When a Black woman faked her kidnapping in July, media and law enforcement gave it lots of attention. The Alabama woman, Carlee Russell, found herself in the national news cycle for a hoax kidnapping.
Some advocates in Minnesota think the attention she received shows that things are changing around efforts to find missing and murdered Black women and girls. But the response to her case was contrary to that which many women in the nation — who were actually kidnapped and or murdered — have received, said Democratic state Rep. Ruth Richardson of Mendota Heights, an advocate for missing and murdered Black women and girls.
“It was interesting to me in a case where they (law enforcement) were questioning whether this was truly an abduction case, that case got more attention than cases where they’re not questioning whether an abduction had happened or that there was some concern around foul play,” Richardson said.
To Richardson and some other advocates in the state, Russell’s case received the amount of attention that all Black women and girls who are missing should receive. But Richardson wonders how Russell’s case would’ve panned out if it were true.
“It makes me ask the question that would Carly’s case have gotten as much attention if they actually believe that she had been abducted? Because I can point to thousands of cases where it hasn’t got the attention that Carly Russell’s case received. But because there was a questioning of it, it got an uneven amount of coverage of any other case. I think that’s telling,” she said.
A 2022 report from Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force found that cases for Black women and girls stay open four times longer than cases involving their white peers. That same task force looked into the reasons behind that disparity, and thought of solutions.
In May, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill creating the Office of Missing and Murdered African American Women. The office hopes to address disparities in missing persons cases — and create a routine response to those cases, preventing families and victims from falling in between the cracks.
Failing the families
The Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force found that while Black women and girls in Minnesota comprise 7% of the population, they represented 40% of domestic violence victims; they’re also nearly three times more likely than their white peers to be murdered.
Advocates think that part of the disparity is the initial law enforcement response.
“One of the themes that I heard consistently from families here in Minnesota was the number of families who had to start their own investigation because they felt like they were on their own,” Richardson said. “That I think is something that’s really important for us to look into because when someone is missing, it should not just be only incumbent upon that family.”
Artika Roller, a member of the 13-person task force and executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, recalled hearing that frustration from the mother of Brittany Clardy, a Minnesotan who went missing in 2013 and was found murdered two weeks later.
“She (Clardy’s mother) said she actually had to do the work herself when she called to report that her daughter was missing,” Roller said. She actually thought through, ‘She has a new car. If it’s impounded, maybe the bank will get a notice that the car was impounded.’ So she started calling around saying, ‘Hey, my daughter’s missing, we haven’t found her car yet. It’s Minnesota in the winter. It’s probably been impounded at some point in time.’ That’s how her daughter was found.”
“Having to do the legwork herself; that’s how some of the systems have failed them, getting folks to believe something different is going on here,” Roller said.
Resources historically have not been allocated in a way to allow law enforcement to focus on cases that might take more investigating, said Suwana Kirkland, the executive director for Dakota County Community Corrections.
“The services, the resources, the staffing, is very limited … it’s not because one particular agency chose not to do this or to do that, but it’s staffing, funding, it’s all these things that I believe agencies need to appropriately investigate and look at these cases,” Kirkland said. “Until you have the adequate resources to investigate and to really get out and talk to everyone that you possibly can, you just never know.”
Kirkland, who is the current vice chair for the National Black Police Association, said that societal stereotypes have contributed to the issue too. Victim blaming, for one, is still heavily prevalent, Roller said.
“Specifically for communities of color, we see it when the narrative is switched, like, ‘She must have been doing something’ or, ‘What did she have on?’” Roller said.
Many families are met with disbelief after expressing their concerns about their loved ones’ whereabouts, said Chandra Cleveland, a private investigator in South Carolina who has helped families of Black women and girls across the nation. Cleveland has worked on hundreds of cases throughout her 18 years with her private investigating firm. In the past couple of years, she saw five cases of missing women and law enforcement not taking the cases seriously.
“They said, ‘Well maybe she needed a break from her children.’ Are you serious? No, she would not be without her children. Look at her children. People saying that, ‘Oh, maybe they just left because they needed a break from their children or their family.’ Nobody does that,” she said.
When Cleveland saw a post about Minnesota’s task force on social media, she reached out to Richardson.
“I contacted her and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I have been doing this now constantly for women and girls for almost 27 years and this is so needed and the numbers are growing,’” Cleveland said. “What Minnesota has done right now, I give them accolades. That’s exactly what needs to happen.”
Tension with policing
While many families feel law enforcement does not take their concerns seriously, and sometimes relies on stereotypes, the troubled history between law enforcement and communities is a barrier to preventing and solving these cases.
Kirkland said in order to achieve prevention and effective ways to solve these cases, the relationship between police and community must improve. The office is a place where she thinks that relationship can be worked on, especially with funds put toward finding closure for these families.
“Police and community relations can always be better,” she said. “I believe that (the office) is an excellent step in the right direction to heal some of those wounds, to build rapport and trust, to earn respect. We all come at this one lens, one view: to bring closure to families.”
Passing the bill
The idea for an office of this kind was first introduced by Richardson during the 2021 legislative session, but was met with resistance. When the bill didn’t pass, she focused efforts on creating the task force, which would outline the need for such an office — since some legislators, including the Senate leaders, didn’t believe there was a need — a need that Richardson, and the countless families who’d lost loved ones due, already knew existed.
“The Senate leaders at the time said that we need to take a wait and see approach as to whether we really need this, which was really disappointing, recognizing the crisis levels that existed at that time,” Richardson said. “I wanted to be able to have the time and capacity to actually build out the office before the report ended, because then we could have hit the ground running with the recommendations.”
In the time between the past sessions, Minnesota had more women and girls go missing. One of them was 6-year-old Elle Ragin who went missing in Northfield. More than a year later, the case is still open.
“The impact of waiting and seeing is that we have let another year pass where we continue to see the exact same sort of challenges in terms of the cases involving Black women and girls staying open four times longer than the cases involving other individuals,” Richardson said. “The wait and see approach has actually been really harmful for Minnesota.”
What will the office do?
Over the next two years, the Legislature will spend about $2.5 million toward the office’s efforts, with around $1 million going toward establishing and operating the office. The office will also collaborate with different community partners, giving grants of $300,000 each year to community-based organizations with efforts focused on sexual violence, domestic violence and those with influence in foster care systems, among others.
“I’m a mother of three beautiful Black girls,” Kirkland said. “If I were in a situation or my girls were in a situation that needed the help of such an office, I (would) want every resource available to me and my girls.”
Richardson also wants the office to focus on prevention. By partnering with community partners, the office can reduce the risk factors that are catalysts for these cases, she said.
She also wants the office to consider advocating for some of the existing procedural protocols that may be contributing to the disparities. One issue at hand is how people are classified upon someone reporting them being missing.
Richardson said people who are deemed to have run away don’t receive the same media attention or efforts from law enforcement. This heavily impacts people who are in foster care, and as a result more Black and Indigenous individuals in the state.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Black children were 2.5 times and American Indian/Alaskan Native children 13.5 times more likely to enter out-of-home care (foster care) than were their white peers in 2019.
“We have these challenges within the system when we know Black and Indigenous kids are more likely to be removed. We also know when they’re removed, they’re more likely to run away as well. We have this system that’s failing at each of the different stops because when these kids go missing, they’re not getting any attention,” she said. “When these kids go missing if they are classified as runaways, they don’t get Amber Alerts, oftentimes you don’t have the same media attention being put on these cases, you don’t have the same law enforcement resources being put on these cases.”
Last summer, she said three kids who were in foster care went missing. She thinks that because they were considered to have run away, there was not an outpour in awareness and efforts to find them.
“The youngest, I think was 10 years old that had went missing. You cannot tell me that a 10 year old is not endangered when they’re missing, even if they ran away from home,” she said. “I believe we need to do away with the classification of runaway because a missing child is a missing child.”
Efforts to change the parameters for sending out Amber Alerts have not begun; but the office is creating a missing alert program, which requires the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to send out missing person alerts to media when someone goes missing — regardless of them being deemed a runaway.
A different future?
Those who work closely with these cases, like Cleveland, feel this office will make a big impact for women and girls.
“It seems like every time they decide not to look for that missing woman or girl, it goes to be a cold case and the family never get closure because they can’t find their loved one’s body,” Cleveland said.
The office isn’t asking for Black women to have “better” resources available, but rather it is looking for equal resources, Kirkland said.
“We want our cases to be closed just as the others. We don’t want them to be open four times as long,” she said. “We want adequate resources and services. We want connections into areas where the folks working they have more access to the tools that they need in order to solve these cases.”
Advocates think the office will also emphasize that Black girls and women are valued — and the government cares about them.
“This sends a message that we are taking this serious, that Black women and girls are important within our community and finding solutions for safety and well-being is a priority for us,” Roller said.