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The following report aired Thursday night on “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer.”
Long after the search for those three missing women from Cleveland grew cold, Derrica Wilson and her sister-in-law Natalie Wilson of Washington, D.C., were still leading a search for Gina DeJesus on the internet. They shared her photos and worked the phones for clues up until the very day Ms. DeJesus came homealive. It was May 6, 2013, after a decade in captivity.
There’s a reason they focused on DeJesus – because she is Hispanic.
They believe it’s their “assignment from God” to help African-American, Latino and low-income families find missing loved ones who they believe authorities and the media have forgotten.
One striking bit of research: While black Americans are more than one third of disappearances every year, fewer than 20 percent of these cases make the national news. Compare that with white missing persons who make up two thirds of the cases, but 80 percent of national stories, according to a study conducted in 2010 by Seong-Jae Min and John C. Feaster.
The Wilsons say that the sooner a missing person’s face appears in the media or in the halls of police precincts, the more likely that person will come home safely. For people of color, they say that neither the media nor the police come soon enough.
“If you Google ‘Natalee Holloway’ how many impressions would you get?” Natalie Wilson told ABC News. “If you Google ‘Unique Harris,’ who’s missing from D.C., the story is not the same.”
So in 2008, they started their non-profit, Black and Missing Foundation. In the last five years, they’ve helped bring 128 missing people home.
They start early every morning, in a rented Washington D.C. office, taking endless phone calls from mostly black families running low on hope.
In the evenings, they canvas the streets with photos of missing black children, collect tips from anonymous sources who call in or send messages online, and then they share whatever they find with police.
“We cannot wait until the news cycle,” Natalie says. “We have to get this information out right away. “Our people deserve to be found. We deserve awareness so that their families can get closure.”
Twice a month, the Wilsons pull together a support group of families still desperately searching for lost relatives.
Family members of 47-year-old Pamela Butler almost always attend. In 2009, Butler went missing from Washington, D.C.
“Blacks get less attention than whites,” said Eloise Littlepage, Butler’s aunt. ”Hispanics get less attention than whites. In my opinion, it’s of the assumption that we’re not really missing, we’re hiding out, or we’re not of that class that someone would actually take us.”
Derrick Butler, Pamela’s brother, put it even more plainly. “I’ve heard it quite a bit. They’re not blond, blue eyes, things like that, they’re not pretty girls.”
The Wilsons say that media coverage matters. If it weren’t for television, they might have never found missing 16-year-old Mishell Green of New York, N.Y.
In February 2012, the sisters-in law were on ABC’s “The View” discussing Green’s case, and just a few hours after the broadcast, she and her family were reunited.
The Wilsons say they don’t always deliver good news. Nearly a third of the people they find are no longer living, but that’s still closure these families desperately need.
“It doesn’t matter what your skin color is,” Derrica said. “If you’re loved one is missing, you feel the exact same way, and your heart bleeds the exact same way.”
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