There are far more questions than answers surrounding the case of the three kidnapped women in Cleveland who finally escaped their captors this week after up to a decade of imprisonment. Many details about their ordeal will certainly come to light in the coming weeks. But one question that should be at the forefront is why police didn’t find the missing women years ago.
Part of the answer is that Cleveland police held a dangerous assumption: that two of the victims, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight, were missing because they had each run away (the case of Gina DeJesus, meanwhile, was always treated as an abduction). Tragically, this assumption led law enforcement to take their cases less seriously.
Though neighbors held annual marches in the neighborhood to call attention to the unsolved disappearances and twice called 911 to report suspicious behavior at the house, it seems that law enforcement didn’t follow-up on the cases thoroughly. A 2004 article in the Plain Dealer says the police and FBI paid little attention to Berry’s mother, Louwanna Miller, when she insisted her daughter had not run away, pointing to the evidence of her having left cash and a phone charger at home, the fact that she was last seen wearing her Burger King uniform, and that she was a “home-girl.”
Knight’s disappearance garnered even less interest, being a high-school dropout and single mother who had recently lost custody of her child.
These cases point to a disturbingly prevalent attitude in law enforcement and media coverage of crimes against women. Young women are immediately classified as the “good girls” or “bad girls,” and this affects every turn of events. This mentality is particularly employed in prosecution and coverage of rape cases, but as evidenced here, permeates other crimes too.
Berry’s case was eventually treated as abduction, but the Plain Dealer article notes her mother was convinced more could have been accomplished had police labeled it as such from the outset. One alarming detail is that it took seven months for the FBI to confirm that a call made to Miller soon after Berry disappeared was made from Berry’s cell phone, which was never traced—an effort that would surely have been made had there not been some question about the nature of the disappearance.
Even if Berry had run away, why wasn’t the call traced? Why are presumed runaways not worth police pursuit? Why weren’t Berry and Knight’s mothers taken more seriously when they insisted that their daughters had not disappeared of their own accord? Would it have been different had they been fathers?
The media is famously selective about what crime victims get coverage and how—black children comprise 42 percent of abductees but often get little attention. Runaways are as good as shrugged off, even though so many minor girls who run away end up forced into prostitution - the ultimate in bad girldom. Their stories just don’t have the same appeal. We should be mortified by this attitude. Instead, we shrug too.
For Michelle Knight, it was only her mother who persisted in believing that she had been kidnapped, and did most of the work to try to find her. In the eyes of society, Knight was at best a curiosity, an unsolved mystery not worth much interest. No reward was ever offered for information on her, because her case never went to the FBI. If she had been the only woman kidnapped, her name would never have been known.
When it comes to crimes against women, particularly cases of rape and domestic violence, a victim often has to be vetted by law enforcement and the media before she is deemed worthy of sympathy and credibility. How many more rapes would be reported if women didn’t fear being disbelieved or made to feel complicit in their own attacks? How many crimes would be solved more quickly if the good girl/bad girl mentality didn’t shade proceedings?
This attitude informs police and media response, and also assists predators—they can have some confidence that they will get away with a crime either because it won’t be reported or because a woman’s class, race, or background make her suspect in the eyes of police and reporters. Golda Meir famously suggested that it was men who should submit to a curfew, not women, since men were the ones committing the crimes against women - telling women to lock themselves up just treats them punitively.
The miraculous return to the world of Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight (along with Gina DeJesus) should be a trigger to law enforcement to take such cases more seriously from the first report. The women were always worthy of immediate attention and the highest level of investment of time and resources. They should not have had to prove it themselves.
Missing poster photo via The Guardian.