Families of missing black Americans fight for media, police to focus on their cases

Paula Hill says police didn't search for her daughter, Shemika, when she went missing because law enforcement believed she ran away - a common complaint from families of missing black Americans.
9:52 | 07/23/19

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Transcript for Families of missing black Americans fight for media, police to focus on their cases
It's very hard living day to day not knowing where your child Reporter: Paula hill hopes that someone who sees these photos will help bring her missing daughter home and help mend her broken heart. She's 8 over here. Reporter: Ten long years have passed since the young black girl in these precious memories disappeared without a trace. Her name is Shamika kozy. She vanished just a few days after Christmas that year. On December the 28th, 2008, that was the last day that I seen her. You've come back to this neighborhood a number of times. Yeah. Reporter: Her daughter was here just outside St. Louis watching movies with her cousins and wh everyone woke up the next morning and found she was gone. She was 16 years old, a door was unlocked, and police believed she ran away so they never searched for the girl. They're not doing anything because they think she's gone on her own. I don't know what to do. I didn't know who to turn to. Shamika cozy's story was different in that she vanished without a trace. Reporter: Shaundrae Thomas is a news reporter who produces a podcast documenting disappeared -- she says police in the press often dismiss black cases as runaways. It has been difficult to get some of these stories told when it comes to mission pieces of color, cold cases involving people of color. And I felt if I can do my part as far as having this podcast I can tell any story I want about whoever I want however I want for however long I want to. Reporter: At the center for missing and exploited children director Robert Lowry told us that roughly 800,000 Americans go missing each year. What percentage of those are African-American or of color? About 60% of the reports that we see here in the U.S. That go into those data bases. Reporter: More than half. Well over half. It really breaks a lot of commonly held thought on who are really the missing children in the U.S. Reporter: The numbers show that missing black Americans are disproportionately represented. In 2018 more than 30% of all missing persons were black Americans despite making up just 13% of the total U.S. Population. But only around a fifth of those cases are followed by the news. Frustrated with little help and even less attention, Paula hill and her family went searching on her own. Reporter: This idea she ran away, you don't believe that? No. Do I believe she left her home with someone? Yes. She was intending to come back. They're gone for ten years. Reporter: We are in front of the Berkley police station. This is the police department that was investigating this case. We ended up sitting down with major art Jackson, who is of course African-American, and defends the way police are handling the case. How come the police never did a search on this? There was no evidence to support a physical search. This is one of the hardest things to investigate, is a missing person. Especially if a person is missing like I said, with no signs of anything, just voluntarily walks away. Now, if a person is missing they've been kidnapped you're going to have signs of struggle you're going to have things to go by to help you put that piece of the puzzle together. So in reality sometimes law enforcement and sometimes media we're like hey, this person did it voluntarily. So that's on them. It is quite the mystery and -- Reporter: There are dozens of missing persons cases that I've followed over the last few years where the effort on the ground and on the airwaves was massive and hopeful. But all of these cases have one significant thing in common. The victims were white Americans. I was one of the reporters covering 17-year-old Kaitlyn fresina in 2017, who went missing in Florida. At the same time 14-year-old yania jevon Carter disappeared near Atlanta. Carter didn't get half the media attention. But luckily she was found alive. Natalie and dereka Wilson run a foundation that helps search for missing black and hispanic children. There are so many families of color who are desperately searching for their missing loved sxwurngs they are just asking for just one second or a couple of seconds of media coverage and it can change the narrative for them. We also understand that the decision makers don't look like us. And so these cases are not sensitive enough to want to air it. Reporter: We got more than an earful from this group of parents and loved ones of missing black children in Washington, D.C. They told us they'd take a fraction of the compassion and attention that went to the families of Natalie Holloway, Elizabeth smart, Lacey Peterson, and so many others. When you see me as an African-American in this country out covering these cases over and over again of missing white children, it's depressing to you? Yes. I know how many missing people of color who are missing. I say what we do is homework to talk about us. Yeah. It pissed me off to see you reporting somebody's child other than mines. Me and this person's child went missing around the same time, but I had to fight to get mines on local news and this person's on national news with their FBI overnight. Exactly. I was like I'm tired and I'm frustrated and I'm pissed. Reporter: They want America to take a greater interest in these names. Unique Harris. Christian muse. Relisha rudd. Keeshae Jacobs. And Terrence woods Jr., who went missing last October. Tell me if you each can tell me about your missing -- your loved ones. Well, my daughter unique, I definitely miss her jovial attitude. She always could just walk in a room and brighten up the room, and she kept me laughing even when I didn't want to laugh. Keeshae. She was 21 when she went missing. But she was still my baby. She's the one that we used to have movie nights and she'd lay up in the bed with me and we'd watch movies and eat popcorn. As a child, 8-year-old normal child, her laughter, her playfulness, she was very beautiful. I'll have dreams about Christian, and in these dreams I'll be boo-hooing and crying in my dream, but then I'll wake one that same feeling of sorrow and no physical tears are coming out. My son Terrence, he was my best friend. This just recently happened. Every Christmas he would put up the Christmas tree. So this Christmas it was like really different. He was with 11 other people, but he's the only one that went missing without a physical trace. Like she was just saying, it just hit me like a gut shot on Tuesday nights he would sit in my room and we'd watch five together and watch a movie together. I don't even like walking down the hall going towards his room. Nobody's really helping out. Reporter: Terrence woods Jr. Went missing last fall in the forests of oro grand, Idaho where he was shooting a documentary. Within a week police ended the search, saying no leads were obtained and no signs of Mr. Woods had been located in the search area. They also say they're continuing to monitor the situation. His father says they've told him nothing since. I think a lot of people get the misunderstanding that we immediately get help from the police department. That's not the case. Reporter: But there's a small ray of hope shining on the horizon. At the national center for missing and exploited children they're bringing in representatives from local law enforcement and the news departments in the D.C. Area to point these differences out. We've initiated a minority children initiative here to examine that very question. Those large-scale searches in our experience have been predominantly for caucasian children. Reasons that we don't always Reporter: As for the families, their voices filled with anger and frustration, they say they'll never stop looking. So a number of you have been dealing with this for years. What advice do you give to this father who's four months in? I'm going to tell you straight up. Don't give up. Like you said, don't accept nothing nobody say. Can't nobody tell you no. And you keep fighting till you can't fight no more. And remember, that's your child and nobody, and I mean nobody is going to fight for your child like you do. Reporter: Do you expect to get answers? Oh, yeah. Everything in my heart is telling me that keeshae is alive. But I believe she is coming home to me. Terrence. My son is coming home. Reporter: Paula hill shares this determined optimism. She and her other two children have submitted DNA samples to a national registry, praying for a match. And this is her and her big sister. Reporter: And when she's down, she looks through these memories of the daughter she's missing and finds her joy. I still have hope that one night I'm going to find my child. Reporter: For "Nightline" I'm Steve osunsami in Washington.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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