Are institutions failing missing Black people and their families?

Candlelit vigil

Police have found a body in their search for missing Bristol student Olisa Odukwe. They are carrying out the formal identification process, and aren’t treating the death as suspicious.

It comes at a moment in which many are accusing the police and mainstream media of failing to provide support and answers for the families of missing People of Colour.

Olisa Odukwe, a ‘dear friend’

20-year-old Odukwe was last seen leaving his home on 1 May. His friends described his disappearance as completely out of character. Avon and Somerset Police classified him as being at ‘high risk’ of coming to harm. On 4 May, police found a body in their search for the missing student.

A spokesperson from the force told The Canary:

The death is not being treated as suspicious because a detailed investigation into the circumstances leading to it have ruled out any criminal element.

In an Instagram post, the University of Bristol Association Men’s Football Club (UBAFC) shared:

In light of new information, we are now grieving the loss of our dear friend Olisa.

Read on...

They added:

Olisa was universally loved; a kind, gentle and funny character who brought a smile to the face of whoever he was with.

Race disparities in missing persons cases

In March, the National Crime Agency (NCA) found that Black people in Britain are over four times more likely than the general population to be reported as missing. Dr Karen Shalev Greene, director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, explained that this is “because of a cocktail of reasons”.

Sadia Ali, founder of Minority Matters – a charity working to protect young people against criminal exploitation – highlighted that many young Londoners who go missing are the victims of childhood criminal exploitation and county lines trafficking in which criminal gangs use vulnerable children and young people to transport drugs across the country. She added that while the government and police are keen to criminalise these young people, there is no support in place to protect them from exploitation.

Stark race disparities in mental health can also go a long way to explain the overrepresentation of People of Colour in the number of missing people. Interpersonal, structural, and institutional racism work in a myriad of ways to impact people’s mental health, and compound existing issues. Meanwhile, mental health practitioners are often not equipped to support Patients of Colour. Indeed, mental health support services can be very unsafe places for People of Colour.

Greene said:

If you have parts of the population that are not allowed to reach their full potential… they are therefore more likely to suffer… the consequences of stress and possibly mental health issues.

She added:

People that are happy, healthy, in a good place, don’t just pack up and go missing.

In spite of their overrepresentation in missing persons numbers, concerned and grieving families from Black and ethnic minority communities face racist discrimination in responses from the police and mainstream media.

Disparities in police responses

Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry’s mother claimed that police failed to act when she reported her loved ones as missing. Rather than the police, Smallman’s boyfriend found their bodies. Meanwhile, officers circulated inappropriate images of the women, denying them dignity in death.

In March, police found the body of 19-year-old student Richard Okorogheye. His grieving mother told Sky News that when she first reported that her son was missing, officers treated her like a “lunatic“. She added that one officer told her:

If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find your son for you?

As of February 2020, the Met Police has spent over £12m on the then 13-year search for Madeline McCann. But Aisha Ahmed from Minority Matters says that when it comes to investigating missing young people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, police “claim to be under-resourced”.

Disparities in news coverage

The disappearance of 33-year-old Sarah Everard gained widespread high profile media coverage. Meanwhile, only Metro and the Evening Standard covered the case of 13-year-old Keiran Campbell who went missing on 3 March – the same day Everard was last seen. No-one has covered his case since. And the names and faces of missing young People of Colour such as Renae Goode-Garrett, Rashaan Williams, Ismail-Annsa Faris Omar, Jean Robert Yangunda, Corey James, and Kennedy Senga have remained out of the headlines.

Smallman and Henry’s mother said:

I think the notion of ‘all people matter’ is absolutely right, but it’s not true. Other people have more kudos in this world than people of colour.

She added:

My girls and Sarah (Everard) – they didn’t get the same support, the same outcry.

Everard’s murder by a serving Met Police officer sparked national outrage – and rightly so. Hundreds attended the vigil held at Clapham Common to honour the lives of Everard and countless other victims of patriarchal violence. Finally, people in the mainstream set out to have serious conversations about police violence and abuses of power as institutional and structural problems.

Discussing the disparities in mainstream media reporting on missing persons cases, Dr Freya O’Brien, one of the NCA report’s authors, said:

white women are more likely to have coverage compared with other groups of people and there’s more intensity in terms of the level of coverage of these cases.

She added:

In terms of why there is this racial bias, some authors have called this ‘missing white woman syndrome’ and have postulated that people might want to help or read more about a ‘damsel in distress’.

Families need support

This is not a case of pitting victims against one another. This is not a case of saying that white victims don’t deserve the outrage and resources they receive. It is a case of highlighting institutional and systemic failures to treat each and every missing person with the respect and dignity that they’re entitled to.

The police and government need to take urgent action to address the serious disparities in disappearance rates for Black people in Britain. The answer to this crisis lies in a multi-agency response which includes health and social care services, schools, universities, and local authorities. In the meantime, the families of missing Black people need support and they need answers.

Featured image via Graham Haley/Wikimedia Commons

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