February 19, 2023
More than three years after she vanished from a Cumberland County park, Dulce Maria Alavez has joined the ranks of the long-term missing.
Dulce was 5 when her mother reported she disappeared during a family outing to Bridgeton City Park on Sept. 16, 2019. Her whereabouts remain a mystery.
Now, she’s one of around 1,000 children in a database on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website listing longterm missing kids.
Dulce also appears on another online registry put together by the Black & Missing Foundation — a nonprofit group founded in 2008 that highlights the cases of missing Black people and other people of color who don’t often land in the media spotlight.
“It’s really important for us to continue to highlight these stories, and the reason for that is because cases of missing persons of color rarely get a lot of attention,” said Derrica Wilson, CEO and co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation. “It’s important for us to highlight because we need the community’s involvement to help us solve these cases.”
The organization’s website includes information on more than 6,000 missing persons cases from around the country.
The site features missing people of color from New Jersey, including Dulce, whose disappearance has continued to receive local media attention, especially on her birthday, holidays and other dates when supporters hold vigils to keep her name in the news.
The Black & Missing Foundation list also includes other missing New Jerseyans who have received little publicity or whose cases have faded from memory. They include the 1996 disappearance of Celina Mays, who was 12 years old and nine months pregnant when she vanished in Burlington County.
Victoria Williams was 13 when she disappeared in Newark in 2013 after telling her family she was going to hang out with friends.
Tomiene Jones was 19 when she was last seen at her Mullica Hill apartment on April 18, 2002. She was reported missing when she didn’t pick up her 2-year-old daughter from a babysitter.
Trenton resident Michael Fauntleroy Jr. was 25 when he disappeared in February 2011.
Though no evidence has been found to confirm what happened to Fauntleroy, his mother, Joyce White, believes her son was killed. She’s still seeking answers.
“I know for sure my son can’t be on this earth,” she said. “He’s not here.”
Fauntleroy lived with his mother and didn’t come home one night. She recalled struggling to get police to take the case seriously at first.
“I had to call the police station probably about two weeks to convince them that something was not right,” White said. “They were saying stuff like maybe he just left.”
A large-scale search was conducted in March of that year, according to news accounts at the time.
The streets were full of rumors, but no one was talking to police, White said. She suspects someone was planning to rob her son and the encounter escalated.
“He probably just stood up for himself and I think it got out of control. I don’t think they intentionally set out to do what they did to him,” she said.
White took a lead role in pushing for a search, spent her own money and took her case to the media, she said. She tried to get his story on a national missing persons TV show, but said she never heard back.
She mailed out fliers to churches, placed them in stores and even posted them in different languages.
“I still mail out stuff,” she said. “It’s important to me. This is not finished.”
‘Missing white woman syndrome’
Cases involving missing white women tend to receive the most attention in the media, said Wilson, the co-founder of the Black & Missing Foundation. The skewed media attention is often described as “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by the late journalist Gwen Ifill.
The case of Dulce, the girl who disappeared from a Bridgeton park, has been an exception of sorts when it comes to attention focused on missing persons of color, according to Wilson. The New Jersey girl’s face has appeared in news coverage, on billboards, fliers and in coupon packs mailed to homes around the country.
While the case garnered substantial media coverage in the region, it didn’t receive much national media attention, Wilson noted.
“She could be absolutely anywhere,” she said. “People in California may not even be aware of her case.”
She wants to see other cases involving missing people of color receive attention from police and the national media.
“When you think about that ‘missing white woman syndrome,’ I can roll off Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Gabby Petito. But no one can name one, just one, person of color that has garnered mainstream media,” Wilson said.
She cites the case of Petito, a white woman and popular social media personality who was reported missing in August 2021 after taking a cross-country van trip with her boyfriend. Her body was found in Wyoming the following month and investigators determined she had been strangled.
Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, died by suicide and confessed to killing Petito in an entry found in a notebook located with his body in October 2021.
The case drew international attention and has already been made into a movie that premiered on the Lifetime network last October.
Wilson said her point is not to diminish the importance of the national spotlight put on the disappearances of Petito, Holloway, Peterson, Levy and the other white women.
“We are not trying to dishonor those communities, because they deserve to be found as well. We just want to even the playing field,” Wilson said.
What are you worth?
To demonstrate the unequal way missing persons cases are handled by the media, the Columbia Journalism Review created an online tool called “How much press are you worth,” which invites users to enter their age, gender, ethnicity and town of residence to see how their theoretical disappearance would be covered.
After entering that information, the user is presented with a total number of stories their case would generate, based on a CJR study of news coverage about missing persons cases.
For example, the online tool predicts that a missing white woman in her early 20s would generally be mentioned in more than 120 news stories.
However, the CJR study found Black and Hispanic people receive the least coverage. A missing middle-aged Black man “would be expected to receive four or fewer mentions in the press,” CJR noted.
CJR analyzed the data from missing persons coverage and developed the online tool to raise public awareness of the problem and push media outlets to change their ways.
It’s been almost 20 years since the term “missing white woman syndrome” was coined and not enough has changed in that time, said Kyle L. Pope, editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review.
“The hope is that people will see this and they’ll talk about it and they’ll post about it and there will be a kind of bottom-up pressure on newsrooms to do a better job,” Pope said.
CJR launched the online tool in early November and 150,000 people used it the first week, he noted.
The issue is tied to the need for more diversity in newsroom staffs, according to Pope.
“Journalists are human and they write about people that they can identify with or people that are like other people they know,” he said. “It’s a completely understandable human response, but it’s sort of example number 3,000 about why newsrooms would be better at their job if the makeup of their staff was more representative of the communities that they cover.”
‘I saw me in her’
Some of the imbalance in how missing persons cases are perceived in the community starts with how police treat the first reports of a disappearance, Wilson said.
Missing children in Black and brown communities are often classified as runaways, she said. A report of a runaway doesn’t trigger an Amber Alert, which requires evidence of an abduction.
Runaway and abduction reports are perceived differently, Wilson said.
“If you were to hold up two fliers and one said missing and one said runaway, the messaging isn’t created equal,” she said. “Quite frankly, there really isn’t a sense of urgency in finding these children. They’re really dismissed by law enforcement and even with the general public.”
That leaves many missing kids in danger, she said.
“These are children and they deserve to be found because we do know that one in every three children that are out there on the street, they’re solicited for sex. Human trafficking is a huge issue in our communities across the country,” Wilson said.
Missing adults in minority communities are also often viewed differently, she said. Their disappearances are frequently assumed to be tied to criminal behavior, such as prostitution or gang activity.
“It really dehumanizes and desensitizes the fact that they are missing and they are valuable members of the community,” she said.
Wilson described a case in Los Angeles of a woman who reported her adult son missing to police and provided them with photos. Her son had been arrested a few years earlier for a misdemeanor that was later dismissed, but police decided to use his mugshot from that arrest on the missing persons flier instead of the images the mother provided, Wilson said.
When Wilson reached out to the detective handling the matter to ask why they had used the mugshot instead of another photo, she said she was told, “We want the community to see what he looks like scruffy.”
“That was so insensitive,” Wilson said. “That was so disrespectful. When you’re putting a mugshot on a flier, it’s not going to garner the same type of support. You have people that are looking at this and they’re automatically being judgmental by saying, well he’s a criminal and whatever he did he brought it on himself.”
The inspiration behind founding Black & Missing was the case of Tamika Antonette Huston, who vanished in 2004 from Wilson’s hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Huston’s aunt, Rebkah Howard, who works in media relations and is now on the Black & Missing Foundation board, tried unsuccessfully to get coverage for the case. Months later, Lori Hacking, a white woman from Utah, was reported missing, Wilson noted. Natalee Holloway disappeared the following year while on a high school trip to Aruba.
Those cases, especially Holloway’s, received substantial media attention.
“Rebkah reached out to those same reporters, those same outlets, and she was met with silence,” Wilson said. “No one was trying to cover her niece’s story.”
In August 2005, Huston’s former boyfriend was charged in her death.
That case hit home for Wilson.
“It was right in my own backyard,” she said. “When I saw Tamika, I saw me in her. It could have been one of my family members. I would want someone to care.”
After looking further into how cases like these are treated, Wilson and her sister-in-law, Natalie Wilson, formed the Black & Missing Foundation.
“When we started our organization, our community did not realize this was an issue,” Derrica Wilson said. “Because when they turned on their televisions or received any type of publication, they didn’t see anyone who looked like them. Folks were unaware.”
For the Wilsons, their backgrounds were the ideal match for this mission.
Derrica Wilson, who spent more than 20 years in law enforcement, worked as a deputy sheriff in Arlington County, Virginia, before joining the Falls Church, Virginia, police department, where she was the first Black female officer in that agency’s history.
Natalie Wilson works in public relations.
“Those are the two critical professions needed in finding our missing,” Derrica Wilson said.
The Black & Missing Foundation has made a difference in helping families, she stated.
“Since our inception, we’ve been able to help close over 400 cases and not all of them had a happy ending, but at least to bring some resolution to the families,” Wilson said.
She cited the recent case of a toddler reported missing in Montgomery County, Maryland. Police shared information with her organization, which shared it on the group’s online platforms.
“One of our followers actually saw our post, saw this child on a subway in New York, contacted the authorities and that toddler was reunited with the family,” she said. “That just shows the power of all of us working together, law enforcement, the media and the community.”
‘Be our digital milk carton’
The Black & Missing Foundation partners with “On Patrol Live” — a television show that airs nationally on the Reelz cable network. It featured Dulce Alavez’s story on the show last September, the third anniversary of the New Jersey girl’s disappearance from the park in Bridgeton.
Following that program, the foundation received a few tips, which were shared with the agencies investigating Dulce’s disappearance, Wilson said.
Prior to that program, the Wilsons spoke with Dulce’s mother to let her know about the show and to offer their support.
Building trust is an important component in solving missing person cases, Wilson said.
“We recognize that there is a lack of trust with law enforcement and the minority community. We’re talking about in the Black and brown community,” she said. “With the Hispanic community, some of them are afraid to go to law enforcement because they are in fear of deportation.”
That was a concern in Dulce’s case, as police repeatedly assured immigrants in the Bridgeton community that they would not be questioned about their legal status in the country if they stepped forward with information about the child.
In situations in which residents don’t trust law enforcement, the Black & Missing Foundation has its own anonymous tips platform. All of the tips given to the foundation are shared with police.
Wilson said she understands every story won’t make TV news or be elevated to national coverage. Many families just want the basics — for police to create a report, release a flier and share information with local news outlets so that it can be distributed on social media.
The goal is awareness.
“The media coverage, it does two things. It alerts the community that someone is missing and it applies pressure to law enforcement to dedicate more resources to those cases,” she said. “It really takes all of us.”
That’s why each case listing on the Black & Missing site includes a flier with a photo and details that can be downloaded and shared on social media. In addition to checking out the foundation’s website, it’s important to follow their social media platforms because some cases are so fresh they may be resolved before even making it to the site, Wilson noted.
“We want the average person to be our digital milk carton,” she said. “We need our cases to go viral.”
Missing Trenton resident Michael Fauntleroy Jr. left behind a son and daughter along with his grieving parents.
“I sure do miss him,” said his mother, Joyce White. “Mikey was a very loving and caring person. You wouldn’t know it if you seen him, because he looked a little grumpy, but when you get to know him, he was like a gentle bear.”
It’s important for cases like her son’s to remain in the public eye, White said, and she hopes a group like Black & Missing Foundation can bring more attention to overlooked victims.
Advocates must keep repeating these stories so people don’t forget, she said.
“You’ve got to get it out there,” White said. “You’ve got to talk about it everyday, just like a commercial.”
The missing person cases with ties to New Jersey being tracked by the Black & Missing Foundation include:
- Dulce Maria Alavez
- Gloria Denise Damon
- Michael Fauntleroy Jr.
- Levi Manuel Forney
- Destiny Owens
- Anwar Green
- Bernadine Gunner
- Jackqueline Lynn Harris
- Kenya Hickson
- Tomiene Mary Jones
- Celina Mays
- Ronald Vincent Minor
- Victor Leonard Richardson III
- Rick Anderson Rodriguez
- Sherrie Lynette Stout
- Antoinette Renee Williams
- Venika Williams
- Victoria Williams
Anyone with information about these missing people is asked to contact their local police department or use the Black & Missing Foundation tipline.
Photo credit: NJ.com