Mother of missing Arizona girl criticizes police, media
Elizabeth Smart. Natalee Holloway. Susan Powell. More recently, Baby Lisa.
Why do so many missing persons cases that make national news -– thereby demanding law enforcement resources –- involve white women or girls?
That uncomfortable phenomenon may be why accusations by the mother of a missing Arizona girl have stirred such strong emotions. Jerice Hunter has accused Glendale police and the media of shortchanging the disappearance of 5-year-old Jhessye Shockley because the family is black and because Hunter has a criminal history.
"We feel that law enforcement is not active in finding Jhessye and that they're more active in persecuting me instead of finding out where she is," Hunter said at a small rally for her daughter this week, the Associated Press reported.
Jhessye – a 3-foot-5 girl with brown eyes and apple cheeks -- wandered away from her suburban Phoenix home Oct. 11, authorities said. Her mother had been running an errand, so her older siblings were the last people to see her. More than 100 officers and volunteers scoured a three-mile radius around her home, but found no trace of her.
In the days that followed, state officials removed Hunter’s three other children and refused to explain why, the AP reported. Police said that they played no part in the state's decision and that Hunter was not a suspect in Jhessye’s disappearance.
In 2005, Hunter and her then-husband, George Shockley, were arrested in California on suspicion of child abuse. Hunter pleaded no contest and served about four years in prison.
Glendale police told the AP that neither Hunter’s background nor her family’s race had affected their investigation, and that finding Jhessye was the department’s top priority.
In recent years, media critics have decried so-called “missing white woman syndrome.” In 2005, for example, cable news devoted hours of coverage to Natalee Holloway, who vanished in Aruba, while the disappearance of LaToyia Figueroa in Philadelphia was all but ignored. Both women were young and pretty. But Holloway was white and Figueroa black.
Cable news executives have repeatedly said race is not a factor in choosing which missing persons cases to publicize. But around the time of the Holloway and Figueroa disappearances, Todd Boyd, a USC professor of critical studies, told The Times that an unconscious bias might be at work.
“In general, there is an assumption that crime is such a part of black and Latino culture, that these things happen all the time,” Boyd said. “In many people's minds, it's regarded as being commonplace and not that big a deal.”
In any case, Hunter’s accusations of racial bias appeared to strike a nerve in the Phoenix area. Her rally for Jhessye was heavily covered by local news outlets.
[For the record, 3:48 p.m., Nov. 21: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled Jhessye Shockley's first name as Jahessye.]
-- Ashley Powers in Las Vegas
Photo: Jerice Hunter, front middle, the mother of missing 5-year-old Jhessye Shockley, speaks during a news conference at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press