The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the Petito case grips the nation, families of color say their missing loved ones matter, too

An undated photo of Tiffany Foster. The mother of three from Newnan, Ga., has not been seen or heard from since March 1. (Courtesy of Kimberly Bryan)

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the name of Tiffany Foster’s sister as Kimberly Bryant. It is Kimberly Bryan. The article has been corrected.

The last time Kimberly Bryan spoke to her sister, Tiffany Foster was showing off her new car. Bryan cracked some jokes about how it was about time but also told her big sister how proud she was. Foster was getting close to graduating from college, and everything seemed to be lining up for her.

That was more than six months ago. Foster, a 35-year-old Black mother of three from Newnan, Ga., has not been seen or heard from since March 1.

Bryan and her family handed out fliers, spoke at news conferences and hosted rallies to draw attention to Foster’s disappearance, but the case has remained mostly unknown outside their home state. So when Bryan saw the surge of interest in the Gabby Petito case, the difference was impossible to ignore.

“It does make you feel, you know, ‘Well, what about us?’ ” Bryan said. “When are we going to get her face out nationally? When are we going to get the FBI come in and help us out? We didn’t get that, and I’m asking my mom, ‘Well, why?’ And it’s no answers. We have a lot of questions with no answers.”

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In the weeks since Petito was reported missing during a cross-country trip with her fiance, her story has captured national and international attention, dominating TikTok and other social media networks and garnering around-the-clock national news coverage. Partly due to the tremendous public awareness, tips flowed to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, and the body of the 22-year-old woman was discovered Sunday near Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.

FBI asks public for help finding Gabby Petito’s fiance after autopsy shows she died by homicide

A manhunt for fiance Brian Laundrie, whom authorities named a “person of interest” in the case, continues. News outlets and social media users continue to track every development.

The groundswell of concern for Petito has revived perennial questions about why some missing-person cases attract such a dedicated response while others barely draw notice with many observers seeing a racial disparity at play. Between 2011 and 2020, at least 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in Wyoming, the same state where Petito, who is White, was lost and found within a matter of days.

Bryan doesn’t understand why the story of her sister, a Georgia Military College student with dreams of becoming a police officer, has not spread as widely. But, she noted, “I do feel like it could possibly be because my sister doesn’t have blond hair and blue eyes.”

Research suggests that victims who are White, attractive, young and seemingly “innocent” gain more traction in the media, said Michelle N. Jeanis, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who studies the relationship between crime and news and entertainment media.

Jeanis said research indicates that the supposedly democratizing force of social media follows the same patterns of bias as in the traditional media realm, in that “individuals of color are less likely to receive likes and clicks and shares.”

As the Petito story progresses, though, the window for the conversation about racial disparities has widened to longer than a day for the first time that Jeanis can remember.

“I’m seeing a huge difference. Every time we have a high-profile White woman that goes missing, I get phone calls first about the case and then about the disparity,” she told The Washington Post. “This time it’s different; people want to talk about the disparity.”

Perhaps as a result, lesser-known missing-people cases — particularly Black and Indigenous people — have begun to see a boost. On social media, the Gabby Petito hashtag now carries posts with their names. Names such as Lauren “El” Cho, a 30-year-old musician last seen June 28 in California’s Yucca Valley; Jelani Day, a 25-year-old Illinois State University graduate student reported missing Aug. 25 from Bloomington, Ill.; and Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old geologist who vanished from a Phoenix-area job site June 23.

Robinson’s father, David Robinson II, has spent the past three months focused on finding his son, traveling from his home in South Carolina to Arizona and hiring a private investigator. He was so consumed with rallying volunteers for search parties that he didn’t digest the news from the United States’ chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, a conflict he served in. He didn’t know about Petito’s case until relatives texted it to him.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Robinson said. “It hurt me to hear some other family is going through the same thing at the same time.”

Before hearing about Petito, Robinson had watched the number of people in Arizona vanish every year. “And I missed how many people of color, and Native Americans — and especially women — go missing. I had never known those things until it happened to me,” he said. “It seems we’re being somehow ignored, I guess. Like [people of color] are seen as less important.”

But in recent days, he’s noticed a sudden burst in awareness. A tweet about his son’s disappearance went viral, and more people signed a two-week-old petition calling on the Buckeye Police Department to treat the case as a criminal matter.

Donations poured into a GoFundMe campaign launched in July to help with the search effort; on Wednesday, the campaign shot past its goal with more than 1,000 new donations in the prior 24 hours. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Robinson, who had run out of funds and was making the painful decision to return to South Carolina.

“I was really hurting. I was prepared to leave,” he said, “but I want to be here for my son.”

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Like Robinson, Seve Day was immersed in coordinating social media campaigns and search efforts for his brother Jelani to absorb the fire hose of coverage from the Petito case. When he saw how quickly the FBI jumped into her case and how much national attention it received, the comparison to his family’s struggle for attention and resources stung: Day has been missing for a month with no breakthroughs. A body was discovered Sept. 5 near the area where Day’s empty car was found, but officials said a backlog would delay a positive identification.

On Wednesday, Seve Day said his family was still waiting on word. Although Petito’s search did not end with her found alive, Day wished for certainty at least.

“This is a common issue that [we] as minorities have faced for a long time: Whenever it comes to getting equal energy for a situation — and in this case, trying to find my brother — the same efforts and attention is hard for us to get,” Day said.

Among those trying to build awareness of the case is Haley Toumaian. The 24-year-old Los Angeles-area data analyst drew a following of hundreds of thousands of people by posting TikTok videos about Petito’s story. With part of that case cracked, she pledged to highlight others, focusing especially on people of color.

She posted videos about Robinson and Day on Tuesday, urging her followers to share information about their cases.

“With the Gabby Petito case, I realized how many people I could reach, and I didn’t want to just stop there,” Toumaian said in an interview. “I really think that the power of social media can potentially help find other people.”

She was missing for months, surviving on grass and moss. Police found her when a drone crashed.

Bryan said she’s noticed a little more attention being paid to her sister’s case, and she has started appealing to social media influencers to talk about her sister. She tells them, “Hey, you have a lot of followers — can you post my sister’s flier? Can you ask your followers if they’ve seen her?”

Over the past six months, her family has learned “bits and pieces” about her disappearance. The Coweta County Sheriff’s Office reported that Foster, who also goes by Tiffany Starks, was last known to be headed out shopping. Days after Bryan last heard from her, her car was found with her wallet and keys inside. Foster’s fiance, Reginald Robertson, was criminally charged for moving the vehicle, according to local media. He has not been named a suspect in her disappearance.

It’s been a hard six months for the family. Foster’s children have been staying with relatives; her 15-year-old daughter recently got her first job, and, Bryan said, “That’s something that she should be able to share with her mom.”

She said part of her worries that so much time has passed, the case will go unsolved. But, she added, “I don’t feel if the shoe was on the other foot that she would give up on me. And I’m not going to do that for her.”

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