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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Missing Children: Avonte Oquendo

Update: The remains of Avonte Oquendo's body were found on a Queens Beach on January 16th. The below was written during the search for him:

Avonte Oquendo has now been missing for over two months.
Have you seen him? Have you even heard of him?

Avonte is a 14-year-old boy with autism from Queens, NY who went missing after wandered from his school's supervision on October 4th, 2013. His parents have done all the right things to bring attention to his case: a massive flyering campaign, publicity through social media, sweeping police searches, TV interviews. There is even ~$100,000 reward for information leading to his recovery.

But Avonte's story has failed to garner large-scale national media attention. Even local news coverage has largely gone silent as hope of recovering the boy diminishes. Yet media attention for other cases has been known to persist for months or years after the initial disappearance. Coverage of Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping continued for over nine months until she was finally found alive in a different city. Even 17 years after the death of JonBenét Ramsey, media outlets still clamor over new tidbits from her case (the most recent installments were widely publicized around the same time that Avonte disappeared).

The reality is, if you're going to go missing, your chances of being found are best if you're a white girl from an upper-middle class family in the United States. Your odds are even better if you match certain popular beauty standards. The stories of Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Natalee Holloway, and Caylee Anthony are famous, while hundreds of others are ignored. The abduction of Jessica Lynch in Iraq was nationally lamented, while Shoshana Johnson, who was captured in the same ambush, was largely ignored.

The Missing White Woman Syndrome
Sheri Parks and Gwen Ifill have termed this effect the 'missing white woman syndrome,' describing the tenancy for media, police, and public bias in their attention to missing children and murder cases. It's a well known and reported phenomenon (even by media themselves), and yet it largely fails to be corrected, year after year.

There are so many examples of half-attempted awareness, and yet very little additional attention given to the hundreds of Asian American, Black, Native, and Latino children that go missing every year. Children of color are more likely to be victims of abduction (65% of non-family kidnappings), but missing white children are 14% more likely to receive major media coverage.

Racial bias matters when it comes to missing children and their chances of recovery. Some stories are simply considered more important to report than others. Finding missing and kidnapped children requires the strong support of the media and law enforcement, but these are "two institutions not historically known for favoring minorities, particularly blacks." These biases have a negative effect on rescue success.

These same biases also affect the probability that individuals on the street will stop to help a child in distress. Stacia L. Brown asks "if you saw a black teen boy wandering a city, how closely would you pay attention to him? And if you truly noticed him at all, would it only be because he raised your suspicion?"

Our subconscious bias affects which children get the help they need, and the odds are not in Avonte Oquendo's favor. History tells us that in encountering someone like him, we're more likely to call the police in fear of our own safety, than for the safety of the child himself.

While the deaths of some children are treated as national tragedies, others are treated as inevitable consequences of social pathology. How differently might the murder of a young blond girl returning home with her Skittles have been perceived (weather or not she wore a hoodie in the rain)?

"Jesus loves a subset of
the little children?" 
The disparity in our national attention speaks loudly to the differential
value we place on human beings' lives. It reveals who we perceive as vulnerable and innocent, and to whom we are willing to bequeath victim status. Surely like our Heavenly Father, we will search for the one lost coin, for that one sheep that has gone missing. Will we only rejoice when certain ones are found?

We are warned "Beware that you don't look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father" (Matthew 18:10). To be a Good Samaritan to children in distress, we must first take the time to notice the strangers on the side of the road, and then overcome our biases against them in order to offer our life-saving help.

There are so many missing children. Lists and pictures are available for your perusal. Jesus's attention to the little children shows us how important each of these lives are. Let's help find them.

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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