Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Missing Girls Shouldn't Be Missing From The Media

This photo provided by the Baltimore Police Department shows Phylicia Barnes. The honors student from Monroe, N.C., disappeared in late December while visiting family in Baltimore for the holidays.

This Baltimore Police Department photo shows Phylicia Barnes of Monroe, N.C. She disappeared in late December while visiting family in Baltimore. Baltimore Police Department/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Baltimore Police Department/AP

I have a few words about missing girls — those we seem to care about and those we don't. I was thinking about this as I made the mistake of trying to use my home telephone last night.

I don't know how I managed to forget this after 10 years of marriage: During every Pittsburgh Steelers football game, my husband, a Pittsburgh native, insists on commandeering the phone so he and his seven siblings can call each other and discuss the plays. It is so annoying.

Deprived of my phone, I started to think about a mother who is probably jumping every time her phone rings ... because she doesn't know where her child is.

Can I just tell you? It has become almost a cliche — the faces on the milk cartons, the breathless reports on the news. But it doesn't change the fact that hundreds of thousands of people disappear each year in this country. In 2008, that number was close to 800,000, according to the National Crime Information Center, and nearly 615,000 of those were people under the age of 18.

The vigil began almost a month ago, on Dec. 28, for a mother named Janice Sallis. Her daughter, Phylicia Barnes, disappeared while visiting her older half-siblings in Baltimore over the winter holidays. Phylicia's 17th birthday came and went on Jan. 12 without a word. Since then, according to local news accounts, all phone calls to her cell phone have gone straight to voice mail, her ATM card has not been used, and her Facebook page has gone quiet.

Did I mention those were local news accounts? One of the interesting facets of this story is that it won't shock me at all if you've never seen nor heard this girl's name before now. Her story has been covered some in the national media, but it is by no means getting the wall-to-wall attention that other stories of missing young girls and women have received. Some people wonder why that is. She is, after all, a young girl. The authorities believe that her disappearance involves foul play, in part because she is an honors student at a North Carolina high school, has already been accepted to college, has never been in trouble with the law, and had no unusual disputes with her family. In fact, her mother, long divorced from her father, had agreed to allow her to visit her siblings since she felt the teen deserved to know her ex's side of the family.

So why isn't her disappearance a bigger deal? She's pretty; that shouldn't matter, but apparently it does when it comes to media coverage of missing persons. And she's African-American, and that shouldn't matter, but it apparently does, too. CNN's Don Lemon covered this story and wrote about it on the CNN blog. He said he had heard about Phylicia Barnes' disappearance on social media while he was on vacation and friends and others started asking why the authorities are not getting more help from the news media in spreading the word. The Baltimore police, interestingly enough, are among those raising the question of whether Phylicia's race has something to do with the lack of urgency with which her disappearance has been treated by the media.

African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, but estimates from different organizations and the justice department suggest that black children account for 34 to 42 percent of all missing people under the age of 18. What is happening to those children? Some of them, according to human-rights activist Malika Saada Saar, are surely being trafficked for sex. I reached her today to ask her about this story and she told me of girls who are literally kidnapped off the street, drugged, gang raped, and deprived of food until they are so desperate and frightened, they will do anything. There's even a name for it. It's called guerrilla pimping, and part of the calculation for the pimps involves exactly which girls they think they can hold on to and exploit before someone comes looking.

That is one reason the organization Saada Saar co-founded, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, campaigned to pressure the website Craigslist to shut down its adult services section. The Rebecca Project came to believe Craigslist made it just too easy for traffickers to connect with buyers. That's also the reason Saada Saar's group is campaigning to get law enforcement to treat underaged prostitutes as de facto victims instead of prosecuting them.

Saada Saar told me that people find it hard to believe that this happens in this country. They could imagine it in Thailand or India or Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. They don't think it can happen in Baltimore or Atlanta or Ohio. But her experience, and that of other advocates says, that it can and does. And why wouldn't it, when only some children are seen as worth saving and protecting, and so many others are just invisible.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues