a missing persons poster on a greenish background.

Disappeared

Do We Have an Epidemic of Missing Women?


A quarter of a million women and teenage girls are reported missing every year in the U.S. And many of these cases are connected to male violence.



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For a fleeting moment in 2021, we had a media flurry over missing women in America when YouTube influencer Gabby Petito was reported missing on September 11. But in the months since, that media frenzy and all the discourse around it has evaporated. 

It’s not that no other women have gone missing since Petito. It’s that too many have.

Over a quarter of a million women and girls are reported missing every year in the U.S. But those statistics, and the names and faces that accompany them, rarely register on our radar unless the missing person is from our local community. Even as the search for Petito was a daily headline, leading cable news, the media failed to mention this unfathomable number of missing women was never mentioned.

And it seemed that the moment Petito’s body was recovered on September 19, nearly a month after she was last seen, we stopped hearing about this ongoing epidemic of criminal proportions.

This is not hyperbole—the numbers are stunning, the root causes ignored, the fixes ephemeral. If no one reports on these women, on how many there are and how little is done to find them, how do we end the epidemic? 

As of January 2, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice has listed 21,258 open missing persons cases. But there are likely more that are unreported. How many Americans are aware of these statistics? More importantly: How many in law enforcement and media—those who can actually assist in finding these women and girls—know these statistics? 

As we now know, Petito was last seen during an altercation with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, in the Merry Piglets Tex-Mex restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming, on August 27, 2021. She was never seen alive again. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was manual strangulation–a domestic violence killing.

The remains of her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, the only suspect in Petito’s murder, were found a month later, on October 21, in a remote area of the Carlton Reserve in North Port, Florida, near where he lived with his parents. He was alleged by his family to have left their home for a hike, five days before Petito’s remains were found.

Throughout the weeks-long search for Petito and Laundrie, the issue of missing women was a topic of local, national, and cable news. But that discourse never moved much beyond Petito and a few other well-publicized past cases of other missing white women, like Natalee Holloway and Laci Petersen. 

Nor was there further investigation into the links between male-perpetrated violence–particularly domestic violence–and missing women. Laundrie’s abuse of Petito was publicly documented in the final weeks of her life. Two recent high-profile cases of missing women also involved domestic violence: Shanann Watts’s husband, Chris, strangled her to death when she was 15 weeks pregnant, then smothered their two daughters, Bella and Celeste, and buried all of them in a remote location in Colorado in August 2018. Connecticut mother of five Jennifer Farber Dulos disappeared in May 2019—her body hasn’t been found, but her estranged husband, Fotis Dulos, was charged with her murder and was thought to have dismembered her.

Though our culture is obsessed with true crime, the breadth of the epidemic of missing women has barely been touched by legacy media, even though an annual average of 664,776 missing-persons records have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database between 2007 and 2020. The statistics from National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs)—a national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases across the U.S. operated by the U.S. Department of Justice—over 600,000 people go missing in the U.S. each year. Of those, about 80 percent of missing minors and 75 percent of missing adults are found within 24 to 72 hours. NamUs reports that tens of thousands remain missing for more than one year and some of those found are deceased. In addition, NamUs stats also show about 4,400 unidentified bodies are found each year with 13,885 unidentified persons as current open cases. Their data reveal not only the sheer volume of missing persons but also the haphazard nature of law enforcement’s reporting— “the nation’s silent mass disaster,” as Lucas Zarwell, director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Services, National Institute of Justice, calls it.

While the attractive, charismatic Petito captured the online imaginations of a still-largely locked-down America devoted to social-media trends, the question of which missing women get attention was raised repeatedly by BIPOC reporters. When Petito’s story was leading the news, MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid was talking about “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” a term coined by the late Gwen Ifill, who once said, “If it’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that, every day.” On The Reid Out, Reid said, “The way this story [Petito’s] captivated the nation has many wondering why not the same media attention when people of color go missing?”

Yet no one mentioned the numbers. In 2020, there were 321,859 cases of missing white people filed by the NCIC; 182,548  missing Black people; 10,776 Asian people; 9,575 Indigenous/Native Americans; and 18,260 where the race was unknown. There are no NCIC or FBI statistics for missing Latinx people, who are currently grouped in data with white people, making it difficult to assess how many missing Latina women and children there are in the U.S., an inexcusable oversight in 2021 when nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population is Latinx.

Most disproportionate of all these shocking statistics are the volume of cases of missing Native and Indigenous women. In Montana alone, 26 percent of all missing persons cases are Native women and girls, who comprise fewer than 7 percent of the state’s population.

Though Black journalists led the discourse about the segregated coverage of missing women, national reporting failed to change their course, the missing women stories receding from the media spotlight, while thousands of women and girls have disappeared.  

But why does the media have so little interest in the fact of something so astonishing and so, well, headline-worthy as: THOUSANDS OF WOMEN ARE MISSING IN THE U.S.? These cases share something else in common: They often involve domestic violence. Just as mass shooters nearly always have a history of violence against women, missing women are most often victims of domestic violence.

That legacy media and law enforcement have failed to make the connection between missing women and girls and domestic violence and male rage is as unfathomable as it is unconscionable when the facts are clearly evident in law enforcement statistics. The FBI reports more than 80 percent of violent crimes are committed by men, with 99.1 percent of rapes committed by men and 88.7 percent of murders and manslaughters committed by men. The percentage of violent crimes against women and girls—another hidden epidemic—is exponential.  

The Bureau of Justice Statistics on Family Violence Statistics put men and male violence at the locus of domestic violence. Males accounted for 75.6 percent of family violence offenders and 80.4 percent of non-family violence offenders. Among violent crimes against a spouse, 86.1 percent of the offenders were male; against a boyfriend or girlfriend, 82.4 percent; and against a stranger, 86 percent of the offenders were male. 

The commonality of male violence is routinely accepted as a given at every level of society, including the criminal justice system. Whether it’s Kyle Rittenhouse being acquitted of murder and assault or Christopher Belter getting probation for raping four teenage girls, violence perpetrated against women and girls has always been an integral part of our culture. Consider that when Donald Trump was elected he had been accused of rape, sexual assault and battery by a number of women, not least of whom by his first wife. The allegations barely elicited a shrug. The Republican Party not only permits, but appears to encourage abuse against women and girls, with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) under investigation for sex-trafficking girls—and he has yet to be stripped of committees or forced to resign. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), threatening the life of colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), was defended by GOP leadership, even as Speaker Pelosi demanded he be censured.

It is amid this social landscape that thousands of women and girls go missing—many of whom are victims of violence. Perpetrators of male violence are more strongly protected in our nation than are the victims of that violence. Where did Brian Laundrie’s parents think Gabby Petito was when he returned home in her van, with her credit cards and belongings, but without her? Why, when 911 calls came in about Laundrie abusing Petito in public, did police joke with Laundrie while Petito cried? 

That incident, recorded on bodycam video released by Utah law enforcement, shows Petito treated not as an obvious victim, but as Brian Laundrie described her, an annoying whiner. While Petito was sobbing to one officer, Laundrie was laughing to another—while watching her cry. The police officers ignored that classic domestic-violence scenario. 

Legacy media told Petito’s story every day for weeks. We became familiar with her as a person—her YouTube videos and the many photos of her were on our daily newscasts. Telling the stories of missing women and humanizing them is crucial to making these women matter.  We became part of the urgent search for the missing Gabby Petito because the media told us to get involved. But how do we convey the urgency of finding thousands of women and girls and assess the role misogyny and male violence plays in why their disappearances barely register with either law enforcement or legacy media?  

Domestic violence is estimated to affect 10 million people in the U.S. every year, according to the National Institutes of Health, with one in three women a victim. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which recognized that domestic violence is a national crime. The law was reauthorized by the House in 2021, but not without a struggle and it nearly expired–despite the fact that domestic violence intensified under Covid lockdowns.

The epidemic of missing women runs parallel to the epidemic of violence against women, raising many questions. We accept that male violence against women is commonplace. Perpetrators are often turned into victims by law enforcement, the criminal justice system and the media. Serial rapists like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have continued to assault women with impunity without everyone—including women—ignoring their crimes. Two men accused of sexual harassment and assault could not have been confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court without half the Senate ignoring the crimes they were accused of and dismissing their female victims. Rape and sexual assault are the least prosecuted of violent crimes– with only 5 in 1,000 rape cases making it to trial. Women’s autonomy is increasingly made inaccessible and even criminalized. Even an infrastructure bill that prioritizes childcare—which remains female-centered unpaid labor in the U.S.—is debated and whittled down while the defense budget is repeatedly increased.  

Misogyny is a social foundation in this nation and the plight of missing women and girls is a component of that. The unreported facts of missing women and girls are brutal. In 2020, 209,375 females under 21 were reported missing. It is presumed by law enforcement that there are more missing than reported. Out of those, only a handful of cases made national news and only a few dozen made local news in their respective locales.

Consider the case of Valencia College student Miya Marcano, whose disappearance was able to garner national media attention. Marcano, 19, was young, attractive and middle class. A massive search for her began immediately after she was reported missing on Sept. 24. Her body—bound with duct tape—was found in woods near her Orlando, Florida, apartment on Oct. 2. She had been  stalked by Armando Caballero, 27, who died by suicide on Sept. 27, just days after her murder. Caballero was the sole suspect. Marcano was a victim of male violence—stalked, trapped, kidnapped, “disappeared,” and killed—but the media discourse never explored male violence. 

On April 22, 2020, 20-year-old Army specialist Vanessa Guillén disappeared from her post in Fort Hood, Texas. A full week passed before a search was instituted by the Army and a statement was made by Fort Hood to enlist the help of the local community, even though  Guillén’s car keys, identification card, bank card and barracks key were found inside the armory where she worked on the day of her disappearance

The initial claim was that she was absent without leave. Guillén had complained of sexual harassment and assault by another soldier at the Army post. It took a protest outside Fort Hood before her disappearance got national news coverage—two months after she went missing. Two weeks later, Guillén’s remains were found buried along the Leon River. She was beaten to death with a hammer inside the armory on the day of her disappearance by, not surprisingly, the man she’d accused of harassing her, Army Specialist Aaron David Robinson, 20. Robinson died by suicide on July 1, as he was about to be arrested. Guillén’s murder, and the investigation into the mishandling of her case at Fort Hood led to disciplinary action at the military base, as well as  some attention to how cases of missing women of color are handled by both authorities and media. Some being the operant word. Because, as ever, the stories ended when Guillén’s remains were found. 

When Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming, advocates for missing Indigenous women and girls called attention to their own statistics regarding their community in that state. At least 710 Indigenous people, mostly teenage girls, have gone missing in Wyoming in the past decade. According to a January 2021 report published by Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, 85 percent were minors and 57 percent were female. The report states that 50 percent of missing Indigenous people are found within one week, while 21 percent remain missing for 30 days or longer, with only 11 percent of white people remaining missing for that long. 

Crucial media coverage of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people was also far lower than for white people. The report stated only 30 percent of Indigenous homicide victims were covered by news media, compared with 51 percent of white victims. Wyoming Survey and Analysis Research Scientist Emily Grant, who worked on the report, added that when the murders of Indigenous people are covered, news reports were “overly graphic,” Grant said. “So you know, if [a white person] dies with firearms, you know, they may say ‘a gunshot wound.’ But in Indigenous cases, we’re seeing very graphic depictions of the body of the crime scene. The circumstances are just extra violent.” 

Lynette Grey Bull sits on the Wyoming Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Grey Bull, who ran for Congress in 2020, said in an interview with the BBC, “I’ve sat with families that I couldn’t give any answers to. It’s a heavy burden to carry these stories and voices.” Particularly when these stories are rarely told. This is the confluence of misogyny and racism that is a foundational aspect of this epidemic of missing women. 

The disappearance of Mary Johnson, a member of the Tulalip Tribes, exemplifies this. Last seen on Nov. 25, 2020, Johnson was going to meet friends, walking down a road on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington state. She wasn’t reported missing until Dec. 9, 2020. While her disappearance is being investigated by the FBI’s Seattle Field Office and the Tulalip Tribal Police, it wasn’t until Sept. 18, 2021—almost a full year later—that the FBI offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the “identification, arrest, and conviction” of whoever is responsible for Johnson’s disappearance. 

“If that was a little white girl out there or a white woman, I’m sure they would have had helicopters, airplanes and dogs and searches—a lot of manpower out there—scouring where that person was lost,” her older sister, Nona Blouin, told CNN. “None of that has happened for our sister.”

Which is the constant refrain from relatives in missing persons cases, like Bobbi Ann Campbell, a working-class white 24-year-old mother who went missing on January 7, 1995 on her way to pick up her paycheck. She has never been found.

Campbell struggled with addiction, and was listed as an endangered adult when she was reported missing. She went missing without a trace, and there are few police reports on her case until six months after she went missing, when her abandoned car with her purse and other belongings were found. News reports at the time alleged Campbell “led a transient lifestyle,” when in fact she worked for a temp agency and was the sole caretaker for her young daughter, Stephanie Cook, who was 5 years old at the time. 

In 2016, Stephanie tried to raise funds to reopen an investigation into her mother’s disappearance, talking to local Utah media. “She was going to pick up her paycheck,” Cook said. “I fell asleep waiting and she never came home.” 

Campbell came up in the news again during the search for Petito, along with 800 people listed as missing in Utah by the Bureau of Criminal Identification. A private detective on the case believes Campbell was the victim of an accidental death and her friend disposed of her body “in a panic.”

The temptation to report case after case of individual missing women here is enormous—we read dozens of stories of missing women and girls, each worthy of telling, each heartbreakingly compelling and a maddening mystery with few being followed by law enforcement or media.

Roberta Hacker, the co-founder of the Philadelphia Women’s Death Review Team, said that “class, race, age and overall lifestyle” are defining factors when it comes to engagement from law enforcement or garnering media attention. “The lives of women involved in sex work, entangled in the web of addictions, living in extreme poverty and often also homelessness often fall into a category of low social worth,” she said. These missing women, Hacker explained, “are easily overlooked or are given a low priority for investigators.” She said that some families of missing women and girls report their relatives missing days or even weeks after the disappearance due to fears of involvement with law enforcement. 

“Finding missing women and girls is an extremely complicated, dirty job, requiring hours of gumshoe effort searching for information, finding and talking to acquaintances, witnesses or informants, finding and collecting physical evidence, and searching records in databases,” said Hacker. And that often requires private detectives and money that families of the missing don’t have. Law enforcement explains that any delay can complicate efforts to find missing women and girls. Most missing people are found within 24 to 48 hours; after 72 hours it is, said one law enforcement official, mostly a recovery mission to bring closure to the family.

Tim Dees, formerly with the Reno Police Department, now a retired police officer and criminal justice professor, notes the complicating factor of teasing out who is missing voluntarily and who is not. “Missing persons are usually given fairly low priority. This is because most missing persons cases get reported when the subject decides to go missing voluntarily and not tell anyone. If the missing person is located, the only closure is to ensure they’re not in danger. If that’s the case, the detective is told, ‘Your missing person was located alive and well by the XYZ Police Department,’ and relays this information to the reporting party, omitting where they were located. There’s generally no law against being missing, if that’s what you want to do.”

One of the most disturbing details in this investigation is the discovery that most law enforcement agencies do not have a separate missing persons department and each state has a different protocol for reporting missing persons. An article in the Police Magazine journal on the U.S. Department of Justice website clarifies what most Americans don’t know. The search for missing persons is limited in scope and many police departments don’t have detectives assigned specifically to locate missing adults, even when reports are made that such people are endangered like Petito and Campbell, or a wanted suspect in a murder, like Laundrie.

Expeditious reporting of the missing is crucial, say law enforcement experts. Former FBI Special Agent in Charge and ABC News contributor Steve Gomez explained the necessity for immediacy in locating a missing person, noting the first 72 hours are critical.

“There’s a certain point after about a week or two where you have to think, the potential that the missing person is dead and now it’s a matter of trying to find their body and bring closure to the family and to determine if you now have a homicide investigation, or suicide, or some kind of accidental death,” Gomez told ABC News

Social media has become a key tool in finding missing persons—it can produce leads, as it did in the Petito, Marcano and Guillén cases. Yet without clear knowledge that people are in fact missing, how likely is it that they will be found—or found alive? That is the question that continues to haunt families of the missing. 

The crisis extends beyond those crucial questions of the disparity of coverage of missing white women versus missing women of color to include class and age and social strata. The staggering numbers of missing women and girls, the concomitant fact that many of them are found dead as victims of male violence—or never found at all—must be examined. The clear and congruent connection between male violence and missing women has yet to be fully told and explored. Until we unpack that story and the way in which our current political and social milieu aids and abets that, the vast majority of these  cases will remain unknown and unsolved and the male violence that so often precipitated these crimes will continue, unchecked and  unreported, the victims unfound.   

 

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