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White, cute and from 'good homes': This is not what all missing kids look like. 

By AMY STOCKWELL

Last Saturday night, 11-year-old Michelle Levy went missing from her home in North Bondi. Family and friends searched local streets for her before her disappearance was reported to police and a land, air and sea search for her began.

On Sunday, the nation was alerted. News reports were filled with images of Michelle and calls for public assistance to find her. She was identified in security camera footage in a number of locations in Sydney and police, SES volunteers and 1000 members of the public followed those leads in helicopters and ground teams, all in an effort to find the girl who friends had described as “intelligent, shy and gentle as a butterfly”.

Thankfully, we heard on Monday morning that she has been found at a unit in Randwick, some 40 hours after she went missing. Her mother posted on Facebook, “She’s been found! Going to fetch her now. Thank you everyone one and all.”

It’s fair to say that the nation was gripped by the story of Michelle’s disappearance – voraciously consuming every element of her story, including details of her faith (Jewish), her relationship with her parents (“she storms off and sulks like a normal 11 year old”), her history of running away (“she normally doesn’t go very far, just around the corner to her grandparents’ house”) and any information about the man at whose home she stayed.

Michelle’s father appealing for her to come home.

The public thoughtfully did as instructed by family and police and shared her image widely, especially a sweet picture of strawberry blonde Michelle laughing beside the ocean in the floral dress she had been wearing when she disappeared. The entire online, tv and print media landscape was filled with images, information and speculation about Michelle and her family.

This drama has apparently had a happy ending. The full details of Michelle’s disappearance are yet to come, but the story of her disappearance remains at the forefront of people’s minds.

With the spectacle surrounding Michelle’s disappearance fresh in our minds, it is timely to remember that more than 20,000 children and young people are reported lost every year.

There isn’t too much reliable information about the characteristics of these children, but what data there is tells us this: 13 to 15 year olds are the highest risk of disappearing and girls are more likely to disappear than boys. Abuse, neglect, family dysfunction, problems at school, being in care, mental illness and a history of (often unreported) ‘running away’ are the biggest risk factors in disappearances.

But, of course, this isn’t the picture that our media gives us of children who have disappeared.

If you watch the tv or read the news, you’ll think you know exactly what a child who goes missing looks like: they are white, cute and from ‘good homes’ with two parents who speak confidently and articulately to the media.

Madeline McCann

It is the disappearance of these children that we hear about on the news. These are the pictures that get shared on social media. These are the people that thousands of volunteers turn out for.

The missing children that we hear about on tv deserve our attention, certainly. But so do the thousands of other children we don’t hear about.

The ones that aren’t newsworthy. The ones who don’t necessarily have a cherubic countenance, a sympathetic parent or spokesperson or a social-media-savvy community that can demand our attention.

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In February this year, the ABC’s Four Corners told the story of the 2007 death of an 8 year old boy from the mostly-indigenous community of Borraloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria (10 hours south east of Darwin).

Kaye- the little boy lost.

The boy went missing and was found drowned in a muddy waterhole. The police ruled it an accident despite failing to investigate significant evidence, including the fact that the child’s body had been weighed down with rocks. A coroner, who only considered the matter three years later, found that someone else must have been involved. Police agreed to open a new investigation, but seven years on, the child’s murderer has never been found and the majority of the probative evidence has either degraded or been thrown away.

Four Corners drew the comparison between the response to this child’s death to that of the murder of Daniel Morecombe, which was characterised by significant public appeals and million dollar rewards for information. His disappearance sparked the biggest police investigation in Queensland history.

This phenomenon of the media and the world in general seizing on stories and images of some missing children and not others is often referred to as Missing White Girl Syndrome – the notion that the media pays more attention to missing white girls than any other missing person.

By far, Maddie McCann is the most significant example. Her disappearance, on the other side of the world, has been the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history.

But you don’t need to hear the stats to know this: we, as a community, are riveted by cases in which a young, beautiful child (often blonde) has apparently been abducted by an evil-doer and is in need of rescue. We immediately offer our help, our support and our viewership to any news outlet that has a snippet of information.

Michelle’s mother thanking friends via Facebook.

It is hard to say whether this narrow focus on particular children is due to our own focus or whether it is the result of information that has been selectively presented to us by the media.

But whatever it is, it is clear that the disappearances of children that we seem to care about most passionately and follow with the most enthusiasm tend to be very similar in age, ethnicity, background and appearance.

Is it because these are the children (or bereft parents) that we relate to most strongly? Do we care because we are thinking: That could be me? That could be my baby?

Is it because, of the 20,000 kids that go missing every year, the media only tell us about the ones that will get us clicking, reading and tuning in? And if this is the case, does that say more about the decisions made in newsrooms or more about our own viewing behaviour?

Is it because we think that somehow missing children from a low socio-economic background, children who are Indigenous, children who are in care or children who are older are somehow more common, less special or more likely to have ‘got themselves into some kind of trouble’?

Surely it’s not that we don’t care about missing kids who are not blond angels?

These are the questions that we need to be asking ourselves when we hear about that 20,000 kids are reported missing every year.

Not because we need to care less about the missing children that we hear about, but because we need to care more about the ones we don’t.

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