As doubts grew over the alleged kidnapping of Carly Russell, an Alabama woman who went missing earlier this month after she reported seeing a toddler walking down the Interstate, many critics have highlighted a twisted irony in the widespread coverage and resources dedicated to Russell’s safe return that didn’t exist for thousands of other missing black women.
“This was truly the first missing-person black woman or young girl to go viral,” Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told Yahoo News.
Russell’s safe return after a 49-hour disappearance was initially hailed as a rare victory. But as more evidence was released last week, including a series of revealing Google searches she did on her cell phone about the kidnapping movie and the cost of Amber Alerts in the days and hours leading up to her disappearance, many have wondered if a crime ever took place at all.
Now, no matter how Russell’s story ends, the defenders want keep momentum on the search for other missing black women and girls.
“We just have to keep moving,” Wilson said.
1 in 5 missing people in the US are black women
In the US, the number of black women and girls is disappearing at an alarming rate.
According to the National Crime Information Center and the US Census Bureau, black women and girls accounted for roughly 18% of all missing persons cases in the US in 2022, despite being only 7% of the population. Of the more than 546,000 people who went missing last year, black women and girls account for nearly 98,000 cases.
And, according to experts, most of the missing people receive almost no attention.
In a 2016 study called Missing White Women Syndrome, lawyer and legal scholar Zach Sommers found that when black people go missing, there are far fewer stories told about their disappearance than about people from other demographic groups.
“At any given time, tens of thousands of Americans are classified as missing by law enforcement,” Sommers writes in the study. “However, only a subset of these individuals are in the news, leading some commentators to hypothesize that missing persons with certain characteristics are more likely to attract media attention than others: namely, white women and girls.”
That’s why critics say the growing holes in Russell’s story only make things harder for others.
“I think people are always looking for an excuse not to worry about stories like this involving black women,” Amara Cofer, creator and host of Black Girl Gone, a podcast about missing black women and girls, told Yahoo News. “It’s sad that after so many years of waiting for stories about missing black women to get so much attention, the story that ends up getting it is essentially a hoax.”
Eric Guster, a former Birmingham-based criminal defense lawyer and civil plaintiff, called the revelation of Russell’s story “a failure”.
“In the criminal justice system, whenever you [kidnapping] Stories like this make it difficult to get a guilty verdict because the jury will remember this fake,” he said. “And that would be in that person’s mind.”
“They can’t close their eyes”
For decades, advocates have insisted on bringing the overwhelming number of missing black women and girls to the fore, and they say one possible bluff will not stop that progress.
“I know people are angry, they’re frustrated, they’re upset, but they can’t turn a blind eye to families who are desperately looking for their missing loved ones,” Wilson said, noting that many of these disappearances are for a wide range of reasons, from human trafficking to domestic violence and mental illness.
“Even if this case isn’t really a legitimate missing person case, it’s still a very important issue, and black women still need the same attention as this young woman,” Cheryl Neely, sociology professor at Oakland Community College in Michigan, told USA Today.
The public wants answers
Although Russell hasn’t spoken out publicly since she got home, her boyfriend, Tomar Latrell Simmons, asked the public to think about her mental health.
“I know what it looks like she did. Just stop bullying on social media,” Simmons told The New York Post. “Think about her mental health. She doesn’t deserve it. She doesn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves cyberbullying.”
However, many still have more questions.
The organization announced Monday that more than $63,000 donated to Crime Stoppers of Metro Alabama to help find Russell will not be returned to donors.
“This investigation is still ongoing and, accordingly, there is no basis for a refund of any fees at this time,” the company said in a statement to Al.com. “Furthermore, the Hoover Police Department has not requested payment or reimbursement of any donor donations.”
But advocates for missing black women say the public deserves an explanation.
“It could re-traumatize these families. [of missing Black women] and crying wolf syndrome could lead many to not believe the next incident,” Chad Dion Lassiter, social worker and executive director of the Pennsylvania Public Affairs Commission, told Yahoo News.
“I hope someone, whether it’s Carly or someone on her behalf, makes a statement,” Cofer said. “Because of everything that happened around him, and because of how [it] impacted the public a lot… There are families of real missing women who were very affected by what happened, and then finding out that Carly wasn’t really missing took a heavy toll on them and kind of ruptured new wounds for those family members.”