Since 2015, Amber Evans has been a key face and driving force behind state and local juvenile justice reform in Ohio. That work was rewarded when the organization she worked for, the Juvenile Justice Coalition (JJC), put her in charge.
In a Facebook post on her first day as executive director, she sported her track and field medals.
“Ohio is for champions and I used to be something of a track star,” Evans wrote. “Wearing my old medals before starting day 1 as executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition was a nice reminder of that.”
Three weeks later, Evans disappeared. Her car was found, purse in the trunk, her last known whereabouts a stop at the pharmacy. Her last known words, a text to her mother saying, “I love you and I’m sorry.”
Days have turned into weeks. The rivers around Columbus, Ohio, have frozen over, forcing a postponement of search operations. And Amber Evans, a 28-year-old juvenile justice activist with a bright future ahead of her, is still missing.
“We are still hopeful Amber is coming home,” said Liz Ryan, executive director of Youth First, a national juvenile justice reform outfit that helps community organizing projects around the country.
Youth First’s staff were in Ohio over the summer for listening sessions that Evans organized, and laid out plans for campaigns in 2019.
“We are still looking forward to that,” Ryan said.
Evans, who got a degree in journalism from Ohio State and a master’s in library and information sciences at Kent State, joined the Juvenile Justice Coalition in 2015 as director of organizing and policy. One of her first projects was House Bill 410, a state reform that forced dramatic limitations on the reliance on law enforcement to handle school-based discipline issues like truancy. Gov. John Kasich (R) signed the bill in 2016.
Evans’ greatest priority and skill is bringing together people affected by policies to advocate for change, and that was critical to passing the reforms, said Erin Davies, JJC’s former executive director.
“One of the big gaps is that people who make policy often haven’t been impacted by it,” said Davies. “How do you translate a young person’s experience who isn’t eating enough, or isn’t feeling safe at home, all these things that can contribute to missing school?”
Evans shined immediately in an organizing role at JJC. She helped establish Voices of the Unheard, a grassroots arm of the coalition for youth in high school or younger, with chapters in the community, the Columbus detention center and a nearby dropout recovery high school.
“Amber, to me, is very incredibly powerful and incredibly skilled,” Davies said. “She has a way of being diplomatic, but very sure of the truth we are pushing forward. And she’s just solid in support for these young people, and very much believes that young people needed this voice that was critical to policymakers.”
When Davies decided to step down last year, the board put JJC’s future in the hands of its young organizer. Evans became the executive director in early January. It was, and hopefully still is, the next step in an advocacy career without a ceiling.
“She thinks through the big picture,” said Davies. “Federal, state, local, how do we impact all of this?”
On January 28, Evans left a meeting at 5:30 p.m., and said she was not feeling well. Columbus Police have noted a recent dispute with her boyfriend.
Evans picked up cold medicine shortly after leaving the meeting. Several hours later, a text message from her cell phone was sent to her mother, Tonya Fischer, that said, “I love you and I’m sorry.”
Fischer found her daughter’s car on a road that runs along the Scioto River. Her purse was in the trunk. And thus began a search, in sub-zero temperatures and snow, to find Evans. A dive team turned up no sign of her in the area of the river near her car – further dive searches have been stymied by weather.
Fischer, who is a mental health worker, has told local media she is certain her daughter would not take her own life.
“There was no way she would have done and made something so final,” Fischer told 10TV. “I know what final looks like and this is not final.”
At the Juvenile Justice Coalition, Davies has returned in an interim role as the search continues.
“We’re taking it day to day at this point, talking to our young people and to each other as staff,” she said. “We just don’t know. Eventually, hopefully, things will become clear.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for Evans and her family “to manage expenses that Amber or her family may have to take on and endure.” Click here to access the donation page.