As part of JET’s special investigative report on Black children who go missing—featured in the April 29, 2013 issue on stands now—we spoke with several experts to discuss the lack of mainstream coverage of these cases. Below you will find an extended interview with Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. (BAM FI) founders Derrica and Natalie Wilson. Since 2008, the pair have been involved in over 1,500 cases and helped locate or provided closure to the families of more than 100 missing people. Here, the sisters-in-law share the reason behind their passion for missing people of color and what their organization is doing to help.
JET: Briefly describe your organization’s work.
NATALIE: We are a non-profit that brings awareness to missing persons of color. We assist the families in finding their loves ones. We coach families. We do searches. We contact media. We have an anonymous tip line. We are liaisons with law enforcement and families. A critical component is educating the public about missing persons. We use strategic media partnerships to disseminate information about missing persons, at the local and national level.
JET: What was the inspiration for starting the organization?
DERRICA: Tamika Huston went missing from my hometown, Spartanburg, SC. It was very painful to watch her family struggle to get any media coverage on a local and national level. A few months later, Natalee Holloway—a White woman—went missing and her story dominated the airwaves. It was heartbreaking to see the difference in the media attention these two cases were getting. Natalie and I started doing some digging and learned that 30% of missing persons in the US were persons of color then—that number is now 40%. So we combined our professional backgrounds—mine in law enforcement, Natalie’s in media—to create an organization that joins those to very important elements in the field of missing persons.
JET: Describe what happens when someone calls into BAM FI to report a missing person.
DERRICA: First, we find out if there’s a police report on file. We have to work with law enforcement because they are the ones who are ultimately responsible. I talk to law enforcement and try to assist them as best we can. I share any information that families may share with me, because of my background, that they may not share with the police. There have been cases that have been reported to us and that the police did not follow up on. So we try to fill in any gaps in information or necessary steps so everything that can be done, from the family’s end and the police’s end—is done. We create flyers for families that they can distribute. There’s a tool on our website that allows them to create a flyer and print it at home.
JET: Describe the relationships with these families.
NATALIE: Although we do not have anyone missing in our families, these families become our families. We work so closely with them. Despite the fact that we work with hundreds and hundreds of cases, based on the amount of time we spend working with these families, you’d never know how many people we work with because we give everyone so much time and attention.
JET: How exactly do you go about generating media interest in a story?
NATALIE: Awareness is the key in finding our missing and in providing closure for these families. Media attention and awareness puts pressure on law enforcement to bring closure to these cases. It is a challenge getting media coverage in many instances. We usually reach out to the news editor. We ask them to show the person’s face, to put it on their website.
JET: What challenges do you face when working with families?
DERRICA: One of the biggest challenges is getting a recent photo. Most families don’t have photos of their kids from the last six months. It’s important for the public to know exactly who we are looking for. We encourage families to take close headshots of their children every six months. Children change daily. Their features change every day, especially when they are very young. We have people who have submitted profiles to us and we are left waiting for pictures to be sent in so we can complete the profile and send it out to news outlets.
NATALIE: In this work, we simply cannot wait for the news cycle—6 o’clock or 11 o’clock news—so that’s where social media is key. We can disseminate information within minutes and hours using social media. Right now we have about 2,400 Twitter followers, 14,000 Facebook followers, and we have a blog. Our media partners include: Ebony.com, NewsOne.com, The Huffington Post, The Griot, Michael Baisden, TVOne, Black and Married with Kids, and Healthy Black Men.
We recently started a support group for families of the missing. When a loved one goes missing it’s a difficult time. These individuals come together and share support and ideas. They can be there for each other because of their shared experiences.
JET: Do you continue your relationship with families after a case has come to a resolution?
DERRICA: Absolutely! One of the things we hear from families is that the person who went missing is not the person who returns home. Michelle Greene, who was missing for nearly six months, she was not the same child that had left. She was vibrant, energetic, but that is not how she came home. There is another case of a young woman who was involved with an older man; she came home a different person; her parents did not want to go to work or leave her alone because they could not be sure she would be there when they returned.
NATALIE: I want to add that some families are turning their tragedy and hurt into good. The brother of a missing girl is on the board of BAM FI. Valencia Harris, mother of Unique Harris, who went missing in the middle of the night, she is one of the founders of the support group along with Derrek Butler, whose sister is missing, he sits on our board and helped start support group.