On June 15, 2002, 14-year-old teen Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in the affluent Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Nine months after her abduction, Smart was found in the company of Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee.
As a teen myself at the time, I was captivated by the nature of the crime and was fascinated – along with millions of other Americans – on what occurred that summer night.
A beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter of an established family was kidnapped from her bedroom at knifepoint, and her case captivated the nation and made Elizabeth Smart one of the most-talked about crime victims of the 2000s.
In a 2002, a report by The National Center For Missing & Exploited Children found that nearly 800,000 children younger than 18 are reported missing each year. Of these, more than 200,000 were abducted by family members, while a small amount – 115 cases in 2002 – are considered a “stereotypical” kidnapping, similar to that of Elizabeth Smart.
“These crimes involve someone the child does not know or a slight acquaintance who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently,” the report said.
It’s easy to claim that kidnappings of rich blond kids from the suburbs and poor black kids from the inner-city are treated differently–often, they are–but in this social media-driven world, factors beyond just demographics influence the amount of attention a missing teenager receives.
When a teen kidnapping is made popular by media and enters the national conversation, it can propel new laws and procedures to be established which impact how future cases are handled.
NCMEC reported that between 1997 and March 2012, AMBER Alert, instituted after the 1996 abduction and murder of Amber Hagerman, has been credited with the return of 572 children; an indication that technology has a growing presence in alerting the public about abductions.
With statistics like this, it’s clear that not every single missing child case can reach Elizabeth Smart-level popularity. But what happens when a teenager who’s a near opposite of Smart disappears? Does the public have the same sympathy for an African-American transgender teen as they do for a wholesome blonde?
Dashad “Sage” Smith, 19, who was born male and identifies as female, disappeared on November 20, 2012 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Last seen on the 500 block of West Main Street, it appears that Smith had contact with Erik McFadden, a person of interest, the day that she went missing.
Like a majority of Americans who have disappeared over the past few years, a “Find Dashad Sage Smith” Facebook group was set up on behalf of Smith, which has over 4,100 “likes.”
On the page, various individuals still refer to Smith as “he,” others say “she” and some use a combination of male and female pronouns.
Going through the page, an outsider would be a little confused about the appearance and gender of Smith. It goes without saying, but when a teenager is missing and information is being pushed out to the media, it is in the best interest to make sure all information is accurate.
A December 18, 2012 news article from Charlottesville weekly newspaper The Hook was one that mentioned the transgender status of Smith, yet referred to her as a male:
“It’s a stone that you have to turn over and look at,” says Charlottesville Police Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts.
Some others do not even mention the gender of Smith and just use her name.
According to the Transgender Day Of Remembrance website, at least one transgender person a month has been killed in a hate crime over the past decade, and trans women of color, like Smith, are often the most targeted by this violence.
According to TDOR’s database, in 2012, there were 265 recorded transgender deaths caused by violence. Of those, 13 occurred within the United States.
A $10, 000 reward has been offered by Crimestoppers for information leading to Smith’s safe return.
Various factors determine whether a case becomes the top story of the year or yesterday’s news. Location, age, sexuality, gender, and socio-economic status are often the major points of interest that people believe to propel a story to national headlines, but in many instances, the proactive actions and dedication of family, friends and communities go a long way when advocating for the safe return of a child, or bringing a murder suspect to justice.
The abduction of youth should be a high priority for media in order to ensure the safe return of the missing. But one must also understand that when it comes to missing kids, the media will always focus more on a relatable “kid next door” victim.
Sadly, such as in the case of Smith, the information made available to the public was sparse, in addition to being a bit confusing as reporters are still attempting to grasp reporting on transgender individuals.
A missing child is a parent’s worst nightmare, made worse by having to wait and see if their story will make it out to the masses.
When terrible things occur, it makes sense to put faith in the law enforcement and the media, but sometimes, it’s a good idea to take matters into your own hands to ensure that your story is heard. If a missing child isn’t receiving media attention because he or she doesn’t fit the Elizabeth Smart mold, a social media campaign such as a Facebook page is a powerful tool for keeping the case fresh on the public’s mind.
Analyzing the lack of media surrounding the disappearance of Dashad “Sage” Smith in contrast to the Elizabeth Smart case is shocking in many ways. For the most part, the amount of attention a missing youth receives is correlated to the public’s ability to see a reflection of their lives in the family experiencing the tragedy. Transgender cases are often misreported and barely touched upon due to the lack of transgender awareness in America. And of course, there’s more than just gender identity and race that separate Smart and Smith. Smith is older–but still arguably a child at 19–and more likely to be faulted for having brought on her own misfortune. Smith went to meet the suspect in her disappearance willingly; she wasn’t taken from her bedroom like Smart. But no matter the events leading up to her disappearance, the result is the same: Smith is missing, possibly dead, and nobody knows what happened.
America was able to see Elizabeth as their daughter … but Sage?
Smart was returned a couple of months after her abduction. Hopefully we can say the same for Smith.