in media attention prevented her from being located quickly.
Consuela Jobe sits n a swing at the Big Four Lawn in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sept. 27. Jobe said she would often bring her children to play at the park. Her daughter, Kamaria Johnson, was 16 when she went missing in 2021 and Jobe believes that a delay in media attention prevented her from being located quickly.

Research has shown that news media and police pay less attention when people of color disappear. We found it's also true for Facebook audiences. In 375 videos featured on Facebook by The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the average views on posts about white girls was more than 63,000; for Black girls, it was 38,300.

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5 missing children cases to know about

John Rex has been looking for his two missing daughters (Hanna Lee, 7, and Skye Rex, 5) since 2020. The daughters' mother disappeared with the two girls after Rex was granted full custody.. 
Rex poses here inside his daughter’s bedroom. He has not changed anything since they were kidnapped. He wants to maintain the room so when the kids return, they will have a familiar place.
John Rex has been looking for his two missing daughters (Hanna Lee, 7, and Skye Rex, 5) since 2020. The daughters' mother disappeared with the two girls after Rex was granted full custody.. Rex poses here inside his daughter’s bedroom. He has not changed anything since they were kidnapped. He wants to maintain the room so when the kids return, they will have a familiar place.

Families with missing children use any and all means, including social media, to spread the word about their child's disappearance, especially when they feel they are not receiving enough coverage from local media or help from law enforcement.

These are the stories of five families who used social media to spread the word about their missing children. None of them have been found.

Read more.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Finding missing children of color complicated by racial disparities