When Claire Donawa learned about Gabby Petito, she said she immediately noticed how much media attention and resources went into searching for the white 22-year-old travel blogger, who went missing in August 2021.
Petito was touring the country in a van alongside her fiance until her disappearance launched a nationwide search, and “Gabby Petito” soon became a household name.
Donawa, a Black woman and senior at the Kansas City Art Institute, said the case made her think of all the people who could be missing right here in Kansas City. She began studying missing persons for school and questioning which cases get the level of attention and resources that went into finding Petito.
“There are so many other missing people of color that we barely hear about,” Donawa said. “What would happen if I went missing?”
These days, she is not the only one asking questions like that.
Over the past few weeks, Kansas City’s Black community put a spotlight on the issue of missing Black women after The Kansas City Defender posted that it heard concerns of Black women missing in the city, and after a 22-year-old Black woman escaped from an Excelsior Springs home where she reported to police that she had been held and abused for nearly a month after being kidnapped from Kansas City. Timothy M. Haslett Jr. is charged in the case.
More than 250,000 women of all ages went missing in the United States in 2021, and more than a third of those cases were Black women and girls, according to the National Crime and Information Center, which collects data on missing women nationwide.
According to Missouri State Highway Patrol’s active missing persons database, there are at least 44 missing Black women in Jackson County, which is more than a third of the missing women in the county and nearly 18% of the total missing persons in the county.
Police said they did not know the 22-year-old victim found in Excelsior Springs was missing because they didn’t have a missing person report on file for her.
The process of reporting a person missing can be complicated, and seeing action from a report is not necessarily a straightforward process, leaving a lot of room for law enforcement’s discretion.
Here’s how to file a missing persons report, what is supposed to happen after and who you can call if you are worried about a loved one.
When can you file a missing persons report?
The Kansas City Police Department’s policy for filing a missing persons report for adults requires that a person be missing or absent from their normal routines for a time that knowledgeable parties find suspicious. There is no strictly defined time period beyond what the person reporting finds suspicious.
What all goes into a missing persons report?
When filing a missing persons report, you can include the following information:
What are some barriers to filing a missing persons report?
The community outcry around the Excelsior Springs case has also raised questions about the effectiveness of reporting crimes to the police, with some especially in Kansas City’s Black community fearing that their cases wouldn’t be taken seriously by officials or local media.
“African Americans, we just don’t get that kind of attention,” said Theda Person, founder of Looking for an Angel, a Missouri-based nonprofit dedicated to finding missing persons in Missouri.
Person’s own son went missing in 2003, and she said she understands from her own experience how hard it can be to get buy-in from local law enforcement when searching for a missing person, especially if that missing person is Black.
Studies have shown that race can have an impact on a person’s chances of being recovered after going missing. The National Library of Medicine published a 2018 study, which found that Black children on average are missing for longer than non-Black children.
The researchers found that a lack of media coverage, a lack of resources and mobility and a lack of effort from police and investigators are all contributing factors to why many missing Black children are not recovered.
“Missing persons investigations are undertaken the same regardless of race. We understand there will always be some in our community that are not pleased with us and we will always strive to strengthen those relationships,” Sgt. Jacob Becchina of KCPD told The Star in a statement.
Person said she works predominantly with Black families all over the state of Missouri and has had several families opt out of filing a missing persons report to the police because they believe the person will be judged.
“Sometimes they know that the people are doing some things that the public may not approve of,” Person said, explaining that families fear reporting someone missing if that person may possibly be involved in something potentially illegal. “But my thing is: missing is missing. Period.”
Is it worth it to file a missing persons report?
Person added that filing a police report is one of the only ways to get the missing person entered into state and national databases by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, National Crime Information Center and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Three missing persons advocates who spoke to The Star all agreed that police departments are often spread thin and don’t always investigate cases as thoroughly as some families would like, but reporting missing persons to the police is still a necessary first step to recovering a loved one.
What does a case need for police to accept a missing persons report?
According to KCPD, when someone tries to file a missing persons report, the police will review the situation and try to gauge what kind of missing persons case it is and whether there was a crime involved.
To report a missing person, the person has to be last seen in Kansas City and meet at least one or more of six additional criteria that the police use to decide if there needs to be a report completed for a missing adult.
Those criteria include if the person has a life threatening ailment, if the person is in the care of a psychiatrist, if the person has threatened suicide, if they suffer from a diminishing mental capacity or medical condition, if the person has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or lastly, if the police detect a “strong indication of foul play.”
If a case for a missing adult does not fit in any of those categories, police may not complete the official report.
“If those criteria are not met then a report is not completed,” Becchina said in an emailed statement, adding that if those cases are not completed they will not be entered into state and national missing person databases as missing.
Licensed private investigator Marlene Rockwell has been working with families in Missouri who are looking for missing persons for 25 years. She said in her experience as an investigator, police often pour more resources into cases when they can tell that a crime has been committed.
Otherwise, when a person goes missing, some loved ones turn to her private investigating firm to get answers about their loved ones whereabouts.
“If you’re an adult, It’s not a crime to go missing,” said Rockwell. “Because if law enforcement thinks ‘Oh there’s probably no foul play,’ then nobody’s gonna look, nobody’s gonna investigate.”
What happens after a report is filed?
For adult cases where foul play is suspected, the department will send at least one officer to look further into the case after the report is filed. After that, a lot is left to the discretion of local police to decide when and how to move forward.
If a child is reported missing, two officers will be sent to further investigate the child’s whereabouts and determine if there was any foul play. If parents or caregivers suspect someone has been kidnapped or that there is foul play, the department will issue an Amber alert.
The department will also give the family a direct contact to follow-up with if the child can’t be located in a timely manner.
If police do not suspect that the missing person is in any immediate danger, the case will likely not take priority over cases where there is evidence of a crime, according to KCPD’s policy.
In April, the KCPD disbanded its missing persons cold case squad, which has impacted the amount of resources dedicated to missing persons cases, police chief Rick Smith told reporters in April.
Currently, the department does have a Juvenile Missing Persons squad which includes seven detectives and two sergeants. Missing adult cases are investigated by the sex crimes and missing persons unit which also includes seven detectives and two sergeants, according to Becchina.
Keeping track of missing persons reports
When a missing persons report is filed with local police, state law requires the department to immediately enter the report into a database called the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System.
From there, the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) is supposed to take all the missing person’s reports and add them to its own public database. According to the state highway patrol, it will also work to create a flier for the missing person, post that flier on missing persons websites and work as a liaison between families and local law enforcement.
Once MSHP posts a missing person report, it will also automatically be sent to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which can help get that information out to other police departments nationwide. But advocates say that since NCIC’s database is reserved for law enforcement agencies, families dealing with a missing person should make sure that their person is also reported to National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).
Anyone can report a missing person to NamUs so long as they make an account. Once the report is filed to NamUs, the organization will confirm the missing person with a local law enforcement agency before posting the entry on its website.
Extra help and family support raises chances of finding someone
Rockwell said many families she works with hire an investigator so there can be a simultaneous investigation going on alongside law enforcement but private investigators are not very cheap. Rockwell’s firm charges a $10,000 flat fee to investigate missing persons.
Rockwell said she understands that’s not possible for all families, noting that in addition to race, money and status can be a major barrier to recovering a missing loved one.
“Definitely money and position in the community plays a part in how people’s cases are taken,” Rockwell said, adding that she’s observed cases that involve prominent families receive much more resources and attention from the public than other missing persons cases.
Maureen Reintjes of Missouri Missing, Inc., an organization dedicated to supporting families with missing persons, said another major barrier to finding people is having loved ones that never stop looking.
Reintjes said families that “don’t take no for an answer” are more likely to keep pushing police and local media to investigate their case and promote their cause.
“They need to stay in the public’s eye, do a flier pass out, do vigils, and do anything that will keep their loved one out there,” said Reintjes, who’s been working on issues related to missing persons since 2005.
Beyond holding police and local media to account, Person said that more communities need to push elected officials to pass laws that require police and state agencies to dedicate a certain amount of time and resources to missing persons cases.
“We can’t really just look at the police, even though the police are the problem in a lot of these situations,” Person said. “Those state representatives need to create laws that mandate that the police make fliers in a certain amount of time…make local or state leaders do a survey to find out how many people have been deprived of their right to report a loved one.”
Person suggested impacted families and advocates attend public meetings and make sure issues regarding missing persons are added to those agendas.
Who to call for support for a missing person
Aside from making a report, there are a number of organizations that are dedicated to helping recover missing persons.