When a Black person goes missing, families say their cases get left behind

When a Black person goes missing, families say their cases get left behind

ST. LOUIS — The last time Paula Hill saw her daughter Shemika Cosey was more than 15 years ago.

The 16-year-old was wearing blue jeans, a black long-sleeve shirt and a tan Old Navy coat. Though Shemika would be an adult now, in Hill’s mind, she’s still her baby.

Today, an image of Shemika’s brown eyes and big smile remains on the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, which went live a year before she went missing.

It was Hill, not a member of law enforcement, who figured out how to add her daughter to the database. She is still waiting for anyone with information to come forward.

Shemika is among the tens of thousands of people who go missing each year — what advocates call a “silent epidemic” in the United States, and one that affects Black and Indigenous women at disproportionate rates.

“My daughter was a sister, she was a cousin, an auntie — she was a person,” Hill told the PBS NewsHour. “We have not heard anything from her. No signs, no sightings. Nothing. Nothing at all. … She just disappeared.”

Missing persons advocates, experts and law enforcement officials interviewed for this story say there are no federal standards about how law enforcement agencies should investigate missing persons cases. There is no singular agency tasked with overseeing all missing persons cases or how individual law enforcement agencies handle them.

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While the federal government has standards for reporting a missing person, there is no federal requirement for agencies to enter missing persons cases into NamUs, and laws on these cases vary widely by state. For instance, while at least 16 states require law enforcement to enter missing or unidentified persons cases into NamUs, Missouri, like many other states, does not.

For these reasons, among others, there is a patchwork of data about who is missing, and what exists is likely an undercount, say some federal agencies and independent organizations who work on this issue.

In 2022, President Joe Biden signed Billy’s Law, which continued support for NamUs and aimed to increase accessibility and data sharing between NamUs and the National Crime Information Center.

But families who have advocated in this space for decades say for them, there remains little to no support or guidance for who can help and how. It’s often difficult to know what rights or power they have in an investigation.

There were more than 97,000 active missing persons cases nationwide at the end of 2022, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center statistics. Black people make up 31 percent of those cases, in a country where they account for 13 percent of the population, according to the latest census data.

Many of those families, such as Hill’s, are stuck in limbo.

For Missouri state Rep. Tricia Byrnes, the data is a key part of the problem.

“If we can create better data and more data points for people to get their eyes on this, we can ultimately work to bring more people home,” she said.

Byrnes is sponsoring a bill this year that would require law enforcement agencies in Missouri to enter missing persons cases into NamUs. It would also create guidelines for how state agencies should identify unidentified deceased people. The bill has advanced out of a state House committee.

As of this year, there are more than 1,300 active missing persons cases in Missouri, including more than 700 juveniles. More than half are Black.

All 21 active missing juvenile cases in Berkeley, where Shemika went missing, are Black children, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol database. The oldest case dates back to 2002 — a 14-year-old named Tammy Brown. Information on Tammy doesn’t exist in NamUs. There are no pictures of her in the state highway patrol’s database nor is there a poster with information on her case.

Experiencing a missing loved one is hard enough, said Natalie Wilson, who co-founded the Black and Missing Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to bring awareness to missing persons of color. Differing policies among local, state and federal agencies around missing persons makes it harder on families, she said.

Wilson pointed to the idea that you must wait 24 to 48 hours to report someone missing, when the reality is that states have their own laws around the reporting process.

Some states have proposed or passed legislation to improve laws and resources around reporting missing persons cases. Families in Texas successfully pushed for a law in 2021 that required law enforcement agencies to submit cases into the NamUs database within 60 days of someone filing an official missing persons report – though families argue the policy hasn’t been enforced enough.

READ MORE: How prejudice affects official search for missing Indigenous women, other women of color

Missouri state Sen. Angela Mosley is sponsoring a bill that would launch a “Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force.” If passed, this newly formed task force would submit an annual report with actions that could address violence against Black women and girls – an effort that would expire in 2026 unless otherwise extended. The bill passed the Senate and is currently in the House.

“They don’t take Black women’s cases seriously like they do our white sisters,” Mosley said.

Families in Missouri have taken to social media in recent months to spread the word of their missing loved ones. One Instagram post from VOP (Voice of the People) News, an independent St. Louis news source, called attention to four missing Black women and one child. It got nearly 3,000 likes. People sent their hopes and prayers in the comments, but also stressed the need for urgency.

“Get out here and find our queens. Let’s talk about what people have been sweeping under the rug. Missing queens and children,” one comment read.

When a white person goes missing, “we see them constantly all over social media, all over TV,” Mosley said. “We never hear about Black women when they go missing.”

Mosley and families like Hill’s say this has to change.

‘We can’t find her’

Though more than 15 years has passed since she last saw her daughter Shemika, Paula Hill keeps a missing persons poster on her front door, with hopes that someone will come forward one day with more information. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

On Dec. 28, 2008, the day Shemika went missing, she headed to visit her cousins in Berkeley, a small, mostly Black suburb of 8,000 outside St. Louis City. It’s something she did often.

The next day, those same cousins called Hill to ask where Shemika was. They hadn’t seen her.

That’s when the family started to make calls.

“We can’t find her,” Hill recalled.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol’s missing person database lists Dec. 30 as the day Shemika went missing — two days after she disappeared, Hill said. The Berkeley Police Department did not respond to a request for information about when it filed its report.

Hill said the department initially labeled Shemika as a “runaway,” something she said is unfounded.

“Berkeley told me, ‘Oh, she’s just gone with some guy probably, and she’ll be back before school,'” Hill said.

The Berkeley Police Department declined to release the police report about Shemika’s disappearance, saying that it could not speak about an ongoing investigation. It also cited the ongoing investigation in declining to answer questions about why Shemika was labeled a runaway and when and why her status was changed.

“I was really confused because I did not know what to think,” she added. “She’s 16 years old, but she’s never, ever done anything close to this before.”

This is an experience that other families searching for missing Black women share, said Wilson of Black and Missing Foundation.

It is typical for law enforcement agencies to look into whether a missing person has a criminal record, she added, but the quickness to label Black girls in particular as runaways affects how the public and the media look at their cases.

“Oftentimes when a person of color is missing, they are classified as a thug, a criminal, a burden on society. They are criminalized,” Wilson said. “Our girls are seen as promiscuous, fast. There are all of these stereotypes stacked against them.”

When a missing person is incorrectly listed as a runaway, “they basically vanish a second time,” California Sen. Steven Bradford said in a statement about his own state’s efforts to develop an alert system focused on missing Black children and Black young women. “They vanish from the police detectives’ workload. They vanish from the headlines. In many ways, no one even knows they are missing.”

The Berkeley Police Department declined to provide any information about its missing persons policy at the time of Shemika’s disappearance, including any rules about entering these types of cases into NamUs or other databases.

It has not responded to other requests on case files or developments since August 2023.

Berkeley’s most recent policy on missing children states that the police should immediately investigate “all complaints of missing or unidentified children, to include incidents involving runaway, abandonment, abduction, or other missing status.”

When asked whether officers searched for Shemika, the city clerk said in an email that the Berkeley Police Department “made a diligent effort” to try to locate her.

“So far, it has been without success. We continuously strive to develop additional leads in an effort to bring this case to a successful conclusion,” the email read. “Furthermore, we still investigate any and all ‘ACTIVE’ leads as they arise.”

Paula Hill is seen wearing a pin with her daughter Shemika Cosey’s face on it. It reads “MISSING PERSON.” Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

Hill said those early days of reporting her daughter’s disappearance were rough. Shemika had just gone to homecoming and was thinking about her future.

Months later, as the school year was ending, Hill went to Hazelwood West High School to look through her daughter’s locker for clues. The school didn’t know her daughter was gone, she said. The police did not notify the school that her daughter was missing, she added.

The Hazelwood School District did not respond to requests for information about how it learned Shemika was missing. The Berkeley Police Department did not respond to questions about its communications with the school.

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The state has a handful of regulations around missing people. One of them, a 1994 statute on missing persons records, notes that “no agency should delay investigating a missing persons case on the basis of an agency rule which specifies an automatic time limitation for a missing person investigation.”

The state Legislature passed an update to this law last year that further defined a “missing child” as anyone under 18, foster children regardless of age, emancipated minors, homeless youth or unaccompanied minors. It also clarifies several steps in the process, saying that any parent, guardian or agency in care of a child who goes missing should file a report with law enforcement within two hours. Officers should then immediately submit the missing person report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and pursue a “proper investigation and search” for the child. The law also now requires law enforcement to keep in contact with whomever filed the complaint, and requires entries to stay in missing persons systems until they are found or the case is closed.

The state’s Amber Alert system was established in 2003, five years before Shemika’s disappearance. Missouri policy says the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in a missing persons case has the sole authority to activate an alert. For an alert to go out, certain criteria must be met, including a reasonable belief an abduction has occurred, a credible threat of serious bodily injury or death, the existence of adequate information about the victim and the abductor. The victim also must be 17 years or younger, and their information has been entered into the National Crime Information Center system. Law enforcement agencies use the database to access information about stolen property, sex offenders, criminal histories, among other subjects related to public safety.

Discrepancies persist within the way Amber Alerts are used across the country, which allow more people, specifically people of color, to slip through the cracks, Wilson said. In essence, the state has alerts or advisories for two groups of people: minors and seniors, she said.

“The challenge is that the majority of the people who go missing don’t fall into those two boxes. So, I asked the question, ‘Don’t they deserve an alert as well?'”

How bias affects missing persons cases

If a police investigation happens swiftly, a lack of media coverage can still negatively affect the search for a missing person, advocates for families of missing people said.

Wilson’s co-launched her foundation in 2008, the same year Shemika disappeared.

Wilson and her sister-in-law, Derrica Wilson, noticed how little the media covered the case of Tamika Huston, a Black woman who went missing in 2004 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. They created the Black and Missing Foundation with the intent of being at the forefront of a movement to ensure missing Black people are not discounted, ignored or forgotten.

The Columbia Journalism Review, a publication for journalists that also serves as a media watchdog, created an online tool that calculated a person’s “press value,” or the amount of coverage someone’s case would receive based on factors like race, gender and geographic location. It’s meant to illuminate how implicit bias fuels “missing white woman syndrome,” a phrase coined by the late PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill to describe when media coverage and attention heavily favors missing cases involving white women, but isn’t as extensive for cases with people of color.

When details about Shemika are entered into the website, it says the 16-year-old would be “worth” 11 news stories. A missing white woman in her early 20s would “usually be covered in over 120 news stories.” A maximum of 14.4 percent of Americans would hear about Shemika’s case, the site added.

Though Shemika’s story garnered some attention across the country, Hill said she wishes she knew back then what she knows now, not only about navigating the process for missing persons cases but also using her voice.

“I feel a whole lot of guilt with feeling like I should have made more noise,” she said. “I really didn’t know what to do.”

After Shemika vanished, Hill said she lost nearly 100 pounds and was diagnosed with a thyroid disease.

“I had to go to the emergency room, my body was just shutting down,” she said.

Ryan Sorrell, founder and executive editor of the Kansas City Defender, witnessed firsthand the power of a community’s push to use its voice.

The Black nonprofit and community-led media outlet began receiving tips from readers in September 2022 about Black women going missing, something he said is a decades-old issue.

There was something different about this case, he said.

There was a surge in missing Black women from a particular area called Prospect Avenue in Kansas City, according to the reports from the community.

The Defender later published a piece that drew attention to the missing women. Without reaching out to the outlet or any of the city’s Black leaders, the Kansas City Police Department dismissed the report as unfounded rumors and said there was no basis to support the claims.

Other local media outlets also discounted the story as “unfounded.” The pushback prompted Sorrell to write an open letter to the community.

The letter delivered a simple message to Black Kansas Citians: We have your back.

“Too often, white media contributes to a violent structure of ignoring, silencing, and marginalizing Black people in favor of reporting an ‘objective’ truth that is only police-propagated narratives,” he wrote, detailing numerous instances where the police lied to residents.

“Even if the white media attempts to smear us for doing so, we will continue to listen to the community, uphold their concerns, and amplify their voices.”

News broke a month later that a Black woman under the alias TJ had escaped from a home where she was held captive by a white man in Excelsior Springs, 30 minutes away from the city. It wasn’t until days later that Sorrell learned that the woman was from Prospect Avenue.

The Defender made sure “the truth was brought to light, especially for everybody who disparaged not only our organization, but silenced the people in the community who are concerned about the police,” he said.

Pushing for change

Outside of Missouri, other states have started to build policy around the issue of missing Black women.

A new California law that took effect this year created an “Ebony Alert” system for Black youth and women reported missing “under unexplained or suspicious circumstances.”

The law notes that missing children listed as runaways get “no media coverage, and less police and government resources.” That mislabeling will also provide a loophole for law enforcement to delay response to their case, it added.

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Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered African American Women Task Force released a report in 2022 that said Black women and girls in the state are nearly three times as likely to be murdered as their white peers.

The group, which the Minnesota Legislature created the previous year, issued several recommendations, including calls for the state to establish an office supporting missing and murdered Black women and girls.

Daniel Douglas, a lieutenant in the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, served on Minnesota’s task force and has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement.

As a white officer who grew up in a middle class family, he said it was important for him to have real conversations with people who don’t look like him to learn more about experiences beyond his own, especially in the case of missing and murdered Black women and girls.

“It’s just the magnitude of a missing person … there’s a life here in the balance,” Douglas said.

The lieutenant oversees detectives who investigate mostly sex crimes and deaths. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the barriers that investigators face in locating a missing person. Often, it isn’t immediately clear that a crime is committed, which can make things difficult when they are trying to manage other types of cases, too.

“When you’ve got a known crime that you’ve been assigned, that has to take priority over a missing person. That sounds terrible, he said, but that’s traditionally how law enforcement has always looked at it. “We’re working to change that.”

Resources are also a challenge. Douglas said people may think law enforcement agencies have dedicated missing persons units, but that is often not the case. St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance “has got two of a force of 400” focus on missing people, he said. In other departments, detectives on these cases are woven into their family crimes unit.

An important part of the work that needs to be done on the nation’s missing persons cases is rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the Black community and people of color, Douglas said.

“This has been shoved off into the shadows and the margins of today’s world but we need to talk about it,” he said.

For instance, the lieutenant said, it’s frustrating to see how much attention stolen vehicles get when a dog is inside, compared to missing human beings.

We want the dog returned, Douglas said, yet every day young people are being kidnaped, trafficked, sexually assaulted or murdered.

“Women and girls go missing every day and no one seems to care,” he said. “We don’t want to talk about that. That’s uncomfortable.”

Without support, families come together

Theda Person is seen wearing a pin with a picture of her son, Christian Ferguson. On it is the day he went missing: June 11, 2003. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

For Hill, the lack of clarity and help from law enforcement is why families of Black missing persons heavily rely on each other.

After her daughter’s disappearance, Hill turned to Theda Person, someone who already knew the pain of a missing child.

Person’s 9-year-old son, Christian Ferguson, went missing in 2003 in St. Louis. In the days after her son vanished, she remembers making a U-turn on her drive to work and thinking, “They could fire me if they want.” She needed to make sure people were looking for her child.

“I definitely was in the city hall trying to get them to do something,” she said.

The boy’s father, who had full custody at the time, told police his vehicle was stolen with Christian inside. Christian has a rare genetic disorder and could not walk or talk. Without proper medication, he could have died within two days, according to court documents. Sixteen years after Christian disappeared, his father was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Christian’s body was never found. For years, the grief took a toll on Person.

People would say, “Oh, you’re so strong,'” but they didn’t know what those foundational stages of distress were like, she said.

Like Hill, Person also struggled to get justice for her son. She then launched Looking for an Angel, a nonprofit founded in Christian’s memory that helps families navigate both the reporting and the searching process.

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After her own daughter went missing, Hill remembered seeing Person in a 2010 news report. Person was interviewed about an event raising awareness about her son’s disappearance.

Person became the first person Hill met that made her feel less alone.

“I’ve been attached to her since,” Hill said.

The solace Hill found in Person went both ways.

“Me being able to help anybody was helping myself. So it was just therapeutic in that I didn’t feel like I was alone,” Person said.

They were inspired to help other people who were missing their children.

“Everybody is somebody’s baby. Why do we have to tell you that if this person goes missing, you need to go look for them?” Person said.

Missouri lawmakers and community members have advocated for better legislation in recent years to update the state’s policy on missing persons.

Lawmakers in 2016 proposed establishing an office designed to assist families in maneuvering the system when their loved ones disappeared. That bill didn’t make it out of committee. Five years later, another bill proposed requiring law enforcement to add current photos of missing persons to their profiles within 10 days of a report being filed. Person testified in a public hearing for that bill before it died on the state House floor.

In 2023, 20 years after her son disappeared, Person called on St. Louis City to launch a “CTF alert” — named using her son’s initials — that would notify the community that a person with medical needs was missing. The bill is being taken up again this legislative session. So is Sen. Mosley’s bill that would establish a Missing and Murdered Black Women Task Force.

Shemika has been missing for more than 15 years. To Hill, that feels shocking.

“My child is somebody. She is somebody,” she said.

Shemika will turn 32 in October. Hill has not given up hope. She won’t stop looking for her baby.

“That’s what I’ll do for the rest of my life,” she said.

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