By Ximena Conde
The alleged kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl — missing since Monday, Sept. 16 — from a predominantly Hispanic southern New Jersey suburb has brought an outpouring of support for her family in Bridgeton.
People have gathered for candlelight vigils, raised $52,000 for a reward for anyone with leads to Dulce Maria Alavez’s whereabouts, and spread the word about her disappearance online and in the neighborhood.
“My husband has a flyer of the little girl up,” said Margarita Flores, who frequents Bridgeton City Park to keep an eye on her 16-year-old son’s pick-up basketball games. Flores was at the park 30 minutes after police responded to a 911 call reporting Dulce had gone missing while playing there with her 3-year-old brother. “I’ve seen flyers in other cars, you know, so people could see it.”
But almost as quickly, the little girl’s disappearance has also subjected her family to a social media-fueled tsunami of criticism and rumors, hot takes on parenting and racist generalizations about the family’s Mexican culture — most of it taking sharp aim against Dulce’s 19-year-old mother, Noema Alavez Perez.
Even those helping in the search have questioned Alavez Perez’s actions around the time her daughter went missing.
“I gotta bite my tongue because I don’t know what happened that day,” said Flores. “But a lot of people are saying [Dulce’s mom] should have been watching her a little closer.”
As the criticism intensified during the first week, the FBI’s Newark field office tweeted a call for the rumors to end.
“Don’t be responsible for distracting the focus of everyone’s efforts,” it read. “Let’s unite to #findDulce.”
Alavez Perez also called a press conference in late September where she pleaded with the public.
“Please stop the rumors,” she said. “Please stop pointing fingers when we don’t know and you don’t know who took her.”
But the backlash has only continued to grow as the search for Dulce stretches into a seventh week.
Social media fueling rumors, scrutiny
The criticisms lobbed against Alavez Perez have ranged from unsubstantiated claims she gave her daughter away to traffickers to accusations of negligence.
Television personalities like Nancy Grace have asked how a mother could stay in a vehicle — even if it was to help an 8-year-old relative with homework — while her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son went off to a playground out of her field of vision.
A teacher from nearby Vineland faced disciplinary action after she posted on Facebook one week after Dulce disappeared: “She’s Mexican, it’s in their culture. They don’t watch their kids like we do.”
Scrutiny has also flourished in Facebook groups with thousands of members picking apart every detail from that September day, hoping to find a lead police have missed.
Why didn’t Alavez Perez call police as soon as she noticed her daughter was missing, instead of searching on her own for about half an hour? Internet sleuths also say it’s suspicious Dulce’s mother doesn’t show more emotion over her abducted daughter during news interviews.
Alavez Perez told reporters she was scolded by spectators when she ate a slice of pizza during the search.
The family’s cooperation with authorities has done little to deter suspicion.
Bridgeton police say they won’t comment on any individual’s connection to the case. But they have interviewed Alavez Perez and the rest of the family and no official suspects have come out of those conversations.
According to Alavez Perez, authorities took her phone a handful of times, ultimately giving it back. She has denied any knowledge of what happened to Dulce.
“Until we locate Dulce or determine the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, we have not ruled out any possibility,” Bridgeton’s Chief of Police Michael A. Gaimari Sr. told WHYY in an email.
Norma Perez Alavez, Dulce’s grandmother, who shares custody of Dulce with Noema, said the family has had less and less contact with authorities. She said they touched base last week, but there was no update on the case.
Rumors distract from finding the missing
Natalie Wilson, the co-founder of Black and Missing, an organization that raises awareness for cases of missing people of color, said it’s not unusual for the family of a missing child to come under suspicion.
In 2018, out of the more than 296,000 people under 21 reported to the FBI where a circumstance behind the disappearance is listed, more than 95% are reported as runaways. Only 0.1% of these cases are reported to be abductions by strangers — the more likely culprit being someone the child already knew.
Still, communities of color experience an added layer of scrutiny when their children go missing, Wilson says.
“I look at minority cases, so many of our parents and our children are stereotyped as being involved with deviant behavior and that’s not necessarily true,” said Wilson.
Alavez Perez is the American-born daughter of Mexican immigrants. She had Dulce when she was 14 years old and at 19, she’s entering her third trimester with her third child.
During her late September press conference, in response to questions from reporters, she admitted to experimenting with marijuana and alcohol in the past — common peccadillos for teens that are frowned upon if you’re a mother.
Wilson also cautions the public to consider that everyone copes with grief differently, and so parents of missing children may react in ways they don’t expect.
And even if the family of a missing child is imperfect, Wilson argues it’s most important to focus on the No. 1 victim in the scenario — the 5-year-old who could be anywhere.
“We rely on law enforcement to do their jobs,” said Wilson, who sees the public as assistants to finding the missing.
She said it’s her organization’s philosophy not to point fingers and to ignore comments from the public, “unless someone is saying ‘I know where this individual is’ or ‘I know who can help you find that person.’”
‘I feel I’m a target’
Since early October, Dulce’s mother has kept a low profile, and has stopped speaking to the media.
And for a time, the backlash also made Jackie Rodriguez, one of the family’s main sources of help, distance herself.
Rodriguez, who lives in Vineland, said she was heartbroken by the news a 5-year-old girl had been taken in broad daylight. She also read some of the negative comments aimed at Alavez Perez, and wanted to do what she could to help find Dulce.
“As a mother, I said, ‘Wow if this were to happen to me, I wouldn’t want everyone to be attacking me, to be talking about me — I just need help,” she explained.
Rodriguez used Facebook to organize the first candlelight vigil just days after Dulce’s disappearance. More than 100 people showed up. She also organized a search of the park.
To keep Dulce’s case in the news, Rodriguez became the family’s spokesperson, translating for her grandparents who don’t speak English.
And that’s when Rodriguez said she started getting attacked online.
“I’ve heard that I’m doing it for attention,” she said. “I’m doing it for the reward money. I’ve heard that I was harming the family.”
Rodriguez said it got worse after she helped the family host the press conference where Dulce’s mother asked people to stop spreading rumors.
Rodriguez decided to step back after that.
“I’m so scared, I feel people are watching me,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like now I have to get security cameras and just stuff to protect my family because I feel I’m a target.”
Rodriguez is back by the family’s side now. She said she ultimately made the choice to “suck it up” and help the family again after seeing a decline in news coverage after her initial separation from the case.
Norma Perez Alavez, Dulce’s grandmother, said she has heard what people have said about her family, but she tries not to think about it. She understands that in their own way, the critics are trying to help find her granddaughter.
“I tell God, ‘Lord forgive them. They don’t know what they’re saying,’” Perez Alavez said in Spanish. “But I ask instead of saying those things, why don’t they pray [for Dulce’s return]? That’s why the authorities are there — to investigate.”