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Missing & Black: What Happened to Phylicia Barnes?

Phylicia-Barnes-MissingBy//Juleyka Lantigua-Williams

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 Patricia Williams, Case Management Supervisor for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). The former DC police detective has been involved in 1,622 recoveries of missing persons since taking her position a year and a half ago. Here, she shares her focus and drive to reunite families.

JET: What are the specifics of your role with NCMEC?

On the police force, much of my experience in law enforcement was with children. At NCMEC, case managers (CM) are assigned cases that are called in by parents or law enforcement. It is our job to provide resources to police departments to find the missing child; first, we get a poster created as soon as possible so we can solicit help from the public in finding this child. The CM coordinates critical cases in which a child is missing under adverse circumstances or a child is very young and can be in harm’s way. Team Adam is deployed (comprised of missing persons specialist that are former police personnel) in critical cases. We provide services such as mapping, timelines, public record searches on individuals,  biometric data and much more.

JET: What’s the process of working with families of the missing?

After a police report comes into our offices, CMs call the family member when a case is assigned to verify the information received on the child, to make sure info on posters is accurate; we ask does the child have a cell phone, a Facebook account, another social media account. CMs work with social workers a lot also to refer families who may need additional support in the process of solving the case. Endangered runaways are the most routine cases we receive; many have already been reported to the police; a few days after the police report has been filed, we receive the information and a CM calls the family.

JET: Are there any notable a cases involving an African-American child that you’ve worked on?

The Phylicia Barnes’ case was assigned to me. First contact was with the mother who had called it into NCMEC. The call center told her I would be assigned so mom called me directly; she was not hysterical but she was very concerned. Phylicia’s family made the police report in Baltimore—a police report was filed and a few days later her mother called into the Center and wanted to get as much help as she could from NCMEC. I always try to reassure the parents that NCMEC will use our wealth of resources and that I would coordinate all the resources. I often offer our family advocacy department to talk to the parents at this point.

JET: Was there anything that stood out in the Barnes case?

During that initial contact with Phylicia’s mom she was deeply concerned. She began telling me the circumstances of her daughter going missing; her concern was that she had not been notified by her family or authorizes immediately after her daughter went missing. She was very involved. We talked a lot and we bonded while I was working with her and trying to find her daughter. Everything that I did— from deploying Team Adam to making a referral to getting those posters immediately done and put on our website and having them targeted in Baltimore— she was working with me every step of the way.

JET: In your estimation, does the classification of a case by the reporting officer have an impact on how the case develops?

The classification that the reporting officer makes for cases most of the time is correct, based on the information that law enforcement has; we see a lot of endangered runaways. In Phylicia Barnes’ case it came in here as an endangered runaway (ER) case based on the information the mom gave to the call center and based on the way the police report classified it. After I spoke with the mom and got additional information, which I discussed with the missing persons detective, he told me that he was en route to transferring the case to homicide because they got additional information, which led them to believe that this was more than an endangered runaway. I went to my supervisor and told him that law enforcement was elevating this case from ER to LIM (loss, injured, or otherwise missing). This all took place within an hour of me getting the case.

JET: Is there a difference when you work with African-American families?

We treat all cases the same. We use all our resources. One of the things that I would love for JET readers to know is if they have children, based on my working here, it would be good for a parent/guardian to know her child’s medical history, the child’s dentist’s name and address, if the child has had broken bones or surgery and where that happened (hospital), in case we need to collect biometric information (dental records, x-rays). Most of the time parents don’t know this information. If the child is a teen and has a tattoo… If they can get pictures of this. This information is vital to get out to the public. If you have kids under the age of five, some of them may not have gone to the dentist. Sometimes they don’t have a photo of the child smiling. If the child never went to a dentist, a dentist may still be able to look at remains and compare them to those in the photographs.

JET: Any emerging trends in the field of missing persons that our readers should be aware of?

We are putting more emphasis on endangered runaways that may be suspected on having fallen into prostitution. NCMEC has created a human trafficking task force. We are concerned about young people because some of them are involved in risky behavior that puts them at greater risk.

JET: How does NCMEC contact media?

Once we’ve gotten a poster done, CMs can send it directly to news outlets using a special service that allows us direct access. We also use LOCATOR, a law enforcement distribution service that sends posters to law enforcement agencies in the areas that we select. We have no say in whether the media will use the information.

JET: Do you perceive a gap in the coverage given to missing Black children when compared to missing White children?

I see in the media, for very critical cases, I see more White children profiled than Black. I cannot put into words why that’s going on. That’s on the media, who are picking up the stories. We do have some critical cases that I’d like to see more attention for. Everyone’s got this information out there; we’re very good about getting porters up and getting them targeted. But it’s incumbent upon media to get the story and to press the story.

For more info and to report an update on a missing person, please visit the Black & Missing Foundation, Inc. at bamfi.org. And to get the full story be sure to pick up the Missing & Black cover story, which is on newsstands now.