Missing Black Lives

By Amy Humphrey, Dundee University & Hester Parr, Glasgow University

*This is the second of two posts on missing people in the context of Covid-19. Read the first post here.

The Black Lives Matters movement has made its mark on the streets and public institutions of the UK in recent weeks as a result of George Floyd’s death in the US. We might argue that a national conversation about policing Black missing people in the UK is now urgent, especially given the critical questions raised about the police response and management of the missing report for two black women, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, in June 2020, who were found murdered: 

“They didn’t care because they looked at my daughter’s address and thought they knew who she was. A black woman who lives on a council estate.” – Mina Smallman, mother of the murdered women, (Sourced from The Independent)

Despite constituting just 3.3% of the population in England and Wales, Black people account for 12.9% of missing persons cases in 2018/19 . Similar percentages have been reported by the UK Missing Persons Bureau statistical updates for the past several years, yet there is no clear analysis of or statutory response to these figures and no national strategy in place to address this imbalance. 

Missing incidents by ethnicity and year data (latest figures), supplied courtesy of the UK Missing Persons Bureau

Research suggests that Black people mostly go missing at a young age, with around a quarter between the ages of 13 and 17 years, and are over represented among those still missing after a two week period in the UK. This is important because longer-term missing cases are known to be associated with higher risks (such as increased exposure to harms such as criminal and sexual exploitation) and less positive outcomes (such as suicide or accidental death).

Considering the numerous harms and risks associated with being missing, and the trauma associated with missing loved ones, the Black lives and stories behind these numbers are vital. Yet very few studies have explored differences in ethnicity, in terms of the journey or lived experience of people who go missing (although see here and here for some exceptions), and so these lives and stories remain untold.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Understanding the context for Black people who go missing 

People go missing for many reasons, but 8 in 10 missing people have a diagnosed or self-identified mental health concern according to Woolnough et al. However, there is a disparity in the diagnosis, treatment and outcomes for Black people with mental ill-health issues, with Black people disproportionally represented in statistics relating to detentions under the Mental Health Act, raising questions about racisms and available treatment options. In 2019, MIND, a leading mental health charity, pointed out that 

‘Black people are 40% more likely to access treatment through a police or criminal justice route, and more likely to be compulsorily admitted for treatment, more likely to be on a medium or high secure ward and be more likely to be subject to seclusion or restraint (56.2 per 100,000 population for Black Caribbean as against 16.2 per 100,000 population for white). It seems undeniable that Black people get to the sharper end of treatment in the more uncomfortable ways.’

Compounding this problem is a growing understanding that Covid-19 is disproportionally affecting BAME communities for various complex reasons tied to inequalities in UK society. Public Health England report Covid-19 related death rates to be higher if black (and male) and with black people more likely to be testing positive in general. We know that going missing is often a crisis response to mental ill-health and life stressors. With Black adults overrepresented in key mental ill-health statistics (such as schizophrenia and psychosis diagnoses), experiencing stressful routes into treatment, and being disproportionally impacted by the current pandemic, the likelihood of them going missing at this time may be substantially higher than for other groups. 

A quarter of all missing incidents relate to care settings, 92% of those relate to children (unpublished figure courtesy of the Missing Person Bureau) and Black children are over-represented in care statistics for complex reasons. During lockdown, concern has been raised about the safeguarding of vulnerable ‘looked after’ children and how these children may be criminalised as a result of lockdown-breaches, rather then being reported as missing in ways that prompt protection and prevention. Importantly, going missing from looked-after settings is often an indication of other serious harms such as Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) (where children and young people are manipulated and coerced into committing crimes).

In addition to what Hayden highlights as a risk of living in the ‘criminogenic environment’ of care, there is the common tendency for Black and Minority Ethnic young people to be ‘unfairly identified by the police as members of dangerous gangs’ (and see debates about Black Youth and ‘County Lines’ drug gangs). Importantly here, Sturrock and Holmes argue that children who are judged to be involved with gangs are less likely to be reported as missing and receive appropriate protection and services. Even if they are reported missing, harmful stereotypes of troublesome ‘streetwise’ youths, who are not considered vulnerable, have been found still to persist among some frontline officers.

More research is needed on referral rates for missing person police reports for Black adults and children, as well as a focus on policing and follow-up action. Studies in the US indicate there are significant differences in the outcomes for black children who are less likely to ‘recover’ from a missing incident.

Visible Black missing people

Although Black people are proportionately over-represented in national missing incident figures, there is concern about the limited visibility of missing Black adults and children in the media, and especially Black women and girls. As famously argued by news anchor Gwen Ifill, there is a recognised ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ in the US, identifying disproportionate media reporting of white girls and a lack of attention to Black missing people. This is a trend that appears to be repeated in the UK:

‘In the UK, if asked about cases of missing children, most will be aware only of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite a child being reported missing every 3 minutes. While her disappearance is no doubt a huge tragedy, we have to wonder why it is Madeleine McCann, a pretty white girl, who has captured the sympathy of the public, and not girls with names like Aamina Khan, Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, or Folawiyo Oladejo.– The Independent

Recent research looking at engagement with Twitter based missing appeals from one UK police force show that pictures of white women in missing persons appeals result in more retweets than those featuring ethnic minority missing people, a pattern also seen in other parts of the world:

‘In the USA, (van de Rijt et al. 2018) found that non-black children are significantly more likely to receive coverage than non-white children. In Canada, Gilchrist (2010) found missing aboriginal women received 3.5 times less coverage than white women’ 

If, following Edkins, we are to encourage a politics that misses the person, and not just a politics of missing people, then we need to create new opportunities for Black people’s nuanced missing stories to be told and for absent Black lives to be witnessed and acted upon. Accounting for the lives and geographies of Black people in UK’s missing persons statistics is only one place in which we could start this work.

In one of the few pieces of writing in the geographical literature addressing the lives of missing women of colour – in and of Vancouver’s Lower East Side – Pratt argues that their absence is marked by racialised and feminised ‘states of exception’. In Pratt’s paper a ‘state of exception’ was exercised via the lack of action by the Vancouver police; the police ‘excepted’ these women from their usual search processes. There was thus an abandonment of these particular women precisely because they were conceived of as deviant or in some way worth less than wealthy or mainstream white Canadians, whose absences would have gained more attention and police resource

We argue that there is a need to extend critical comment on questions of colour, ethnicity and policing missing people in the context of Covid-19.  Black geographies – as an area of critical enquiry – might therefore now address the absence of attention to Black lives in UK missing persons research. Those official agencies charged with creating statistics and strategy to reduce the incidence of missing person reports in the UK also need to tackle the numerous inequalities that both produce but also obscure Black lives.

About the authors: Amy Humphrey is a final year (ESRC) PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Dundee. Her work explores cultures and practices in missing persons police work. She is also a researcher for the ‘Eyes Online’ ProjectHester Parr is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Glasgow and has researched the geographies of missing people since 2011. She has interests in research on mental health, mental illness and creative geohumanities. 

The cover photos is “Forget-me-nots” by Dimitri Tyan on Unsplash

Suggested Further Reading

Stevenson, O, Parr H, and  Woolnough, P (2017). Missing Women: Policing Absence. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42 (2): 220–232. doi: 10.1111/tran.12160

Pratt, G. (2005), ‘Abandoned Women and Spaces of the Exception’. Antipode, 37: 1052-1078. doi:10.1111/j.0066-4812.2005.00556.x

Sturrock R and Holmes l (2015) Running the Risks: The links between gang involvement and young people going missing

Slakoff, D and Fradella, H (2019) ‘Media Messages Surrounding Missing Women and Girls: The “Missing White Woman Syndrome” and Other Factors that Influence Newsworthiness’ Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, 20, pp 80–102


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