Disappearance Discrepancies – How socioeconomic status and race can influence missing persons investigations

CAMDEN, Del. – By now, you’ve probably heard the name Gabby Petito. The 22-year-old was reported missing, and later found murdered. Her story has captured the attention of millions. But even here on the local level, people go missing every day, and don’t always get the same coverage. What makes those stories different? And why?

Disappearance On Delmarva

Take the case of Christine Sheddy from right here on Delmarva. “Christine was a very outgoing, outspoken young woman. She was a really good mom, a single mom, and there were issues like with any single mom,” said Sheddy’s mother, Lynn Dodenhoff. “She wasn’t perfect, but she was a good hearted person. She would do anything for you.”

26-year-old Sheddy went missing in 2007. For two years, her family was left waiting for closure. That’s until her remains were found buried on the property of a bed and breakfast in Snow Hill in 2009. The discovery left Dodenhoff caring for Sheddy’s three children, and fighting for answers. “You have to just beat the doors down. I mean, that’s all you can do. Make the noise. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. That’s what you have to do,” said Dodenhoff.

Dodenhoff says she feels that over those two years that her daughter was missing, police weren’t taking the disappearance seriously. That’s why Dodenhoff took to MySpace. But back then, social media wasn’t what it is today. Instead of a campaign of retweeting and sharing information about her missing daughter, Dodenhoff was looking for that information herself. “I saw Christine playing on MySpace. So, I figured this is the way you got to go. When she went missing I learned how to do it. Then it’s like a mom network. You reach out to different people and they tell you different things,” she said.

Perception Is Everything

As those two years went on, it became all too clear to Dodenhoff that perception is key to how different cases are handled. She says one investigator even called Sheddy a “sponge on society” because she didn’t have a steady work history. “Before we found Christine, there was a body found in Pocomoke. It belonged to a prostitute,” said Dodenhoff. “That same person that told me about my daughter being a sponge on society – I asked him ‘Is this my daughter?’ and he goes ‘No, you don’t have to worry about it. That’s not her.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He goes, ‘She’s an undesirable.'”

“Undesirable” is a far cry from how other victims like Petito have been portrayed. “Good family, well-liked by the community, you know? It’s all perception of what somebody is, I think, that gets the attention. If Christine had come from means and she was well-respected community, I think a lot of things would have been done differently,” said Dodenhoff.

And Dodenhoff might be right about things being done differently. As Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli explains it, sometimes media attention can make or break a case. Or, it can push investigators to dig deeper. “There are times when maybe that one person hears someone talking about the case, or just that one person can put a vehicle or a suspect a scene. That can ultimately break a case and bring it to a successful closure,” said Sheriff Crisafulli.

But Sheriff Crisafulli also says while media exposure can help to find those missing pieces, it isn’t very useful if each case isn’t covered in the same way. “I really can’t answer why they would pick one case over another. All missing person cases are the utmost importance for law enforcement agencies,” said Sheriff Crisafulli.

Missing White Woman Syndrome

Dodenhoff says certain investigators carried biases throughout her daughter’s investigation. As she tells 47ABC, Dodenhoff says those ideas of who Sheddy was as a person might have something to do with what she calls a lack of attention on the case at the time. She adds that it’s not just socioeconomic status or reputation that can stand in the way of justice being served. “How many people of color go missing? I mean, you go to NamUs, and the amount of people on there that are missing is unbelievable,” said Dodenhoff.

That all has to do with something called “Missing White Woman Syndrome”. It’s a term used to describe the phenomenon of disproportionate law enforcement or media coverage of missing persons cases involving young, white, upper-middle class women and girls. The term is also used in the context of violent crimes.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, nearly 40% of all missing persons cases involve people of color. But African Americans only make up 13% of the U.S. population. For indigenous women, those statistics are only more discouraging. Indigenous women and girls are murdered ten times more than all other ethnicities, according to Native Womens Wilderness.

A Lasting Legacy

Today, Dodenhoff says she has more confidence in local law enforcement. She says she thanks Sheriff Crisafulli for his dedication to making sure that all cases are treated equally. Dodenhoff says her daughter’s story has even brought her closer together with the Sheriff and his department. “We’re like all friends. They’re welcoming. They don’t shut me out,” said Dodenhoff.

But most of all, Dodenhoff says she won’t ever stop telling her daughter’s story, or the stories of others at risk of being forgotten. And she encourages other families in similar situations to do the same. “It’s never been about me. It’s been about changing the way people think about somebody. I mean, somebody loved that person,” said Dodenhoff. “Do not give up. Know what’s in your heart is right, and above all, be honest with your answers, because they’re going to ask you some hard questions.”

Resources

The following is a list of resources for families dealing with a missing persons case.

Black & Missing Foundation

Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

Missing Person Support Center

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

National Missing and Unidentified Persons System

Categories: Delaware, Local News, Maryland, Virginia