When children go missing

The disappearance of a child can be a parent’s worst nightmare.

Thus far, this year, police have issued missing persons bulletins for at least seven in their teens; four girls and three boys.

When investigations lead to the discovery of violent criminality against missing children, as was seen in the murder of five missing Grand Bahama boys 17 years ago, or in the murder of Marco Archer back in September 2011, society is gripped by shock and outrage.

Though most missing persons cases involving children in The Bahamas do not end in murder and the child is found and declared “safe”, lack of productive outrage about circumstances often involved in such cases, makes our communities decidedly unsafe for those who are vulnerable by virtue of their youth.

For the avoidance of doubt, our reference to a child is that of one who has not reached the age of majority.

Our society generally overestimates the decision-making capacity of youngsters, well before they reach their teens, leaving many prepubescents and teens unprotected from the illicit advances of adults, who, in recent years, have made more frequent use of social media platforms to lure young girls and boys.

Parents may benefit from the findings of research, which indicate that the rational part of a teen’s brain does not fully develop until around the age of 25 — suggesting that good judgment and reasoning about long-term consequences of one’s actions are not a strong suit of teens, regardless of how smart or “mature” they may be.

Citing such research, the University of Rochester Medical Center states, “Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.”

Understanding this can give parents insight into why it can be generally easier for youngsters to be led astray in situations and by individuals who show what appears to be genuine interest or concern.

It can also help parents to better appreciate that teenage years are a very vulnerable stage of development, and that even older teens still need the protection and guidance of parents and society, in order to beat back the tide of violation many suffer at the hands of adults.

When a young person is reported missing in The Bahamas, there is a distinct difference in the way much of society reacts to the disappearance of a boy versus that of a girl; the latter of which often being dismissed as “fast” girls running away to have relations with men.

What this represents in the first instance is a devaluing of the life of female children, diminishing their safety and their right to be protected.

Lamentably, this mindset also normalizes statutory rape and the sexualizing of girls, and engenders a society where predators find safety in targeting youngsters, and in stripping them of their innocence.

Research, again, provides interesting insight into this mindset, as is seen in a study published by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality in Washington, DC, titled “Girlhood Interrupted, The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”.

Positing the concept of “adultification” of Black girls, the study cites the position that Black girls are likened more to adults than to children, and are treated as if they are willfully engaging in behaviors typically expected of Black women.

This age compression, “[has] stripped Black girls of their childhood freedoms [and] renders Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood”, the study affirms.

So long as society places different levels of value on the life and sanctity of children based on their gender or stage of development, and so long as child abuse and neglect do not trigger collective outrage and an appropriate collective response, children will continue to be drawn away from homes they feel are unsafe, or that lack the love and affirmation they need.

When children go missing, we must remember that they are children, first of all.

And, as adults, we should fight to protect them, and to see all adults who unlawfully take advantage of them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

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