‘My daughter is important too’: Exploring racial disparities in missing women’s cases


ST. LOUIS — Since the country watched the story behind the death of Gabby Petito unfold in real-time, questions have come up about the dozens of women of color who are missing in the St. Louis metro area right now.

FOX 2 asked multiple law enforcement agencies if and why there are seemingly differences between resources and attention given to certain missing persons cases.

Frustrations have risen in the Black communities who see a stark difference in the intensity of coverage and resources used in missing persons cases.

There are 48 missing Black women in the St. Louis area.

Gabby Petito’s case captured the eyes of the nation. It was a somber search continuing daily until Petito was found. Law enforcement from multiple agencies, FBI, forensic pathologists, and anthropologists were all resources released in the cross-country efforts.

In Berkeley, Paula Hill is still waiting nearly 13 years later to get updates on her daughter, Shemika Cosey.

“They just keep saying that they haven’t gotten any leads on anything,” Hill said. “Give me someone to come and talk to me, email me, come to my house, or call me. I just need someone to sit down and talk to me.”

This is a mother’s plea who is holding on to hope with what she feels is little help compared to the slew of officers she saw in the search for Petito.

“I can say that it hurts because my daughter is important too. My daughter is important enough for you to get those resources that you have,” Hill said.

Shemika’s pictures are still plastered on the walls of her home, and there’s a Facebook page created to keep her name in circulation.

“No search was done because they figured she was gone with someone,” Hill said. “They said it was an older guy and she would be back because it was over the Christmas holiday.”

Shemika was characterized as a runaway. Her story was seemingly forgotten.

“I do not understand why cases of color missing colored people are not getting the same as Gabby’s case did,” Hill said.

“As a Black man, I can understand some of their frustrations,” said Col. Art Jackson, Berkeley Police Chief.

The question for those with missing loved ones is how the FBI becomes involved in some searches.

St. Louis’s FBI office explained the key is federal or state jurisdiction.

Petito was found murdered in a national park, and crimes on federal property put the jurisdiction squarely on the FBI.

St. Louis Metro Police said all cases are investigated the same regardless of ethnicity, gender, or the age of the adult. Hill had hoped the Berkeley Police Department would ask for that aid in Shemika’s case.

Jackson was not the chief of police when Shemika vanished but said they call in resources depending on age, mental capabilities, physical abuse, or if cases involve crossing state lines.

“If we see it fits the criteria, we will ask another agency to get involved,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the funding and staff at police stations can contribute to the process of investigating.

He also mentioned the presence of social media playing a role in the attention given to certain cases.

“I’m not angry because it was done in another case because it should be done in every case. I’m angry because you did not feel my daughter was important enough to do the same thing,” Hill said.

The heart-wrenching feeling is shared by thousands. The National Crime Information Center reports in 2020, 90,333 black women vanished.

“I don’t remember seeing a Black get searched for until they found her,” Hill said.

It is simple to recall names like Gabby Petito or Natalee Holloway. Holloway vanished during a trip in Aruba in 2005 and gained international coverage. One report lists F-16 fighter planes used in the search for Holloway.

Family members of others who have vanished without the characteristics of blonde hair and blue eyes feel unprioritized. In recent memory, no missing Black women have made consistent national and local headlines.

Cosey has been carrying the weight for twelve years.

“I have so many thoughts that go through my head. You have no idea thinking about this for 12 years,” Hill said.

Jackson said it’s a team effort between law enforcement and the media when it comes to getting information to the public and investigating cases.

“I think we need a collaborative effort in cases like this whether they are Black, White, Hispanic, young or old,” Jackson said. “We still have that partnership and are able to put that out there.”

Hill said she believes the categorizing of Black children as runaways could also hinder searches and cause them to be less urgent.

Teary-eyed, Hill said she thinks of Shemika daily. She will take any opportunity to tell her story.

“I am a Black woman, and I love my Black daughter,” Hill said. “I want my Black daughter home the same as any other mother.”

Also, the importance of tackling bias and systemic racism are serious issues newsrooms across the country, including ours at KTVI/KPLR, are now reflecting on as we better serve our audiences.

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