Despite detectives' pleas to national media, the disappearance of an 18-month-old Black boy with the wide smile has yet to grab the widespread attention given to other missing children's cases. Some advocates say the reason why may be as simple as the toddler's gender — and his race.
From the still-unsolved slaying of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey more than 15 years ago to the disappearance and killing of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, the public has watched with rapt attention as many cases involving young children unfolded, often over many months. Yet Amir Jennings, the little boy who hasn't been seen since he was captured on surveillance video with his mother in South Carolina nearly a year ago, has registered as scarcely a blip on the nation's consciousness.
"Media has always leaned toward the cute little kids," said Monica Caison of the Wilmington, N.C.-based CUE Center for Missing Persons. "And unfortunately, a lot of times they think cute little kids are White."
Amir's mother, Zinah Jennings, was convicted Friday on a charge related to his disappearance and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The 23-year-old woman has been jailed since December, and police arrested her after she told them false, misleading stories about the boy's whereabouts. Jennings has maintained that she left the boy somewhere safe, but prosecution witnesses said the young mother claimed she was stressed and pondered selling or giving away the boy.
Jennings' mother says she last saw her wide-eyed, giggly grandson early on the morning of Nov. 28, 2011. He went to a bank with his mother the next day but has not been seen since. A store owner has testified she saw the boy and his mother a month later, but prosecutors challenged that assertion, and there was no surveillance video to back up the claim.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 800,000 children are reported missing in the United States a year, and nearly all reported missing to the police — almost 99 percent — are returned home alive. More than half of those are White, while about 150,000 are Black, and 164,000 are Hispanic.
Amir's body has not been found, although police have said from the beginning that they feared foul play had been involved in his disappearance. But it's the uncertainty of his fate, Jacqueline Fish, a former law officer and current criminal justice professor at Charleston Southern University said, that could play a role in the lack of widespread attention.
"Someone needs to be brought to justice. In Amir's case, they can't be out for justice because we don't know what happened to him."
Officials with the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., an organization that focuses on finding missing minorities, said they struggle to get and maintain news coverage of minority missing persons cases.
"We are making some headway, but there are still challenges," said co-founder Natalie Wilson, who said she sometimes gets pushback when pitching a story to media outlets.
Noting she has had some recent successes pitching missing minority cases to media outlets, Wilson said she's often told that editors and producers can't promise coverage and don't have the time to run a big piece. In one instance, a plea for help to find a young missing black girl was bumped to report the news that Paris Hilton had been released from jail.
"How does that supersede someone's life?" Wilson asked. "Can you imagine how her parents would feel?"
Attention on a missing child case should be the same — intense — regardless of gender or race," Caison said.
"It's not an excuse," Caison said. "A child missing should be aired because of the fact that they're a child, that they're away from safe haven, and that there's foul play or other concerns involved."