What’s missing in ‘Missing Persons’ investigations?

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  • Published on June 21, 2023
  • In Investigative Journalism

5 takeaways to know if a friend or loved one mysteriously disappears. By Kristin Kuchno

This one of several articles in a series about Daniel Robinson and missing persons in U.S. To learn more, read the Publisher’s Note.

When David Robinson learned that his 24-year-old son was missing, he got in his car and drove across the country to find him. Unfortunately, for many African Americans and people of color, the decision to take matters into their own hands is all too common. There’s a long history of public distrust and criticism around Missing Persons investigations by U.S. law enforcement among people of color, from accusations of shoddy or insensitive police work to suspicions of racial bias. Here’s what Daniel Robinson’s case taught us about federal and local Missing Persons searches.

1. There are ‘levels’ in Missing Persons searches

The FBI only opens investigations for missing adults under certain circumstances, says Luke Hunt, a former FBI agent. For example, when foul play is suspected and the individual was last seen on federal property or is believed to have crossed state lines, the FBI could become involved, Hunt says. The FBI is also required to log missing children in the National Crime Information Center, an online index for crime justice data, due to the Missing Children Act of 1982. This is not the case for adults. And because some adults go missing intentionally, not all disappearances for those over 21 are even reported to law enforcement. Some go unreported due to a lack of trust in law enforcement, especially in communities of color.

Lost in Buckeye: Searching for Daniel Robinson

2. Race matters

Loved ones of missing African Americans and people of color report different responses from law enforcement than others. Derrica Wilson co-founded Black and Missing Foundation to address these disparities. The foundation assists families searching for missing people, from working with law enforcement and its local and national media partners to spreading the word through social media. When police reports are filed for missing children of color, she adds, it’s often assumed they’re runaways. When adults go missing, it’s assumed they’re involved in criminal activity. “So how do you go in there and say, ‘You know what, we’ll do it,’ without it being looked at as aggression,” says Bishop Anthony Holt, president of the West Valley NAACP chapter. “Because sometimes when we started doing things for ourselves, now it’s aggression. Now it’s defiance for law enforcement.”

Infographic: Missing persons by the numbers

3. Daniel Robinson is no Gabby Petito

According to Columbia Journalism Review’s “Are You Press Worthy?” tool, which calculates the likelihood of a news organization to cover a disappearance, missing White women, along with children, tend to get the most media coverage out of any demographic. A 24-year-old Black man in Tempe, Arizona — where Daniel Robinson lived — “is worth” 29 news stories compared to about 120 news stories for a White woman around the same age, says CJR. Two months after Daniel Robinson went missing, Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old White woman from New York (remains were found in Wyoming), disappeared in a separate case. The latter quickly made national headlines and garnered resources such as FBI agents, officers from multiple police departments, cadaver dogs and drone cameras, Wilson pointed out.

72 Hours in Buckeye, Arizona: The Search for Daniel Robinson

4. Loved ones can suffer from ‘Ambiguous Loss’

The term “ambiguous loss” refers to the psychological and social experience of a loved one disappearing, acting “as a barrier to adjusting to grief,” according to a study by BMC Psychology. As the West Valley NAACP’s Larnell Farmer puts it: “David hasn’t even had a chance to grieve, you know, that his son is missing because he hit the ground running,” he says. Holt adds: “There are many Daniel Robinson and David Robinson situations going on in this country. And unless it’s heard by family members who are going through this, everybody feels alone.”

Detour investigates: Searching for Daniel Robinson

5. Know the law

There are no federal laws that require reporting missing adults over 21, although some states require it, according to a paper made available by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. While the FBI doesn’t have the authority to open a federal investigation into a missing adult (unless the case meets certain criteria), federal agents can assist in other ways if it is requested by state or local agencies. This can entail conducting interviews, providing forensic support and sharing information. Often, families confuse Missing Persons policies with law. Wilson says many police departments have a “24-hour waiting period” before they will begin investigating to ensure the person is truly missing. “That is not federal law. Matter of fact, that’s not law at all,” Wilson says. “So that is just their internal policy and their procedures and it can be changed.”

This story was produced by the following team members from the Lost in Buckeye investigation:

Kristin Kuchno, Reporter
Kristin Kuchno is a journalist with experience in feature writing, breaking news reporting and copy editing. A St. Louis native, she graduated from the University of Missouri in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She previously wrote for the Columbia Missourian newspaper where she was the assistant city editor of the community beat.

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