Gabby Petito case example of ‘missing white woman syndrome,’ experts say

(NEW YORK) — In the two weeks since Gabby Petito went missing while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend, her story has gained national attention.

Petito’s case has made news headlines and gone viral online, with people everywhere trying to find clues and solve the case themselves. Adding to the intrigue in Petito’s case is the large social media footprint she left behind as she documented her travels cross-country with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie.

Officials confirmed Tuesday that a body found over the weekend near Grand Teton National Park belongs to 22-year-old Petito, but the national fascination with the case continues, as authorities search for Laundrie, currently a person of interest in the case.

It is a fascination that families of other missing people, particularly women of color, say they wish was turned to their own loved ones’ cases.

“Everybody who is missing loved ones is saying, ‘Why wasn’t my case done that like?"” said Paula Cosey Hill. “It’s very hard because it takes you back to when your child went missing.”

Cosey Hill’s then-16-year-old daughter, Shemika Cosey, disappeared without a trace near her home in St. Louis, Missouri, just a few days after Christmas in 2008.

She described watching the search for Petito unfold as an “emotional rollercoaster,” since she has both grieved for the Petito family and reflected on what did not happen in the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance.

“All the questions that weren’t answered with my daughter, I’m checking to see if they’re doing in that case,” said Cosey Hill. “When you report your loved one missing, you hear, ‘We’ll try to get someone on this,’ and they act as if they don’t have enough manpower to do it.”

“But as you can see, they can get enough manpower to do it,” she said. “They just choose which cases they want to do.”

Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc., an online search agency that helps search specifically for missing Black and Hispanic children, said minority children who go missing are often classified as runaways, which can lead to less media attention and less help from law enforcement.

Minority adults who go missing are often stereotyped as being involved in crime or violence, poverty and addiction, which takes attention away from their cases too, Wilson said.

“There’s frustration. There’s sadness,” she said of the people she works with who are searching for their missing loved ones. “We are meeting families at the worst points in their lives. They are frustrated because they’re not getting help from law enforcement or they’re frustrated because they’re not getting media coverage.”

At the end of 2020, the FBI had over 89,000 active missing person cases, and 45% of those were people of color, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

Only about one-fifth of missing person cases involving minorities are covered by the news, according to a 2016 analysis published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

“I think oftentimes the media and even law enforcement can show that [minority] lives are not as important,” Wilson said. “We have to remember that these are mothers and daughters and fathers and children that are missing and they are definitely needed and valued in our communities.”

The historic tendency for national attention to gloss over cases of missing people of color was dubbed “missing white woman syndrome” by Gwen Ifill, the late PBS anchor.

Many years later, the term coined by Ifill still applies in the U.S., according to Wilson, who noted the effort to publicize missing persons of color is not meant to divert resources, but to simply “equal the playing field.”

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for close to 14 years that this is an issue and we need to have that conversation, all of us, as to how we can change the narrative,” she said. “We’re not surprised by the publicity or the reaction [to Petito’s disappearance] and we are also hoping and working to keep our missing in the forefront as well.”

Maricris Drouaillet, of Riverside, California, said she too was not surprised by the reaction to Petito’s disappearance, but said it has brought up emotions of “hurt and heartbreak.”

Drouaillet and her family have spent nearly nine months searching for her sister, Maya Millete, a mother of three who disappeared from her home in Chula Vista, California, in January. Millete’s husband was named a person of interest in her disappearance in July.

“Even before Gabby’s case was out there, I felt that maybe if we were white or with money or had names, we probably would have gotten a different approach, more help and support,” said Drouaillet, whose family moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when Millete was 12. “That’s how I feel. That hurts a lot.”

Drouaillet said she and her family have led searches on their own since January, and have created a website and social media accounts to organize resources and call attention to their sister’s missing person case.

“Every missing person deserves to be in a headline,” she said. “We have to put awareness out there and seek help from the public, because a lot of times the public are the ones who help solve the case.”

In Wyoming, where Petito went missing and where her body was found, a state task force released a report in January on missing and murdered Indigenous people.

While 21% of Indigenous people, who are mostly girls, remained missing for 30 days or longer, only 11% of white people remained missing that long, according to the report.

The report also found that 30% of Indigenous missing and murdered people made the news, compared to 51% of white people. When coverage was done on Indigenous victims, it was more likely to “contain violent language, portray the victim in a negative light, and provide less information,” according to the report.

Cara Boyle Chambers, director of the division of victim services in Wyoming’s Attorney General office, said the Petito case has echoed the report’s findings.

“It highlighted exactly what we had pointed out, the disproportionate, very positive response to Gabby’s story versus a lot of other families who don’t have that attention and don’t have that closure that came, in the scheme of things, relatively quickly,” Boyle Chambers said. “We have families that are 20, 30 years of no answers and no remains to bury and no sense of closure.”

Boyle Chambers — who pointed out that two men went missing in June in the same area where Petito was last seen — said officials in Wyoming have worked since the report’s release to improve the collection of missing persons and criminal justice data.

The Petito case has also confirmed the importance of galvanizing media attention, including social media, according to Boyle Chambers.

“I think that is the biggest takeaway too from Gabby’s case, just how important the role of social media and people out there were in helping to locate her,” she said. “The more eyes you have on it, the better, which is why we’re having this whole conversation.”

Wilson, of the Black and Missing Foundation, said individual people can make a difference by sharing alerts about missing people and talking about missing person cases, involving minorities, in particular.

“We all have a responsibility, and that is law enforcement, the media and the community,” she said. “If you just have one tip, it can solve a case.”

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