Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old "Van Life" vlogger, wason September 11. Within days, local and national outlets reported her story.
Women of color rarely get as quick a response.
Few news outlets had covered the case of Keeshae Jacobs, a Black woman who has been missing for 5 years, prior to Petito's disappearance. Jacobs, who was 21 when she disappeared, had gone to a male friend's house on September 26, 2016 in Richmond, Virginia. She texted her mother, Toni Jacobs, that she made it safely and would see her the following day. Her mother says she hasn't heard from her since.
"Keeshae and [Petito] are about the same age, her parents are just as concerned about her as I was about Keeshae," Toni Jacobs told CBS News, saying she understands the heartbreak of having a missing child, as well as having one who has been found dead. Her own son was murdered just months after Keeshae disappeared.
"To lose a child is something that I don't wish upon my worst enemy. But now, when you look at the news, that's all I see. …There's other people missing out here that need the same attention."
Jacobs is just one case of the many people of color who are more often reported missing every year.
From January 1 to September 27 of this year, 1,529 people were added to the Department of Justice's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a database vetted by law enforcement.
American Indian or Alaska Native people are slightly more than 1% of the U.S. population, but represent 4.6% of those reported cases. Black people are 12.4% of the U.S. population, and 24.3% of those cases.
This translates across other racial demographics as well — only excluding those who are White and Asian.
The discrepancy is even greater among missing women and girls. From January 1 to September 27, the number of Black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women missing were a greater proportion of cases than their respective demographics nationwide.
"Missing White Woman Syndrome"
Many of the most thoroughly documented cases in the U.S. involve White women — such as Kristin Smart, Natalee Holloway, Lauren Spierer, Anne Marie Fahey, and Tara Calico.
This phenomenon has become known as "Missing White Woman Syndrome."
Zach Sommers, a crime scholar and litigation associate in Chicago, noticed the pattern when he saw a news report about a missing woman who was young, White and blonde.
"I remember thinking to myself, she looks a lot like all of the other missing persons that I've seen that have kind of captured the national imagination," he told CBS News.
He saw many people discussing similar anecdotes online, but could not find any data to confirm his suspicions. So, in 2016, he compiled it himself.
Sommers analyzed four major news outlets — CNN, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — and found missing Black individuals are "significantly underrepresented."
When news outlets do report on missing Black people, his analysis found, they still cover them less than missing White people. Regular coverage of missing people of color tends to come in waves, when one particular incident draws attention to the discrepancy — like now.
"We're still here talking because Gabby Petito went missing," Sommers said. "And if you ask anybody to name a missing person case that they remember, the odds are pretty good that if they can name any, they're all going to be White women or White girls."
Newer research shows his original findings are still relevant.
In Wyoming, where Petito's body was found, 710 Indigenous people have disappeared from 2011 to September 2020. According to a report by the University of Wyoming, 12 of those cases were covered by local media, which covered 35 of 3,837 cases of missing White people during that period.
While Wyoming outlets did cover proportionately more cases of missing Indigenous women, the university found there was a wide disparity in how and when they did so.
More than three-quarters of the articles about missing White people were written while they were still missing, compared with 42% of stories about Indigenous individuals, who were more likely to be written about as missing only after they were found dead. There were no articles about missing Indigenous people who were found alive and well, the university found, while 23% of articles about White people were about them in such condition.
, a 40-year-old Indigenous woman of Washington's Tulalip Tribes, went missing on November 25, 2020 while on her way to visit a friend, some 30 miles northeast of the Tulalip Reservation. Her sisters have worked tirelessly since, putting up flyers and even a billboard, seeking help.
But it wasn't until last week, 10 months after Johnson disappeared, that the FBI announced a $10,000 reward for information and that her name made national headlines.
"It's like she just vanished," Johnson's older sister, Nona Blouin, told CBS News. "You think you would be able to get some leads, but after almost a year, it's just frustrating and heartbreaking."
It took several months, she said, for local media to cover the case.
Families of color say law enforcement take them less seriously
A large factor in how cases are handled and reported on is whether the person missing is deemed a "runaway," or someone who left on their own accord.
Of the nearly 30,000 reports of missing children received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020, the organization said 91% of them were endangered runaways, and most of those cases are children of color.
"The first 48 hours following the disappearance of a child are the most critical in terms of finding and returning that child safely home," according to the Department of Justice. And while most runaway cases are resolved, advocates and families say that overshadows cases of missing children and results in law enforcement responding in a way that jeopardizes their safety.
In Glendale, Arizona, Alicia Navarro was dubbed a runaway when she went missing two years ago, just days before her 15th birthday.
Her mother, Jessica Nunez, told CBS News they had spent days planning her party — she wanted to eat at a "fancy" restaurant and a red velvet cake — and on her last day at home, went to a chocolate factory, got Navarro's eyebrows done, shopped and went to McDonald's.
She was "extremely happy," Nunez said. But the next morning, she was gone. All she took was a small backpack with a few sweaters, and all she left was a note on her bedroom desk, saying, "I ran away. I will be back, I swear. I'm sorry."
Nunez told CBS News she believes her daughter, an avid video-game player, was lured by somebody she met online.
"I am 99% positive she met this person online," Nunez said. "...It's not something that happened out of the blue, and I do believe that she was lured thinking that she was going to have some kind of adventure, party or maybe love."
Though Navarro has autism and does not do well in social situations, Nunez said police insisted she would come back and did not act until a full day had gone by.
After fighting for roughly two weeks, Nunez had a silver alert administered for her daughter. Silver alerts, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, are activated when someone with "specific cognitive or developmental disabilities" or those older than 65 go missing. Nunez said her daughter is the first child in Arizona to receive one.
Amber alerts are only issued when a child is suspected of having been abducted.
Nunez felt police treated her daughter's case as if she was "just a runaway."
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, said many families her organization works with had missing loved ones classified as having left on their own accord, even if they may have gone into a dangerous situation.
"What we tell family members all the time is, you know your child better than anyone else. So if it's not their characteristic to run away, you have to be firm about it," she said.
This attitude is also reflected in adult missing persons cases.
Toni Jacobs told CBS News when her daughter went missing, authorities insisted Keeshae probably just didn't want to be bothered.
"I had to literally plead my case to this police officer for him to even take me serious," she said. She was told police would get back to her a day after she filed a report, but said police didn't call her until a week later.
"I felt like I was the investigator. I was the one calling to make sure, 'Hey, did you check this out?'...I don't feel like there was ever any urgency to it. And now that Gabby's stuff is out there, I think everybody's paying close attention."
Richmond police suspect foul play in Keeshae's case, according to CBS affiliate WTVR, and a person of interest is in custody. That man, Jacobs told CBS News, is currently incarcerated for the abduction and assault of another woman.
To Jacob's knowledge, the FBI still has not opened an investigation into the case. Keeshae is not listed in the FBI's database. The agency did, however, put out a flyer on its website seeking information about Gabby Petito's case in August.
"It's like a slap in my face," Jacobs said, "like my daughter isn't as important as Gabby."
A social media dilemma
Petito's case took social media by storm, with many TikTok users coming forward claiming they saw Petito in the days leading up to her disappearance and many "true crime" fans devoting their accounts to trying to figure out what happened.
But many social media users have started calling for attention to other cases of missing people.
One TikTok user said it was incredible that Petito's body was found because a YouTube influencer recognized Petito's van and reported it. "Imagine if more missing person cases had this type of media coverage and who else could be found."
Even still, none has received a response on the scale of Petito's.
As of Monday, #gabbypetito had more than 1 billion views on the app. But #findJelaniDay, applied to posts about Black graduate studentwho disappeared August 25 and whose body was identified on September 23, has reached 10.8 million views. The hashtag for Lauren Cho (#LaurenCho), a 30-year-old Asian woman from New Jersey who was last seen June 28 in California, has reached 1.7 million. A hashtag for Keeshae Jacobs has received less than 183,000 views, and one for Mary Johnson has received less than 207,000.
But the families of Keeshae Jacobs, Mary Johnson and Alicia Navarro say social media is vital.
"Social media is a big impact on cases like my daughter," Nunez said. In August 2020, Navarro's family created a TikTok page dedicated to finding help and information related to her case. The page has since amassed more than 275,000 followers.
"Families that have missing persons depend on social media, because I'll tell you this, the community are the ones who call in the tips ," she said. "...Law enforcement — and my respects to them — they're not going to be out there looking for your loved ones. They have other priorities, unfortunately."
The most important thing for the public to know, Jacobs said, is "this is not just a Keeshae Jacobs thing."
"It's happening every day, all over the world," she said. "It's not just my problem, it's our problem as a community, and we need to start coming together and helping each other."
The families interviewed for this story continue to seek information about their missing loved ones. If you see one of the missing people, call 911 before reporting the tip.
To submit tips or information related to the disappearance or current whereabouts of Keeshae Jacobs, contact Bring Our Missing Home, Inc. at 810-294-4858, Richmond Police at 804-646-3025 or the Help Find Keeshae Jacobs Facebook page.
To submit tips or information related to the disappearance or current whereabouts of Mary Johnson (Davis), contact the FBI's Seattle Field Office at 206-622-0460 or Tulalip Tribal Police at 360-716-9911.
To submit tips or information related to the disappearance or current whereabouts of Alicia Navarro, contact Glendale Police, at 623-930-3000, or the Anti-Predator Project, 305-796-4859.
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