Woman who escaped kidnapper highlights often ignored plight of missing Black women

The harrowing account of a woman in Kansas City who was taken captive, and eventually escaped, is once again raising questions about how authorities and the media handle cases of missing Black women. People there were concerned a serial killer was targeting Black women, but police dismissed the claims saying they were unfounded rumors. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The harrowing account of a woman in Kansas City, Missouri, who was taken captive and then eventually escaped is once again raising questions of how cases of missing Black women are handled by authorities and by the media.

    Amna Nawaz has our conversation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On October 7, a 22-year-old Black woman escaped from a home outside Kansas City. She had a collar and a lock around her neck, and she told police she'd been kidnapped a month earlier, held captive, raped, and tortured by a man.

    The woman identified as T.J. in court documents also said the man killed two other women. The suspect has been identified as Timothy Haslett Jr., a 39-year-old white man. He now faces charges of kidnapping, rape and assault.

    All of this follows concerns raised in September by Black residents in Kansas City that a serial killer was targeting Black women. Police back then dismissed those claims, saying in a statement — quote — "This claim is completely unfounded. There is no basis to support this rumor."

    Joining ME For more on all of this is Natalie Wilson. She's the co-founder and COO of the Black and Missing Foundation.

    Natalie Wilson, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for joining us.

    Natalie Wilson, Co-Founder and COO, Black And Missing Foundation: Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, your foundation works to call attention and to support searches for missing Black people.

    When you first heard the story of this Kansas City woman and the initial police response, what did you think?

  • Natalie Wilson:

    Well, when we first heard about this story, we were very angry, but we weren't surprised, because we had already seen something like this before.

    The cases of color for missing people are not taken seriously. And, sadly, we believe that race and income level and their zip code are often barriers to law enforcement resources. So, our women and girls, they're not seen as victims, and they're often adultified.

    So we weren't surprised by this story at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you mean by that when you say that your women and girls often aren't seen as victims? Tell me about the police response that you have seen in other cases you have worked with?

  • Natalie Wilson:

    Well, what we see is that, oftentimes, when a child or young woman is reported missing, she's classified as a runaway.

    And if you're classified as a runaway, you do not receive the Amber Alert or any type of media coverage at all. And the perception is that these young ladies are promiscuous, they are deviant, they have some type of deviant behavior, and their lives don't matter.

    Most recently, we had a case out of Fort Worth, Texas, and a mother whose daughter was missing, she went to law enforcement. And the officer said, how do you know that your daughter is not laid up with some man?

    And how disheartening and disrespectful is that? So what — we believe that these law enforcement officers need better training and they need sensitivity training, because these, again, are missing, valuable members of our community.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should point out, Natalie, that the Kansas City police said that they didn't have official missing person reports in many of these cases, but that they investigate them when they're given those cases.

    I mean, we should point out that they try to share information on their Twitter page when they do have missing person reports filed. But, Natalie, what should we understand about the process of even going to law enforcement and filing a missing person report? Is the bar too high?

  • Natalie Wilson:

    Well, what we need to do is peel back the layers.

    Are officers really conducting a thorough investigation, or are they allowing their biases to cloud the case? In some instances, officers aren't even taking a police report. Many jurisdictions have a waiting period, but officers are saying to these families,go back home, and you have to wait 24, 48, sometimes 72 hours.

    And in some jurisdictions, that is not the truth. That is a myth that you have to wait a certain period of time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about how we in the news media cover these stories or choose to pay attention to these stories?

    We should point out, in this case, it was a Black nonprofit news outlet, The Kansas City Defender, that first raised these concerns from the community. What should we understand about the news media's role in this?

  • Natalie Wilson:

    Well, media coverage, media exposure is so vital in many of these cases.

    And, again, if the community isn't aware that someone is missing, then they're not vigilant in looking for them. But there's power in media coverage, because, one, it puts pressure on law enforcement to add resources to the case.

    But, for media outlets, they can't wait until the story goes viral. Help those cases to get that exposure, whether it's national or local exposure, because it's so vital and needed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Natalie, what needs to change?

    I mean, I'm compelled here to remind people, back in 2004, the late Gwen Ifill coined the phrase missing white woman syndrome about the disproportionate attention paid to the cases of missing white women, as opposed to women of color. We're still having this conversation today. What needs to change?

  • Natalie Wilson:

    Well, we need to look at policies, how we're classifying or law enforcement is classifying these cases, again, runaways.

    If you see a flyer that says runaway or missing, which one would propel you to act? When I was growing up, there was the milk carton. Well, now social media is our digital milk carton. And we need the community to get involved, and just don't dismiss the flyer because you don't know that missing individual.

    Share it within your network and help it to go viral.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Natalie Wilson, co-founder and COO of the Black and Missing Foundation.

    Thank you for joining us.

  • Natalie Wilson:

    Thank you for having me.

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