The autopsy report came in last week. Sixteen-year-old Phylicia Barnes was murdered. Not that there was much doubt. But now it's official. Police aren't saying how or why, because it might hinder their investigation into who did this.
As a journalist, I was hit especially hard when Barnes went missing the end of last year, and confirmation that this child was murdered left me devastated. Maybe it was the joy, innocence and promise that I saw in the picture she took of herself and displayed on her Facebook page that struck such a chord in me.
Maybe it was the fact that the fun-loving, trouble-free honor student reminded me so much of another missing teen, Natalee Holloway — except that Barnes' disappearance didn't receive even a fraction of the media coverage that Holloway's did. Or maybe it was the fact that this was not the first time a black family's desperate cries for the media's help to find a missing love one had gone mostly ignored. I've interviewed many of these families over the years, but I've always yearned to do more.
Now I have an opportunity to do just that with the Black & Missing Foundation, Inc. I accepted an invitation from the organization's founders to be its national spokeswoman. With limited funds and recognition, BAMFI has taken on the tremendous task of helping families of color who have missing loved ones. That involves guiding families through the process of launching and maintaining a search; communicating with the police; publicizing the missing-persons case in the news media; and, far too often, helping families cope when their loved one is found dead.
"When we launched in 2008, people of color made up 30 percent of this country's missing cases," co-founder Derrica Wilson says. "Now that number has jumped to 40 percent. And most of those cases are black men. And you never hear anything about [them]."
Wilson is a former police officer who now works as a government investigator. Her co-founder, Natalie Wilson, is her sister-in-law and a public relations expert. Both are mothers with full-time jobs but still find time to try to save lives and support victims' families, who often need counseling and social services.
"A big part of our job is raising money for these families. Phylicia Barnes' father moved to Baltimore [where she went missing] and spent most of his days looking for her. That dedication makes it difficult for many to maintain a job," says Natalie. "Other families need help with sudden burial costs." While BAMFI did not donate money to Barnes' family, it helped them coordinate television and print interviews, including one in Ebony magazine.
In addition to helping mothers and fathers of missing teens who might need assistance, BAMFI increases awareness for family members who are raising the children of missing persons. Such is the case with the children of Shaquita Yolanda Bell, who disappeared in 1996.
"Her parents are now raising her three daughters," Natalie says. "They were preparing for retirement on a fixed income, and now they're trying to raise three girls as well as prepare to send them to college."
I asked about the impact of dealing with such tragedy on a daily basis. Derrica says that her time as a police officer helps her adjust and stay focused. But for Natalie, a mother of four, it is much more challenging.
"I am still coming to terms with the stories that I hear," she says. "It is often very raw. I've become overly sensitive, and now I am well aware of where my kids are at all times."