The AMBER Alert system is intended to help locate missing children, but analysis of data along with expert insight has found that the tool reveals disparities among some communities of color.
Milwaukee Police issued a missing person alert for 5-year-old Prince McCree on Wednesday. MPD wanted to issue an Amber Alert, but the Wisconsin Department of Justice denied it, saying it did not meet the criteria.
McCree's body was found in a dumpster by Thursday morning.
Wisconsin has issued less than 60 AMBER Alerts since the system was established in 2003.
For an AMBER Alert to be issued, the child must be 17 years of age or younger, they must be in danger of serious bodily harm or death, and the initiating agency must have enough information about the victim, suspect or vehicle to make the alert useful to the public.
Milwaukee police did not have information about a suspect or vehicle failing to meet the criteria.
Experts say they do not think the AMBER Alert criteria are written in a discriminatory way, but that existing discriminatory structures are reflected in missing children cases.
"I saw a child treated like trash and I saw a family's pain neglected, but it's not new. Just because it's not new means doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt," said Alvin Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin's School of Human Ecology.
Earlier this year, a USA Today investigation reviewed AMBER Alert data going back to 2017. It found that in reports involving White and Hispanic children, the alerts helped in 1 in 3 cases. When it came to missing Black children that dropped to 1 in 7, even though Black children receive AMBER Alerts at the same rate they are reported missing.
Gaetane Borders, President of Peas in Their Pods, a non-profit that works with families of missing children of color described the difference as the result of a perfect storm of issues.
"A lot of people don't recognize it as the epidemic that it is. It's not taken as seriously for some," Borders said.
Katherine Hilson, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Carthage College, adds that the last threshold to issue an AMBER Alert is tough to meet for communities of color. It requires the reporting law enforcement agency enough information about the child, suspect and/or suspect vehicle.
"I think communities of color for legitimate reasons are less forthcoming when it comes to helping criminal legal institutions for various reasons. They might become the subject of police attention for example is one. But also just the unwillingness to share information also sometimes these communities of color are so transient," Hilson explained.
Other states have made efforts to close the gaps in missing persons cases. California passed the Ebony Alert while Washington and Colorado implemented the Missing Indigenous Person Alert.
Thomas explained that the trauma of a missing child compounds the already existing stress and challenges marginalized communities face.
"They don't really care about us. That's the usual community response because they they're not getting this the same general warmth and feelings of empathy that they're seeing other people getting from these organizations or institutions," Thomas said.
Thomas, Hilson and Borders agreed there needs to be dialogue and significant action to better protect children.