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Families of Missing Black Girls Frustrated, Not Surprised by Attention Drawn to Gabby Petito

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Katherine Fung
September 22, 2021

The disappearance of Gabby Petito has been widely covered by national media in recent weeks, and efforts to find the missing 22-year-old have spurred protests outside her fiancé Brian Laundrie’s Florida home as well as thousands of posts on social media calling for justice.

But watching the nation rally to locate Petito, whose death was ruled as a homicide, has been bittersweet for some families whose loved ones remain missing and uncovered by most media outlets, Derrica Wilson told Newsweek.

Wilson is the co-founder and CEO of the Black and Missing Foundation, a national non-profit dedicated to bringing awareness to missing persons of color on behalf of their families.

“It really bothers them and that’s an understatement,” Wilson said about the families she works with. “Not knowing if your loved one is safe, if they’re hungry, if they’re being mistreated, if you’ll see them walk through the front door again—that hits you hard as a parent, as a sibling, as a grandparent.”

“My heart goes out to [the Petito] family, any family that has to deal with this. It’s a nightmare,” Wilson added. “But we do have a lot of Gabby Petitos in the Black and brown community as well. We understand that not all cases get that level of attention and resources—there were multiple police jurisdictions involved—but we do have cases that want that additional assistance.”

While many on social media have mobilized to bring attention to the Petito case, others have also called out the media coverage surrounding the case—arguing that missing persons in Black communities have rarely, if ever, received public outrage or a national spotlight as considerable as Petito has.

“I am 67 years old,” author Don Winslow tweeted on Sunday. “I have never seen a young Black woman’s disappearance covered. like the #gabbypetito disappearance. Not once. That is horribly wrong.”

Journalist Ana Navarro-Cárdenas wrote: “I’m glad #GabbyPetito’s disappearance has received so much coverage and there’s been a vigorous investigation. My thoughts are w/ her family. I just want there to be same interest and energy re every disappeared young woman in America – Brown, Black, Native-American, transgender.”

MSNBC host Joy Reid has also fielded criticisms from conservatives in recent weeks for referring to the coverage of Petito as “missing white women syndrome,” after she said missing Black and Indigenous women do not receive the same amount of attention.

Although Black Americans only represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they made up roughly a third of the missing persons files reported to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2020.

“It’s frustrating but it’s also not surprising at all,” Asa Todd, a host on the true-crime podcast Black Girl Missing, told Newsweek. “It’s disheartening looking at mainstream media.”

“When journalists are looking at these cases and looking at the most interesting, the most salacious, they can’t skip over Black and brown missing people because they’re not interested in it. It doesn’t evoke something in them or they don’t think that their viewership or readership will think that,” she added.

Todd—whose podcast explores the stories of Black girls who have gone missing “to uncover the truth about their disappearances”—said while certain tales may not be covered nationally, she’s seen a shift in the conversations on social media that have opened up discussion for those cases.

“A lot of time, families [of missing Black girls] feel like they’re screaming into the void because no one except either their immediate circle or communities are pushing for these girls to be found,” she said.

Wilson—who has worked for both the Arlington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia and the City of Falls Church Police Department—said one of the reasons many of the more than 182,000 missing persons cases involving Black Americans do not receive the same level of media coverage is that many are classified as runaways or criminals, which can drastically shape the stories about them.

“Law enforcement oftentimes—especially when a child from the Black community is missing—classifies them as runaways. Runaways are not on AMBER alerts, runaways don’t receive that urgency from the general public,” she said.

In hopes of centralizing information about missing Black girls, Todd and her co-hosts created the hashtag #AishaAlert, another take of the AMBER alert.

“Social media can be very disjointed when it comes to looking for missing people, so in creating that hashtag, we’re hoping to streamline it and put everything in one place,” Todd explained.

Wilson said that in order to combat racial stereotypes, officers need to receive “enhanced training” for missing person cases so that individuals can be properly identified.

“Police have to take [reports] seriously,” Todd said. “Just because you see a Black family say ‘My daughter is missing,’ you can’t automatically say, ‘Well, she must be a runaway.”

She explained that by assuming these girls are choosing to run away, officials may believe that allocating resources to finding them could be useless if they presume those girls will run away again once they’re found.

“Teenagers run away all the time but teenagers run away from something,” Todd said. “Why isn’t there an investigation into why these kids are leaving home? Homes are supposed to be where you feel safe, where you feel comfort. There has to be something going on in the home that causes a teenager to leave and run away.”

The recent case involving Petito has also led some to question the virality of her disappearance and whether or not true crime narratives cause more damage than good for missing persons.

But Todd said her podcast exists in a unique space, especially at a time when no one else will pay attention to those stories.

“When we’re doing the podcast, we’re coming from a place of empathy and community,” she said. “We look at these girls like they are our own sisters, children. We’re covering these [stories] in a different lens. We’re not doing it to be salacious or to be purely entertaining. We’re doing it so that we get these girls’ names out and so that these stories can be told from an empathetic and sensitive way.”

Todd said she hopes Petito’s case will be a turning point for other missing Black girls, “but we’ve seen that when the cases of Black girls and women have gone missing—back a few years ago when there were so many missing girls in D.C., which got some mainstream media attention—it all dwindled out fairly quickly.”

“Missing persons is not a Black issue or a white issue, it’s an American issue. We all have a responsibility in bringing closure,” Wilson said.

Photo credit: Newsweek

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