▶ Watch Video: Ebony Alert is California’s new tool to help find missing youth of color

California recently passed a new law creating an Ebony Alert, a notification system that will keep the public informed about missing Black children and young people in an effort to address the disparity in missing persons cases. The Ebony Alert system — which will be used for Black people aged 12 to 25 — takes effect in California on Jan. 1, 2024, when it will become the first statewide program of its kind in the country.

What is an Ebony Alert?

California’s legislation will allow law enforcement agencies across the state to submit requests directly to California Highway Patrol to activate an Ebony Alert, which will notify the public about incidents involving Black children and young people who are reported missing under unexplained or suspicious circumstances, or who have been abducted. The alert will also apply to situations where the missing person is disabled, cognitively impaired or otherwise at risk.

Highway patrol will then activate the alert within a designated geographic area, as requested by the investigating law enforcement agency, and “assist the agency by disseminating specified alert messages and signs, if the department concurs with the agency that an Ebony Alert would be an effective tool in the investigation of a missing person according to specified factors,” the text of the legislation says. 

Similar to an Amber Alert, that means an Ebony Alert could be displayed on electric signs along roads and highways. Television, cable, online, radio and social media outlets are also encouraged to pick up and share more widely the information in an alert.

How does an Ebony Alert differ from an Amber Alert?

Amber Alerts began as a local partnership between broadcasters and police in Dallas-Fort Worth to find abducted children in 1996, and expanded over the next several years into warning systems used throughout the country. The program has helped recover at least 1,127 children since it launched, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

But advocacy groups and policymakers, both within and outside of just California, have criticized the Amber Alert system for overlooking missing children who are Black, despite the fact that Black children make up a significant portion of missing people across the country. California’s Ebony Alert system aims to address the racial disparity. It will apply to children and young people ages 12 to 25, as California lawmakers hope to confront a disproportionate number of young Black women who are missing.

At least 39% of children reported missing in the United States in 2022 were Black, according to the Black and Missing Foundation, which said 153,374 children of color were still missing across the country as of Oct. 11. That figure included people younger than 18 who are African American, Asian and Indian.

The nonprofit organization has compiled breakdowns of nationwide missing persons statistics by race, age and gender, using data from the Justice Department’s National Criminal Information Center as well as the Census Bureau. Race was listed as unknown for a small percentage of children reported missing.

“A lot of minority children are initially classified as runaways, and as a result do not receive the Amber Alert,” the foundation writes on its website, while “missing minority adults are labeled as associated with criminal involvement gangs and drugs.” Statistics for adults reported missing in the U.S. last year showed at least 39% were people of color. 

Berry Accius, the founder of Voice of the Youth, a Sacramento-based nonprofit youth mentoring and motivational speaking program, told CBS Sacramento, “You see the difference of when White girls go missing and Black girls go missing … The sense of urgency is not there.”

Who proposed or voted for it?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law on Sunday that creates the Ebony Alert notification system. Passed earlier as Sen. Bill 673, the legislation was authored by Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat whose district covers a large block of southern Los Angeles County.

“Today, California is taking bold and needed action to locate missing Black children and Black women in California,” Bradford said in a statement released by his office recently after Newsom signed the law. 

“Our Black children and young women are disproportionately represented on the lists of missing persons. This is heartbreaking and painful for so many families and a public crisis for our entire state. The Ebony Alert can change this,” his statement continued, adding that the notification system “will ensure that vital resources and attention are given so we can bring home missing Black children and women in the same way we search for any missing child and missing person.”

In addition to citing statistics on missing Black children, Bradford also pointed to human trafficking data that found Black women and girls are at increased risk of being harmed and trafficked in the U.S. 

In 2020, a report by the Congressional Black Caucus showed 40% of sex trafficking victims were identified as Black women after a two-year review of all suspected human trafficking incidents nationwide. The report said Black girls are more likely to be trafficked at a younger age than their racial counterparts, and, referencing data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, found that Black children make up more than 57% of all juvenile prostitution arrests.

California’s Ebony Alert legislation is sponsored by the NAACP California Hawaii State Conference. In a statement, Rick Callender, the conference president, called its signing into law “a historic breakthrough, guaranteeing that Black children and young Black women will receive the attention and protection they need when they are reported missing.” 

“This is a great first step to mitigating the racial inequities when it comes to Black women and children when they go missing,” Callender said in the statement.