In cities across the country, hundreds of youth, particularly young people of color, are reported missing each year. Recent news about teens going missing in Washington, D.C., has garnered local and national attention and concern.
This month, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has been using social media to bring public awareness to open cases. A continual series of tweets on Twitter showing the faces of missing teens, predominantly teens of color, began to alarm social media users.
The MPD replied to a concerned Twitter user on March 9:
There isn't a spike in missing people in DC, we're just using social media more to help locate them. Sorry to alarm you @__SoulFlower
— DC Police Department (@DCPoliceDept) March 9, 2017
But as the month progressed social media users, including some celebrities, reflected a deep concern for what was perceived as a rapid increase in Black and Latina girls missing in a short period of time. An inaccurate social media post claiming that 14 girls had vanished in a single day went viral, and the hashtag #missingDCgirls trended.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser; Chanel Dickerson, the recently appointed commander of the police and leader of the Youth and Family Services Division; and acting D.C. Police Chief Newsham said in a press conference Thursday that there is not an increase in missing person cases, only a change in the way cases are being publicized. In the past, it was optional to publicize such cases.
According to MPD, “critical missing person cases” are being tweeted out with the name and photo of the individual. Cases that fall under that category include individuals age 15 and under, including habitual runaways, and people 65 and over.
The MPD website states that, as of Sunday, there have been a total of 812 missing person cases in 2017, of which 523 were juveniles, many of them Black or Latino. A total of 790 cases have been closed this year. There are 22 open cases, in which 13 are missing teens. Ten cases are considered critical, and three are considered non-critical.
The data shows that the number of missing juvenile cases in the D.C. dropped from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016.
Click here to see more information on missing persons.
Change did come as a result of the public outcry, which included members of the Congressional Black Caucus calling on the FBI to assist D.C. police in their investigation of missing children. Bowser announced a new initiative on Friday to address missing young people in the city.
“One missing young person, is one too many, and these new initiatives will help us do more to find and protect young people, particularly young girls of color, across our city,” she said in a statement.
The six initiatives include:
1) An increase in the number of MPD officers assigned to children and family services division.
– The newly assigned officers will share the responsibility of locating youth who have been reported missing.
2) An expansion of the MPD missing person’s webpage and social media messaging to include a case catalog with broader information.
– The updated MPD site will share more information about missing youth including: the circumstances of the child, the MPD officer assigned to the case and more images. When the child is located, the date will be noted.
3) Establishing a missing persons evaluation and reconnection resources collaborative.
– The Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants (OVSJG), and identified community-based organizations will assist MPD with a comprehensive evaluation of youth who are found or return home to assess the circumstances around their departure.
4) OVSJG and CFSA will lead a working group.
– The agencies will lead a director level-working group to analyze individual open cases, assess and analyze trends and manage resource requests.
5) Additional grant support from agencies.
– The office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services (DMHHS) and OVSJG will identify and promote grant funding to both advocacy and community-based organizations.
6) PSA announcements to support public education addressing missing youth in D.C.
– The Mayor’s Office of Communication and the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment will create and promote the 800-RUN-AWAY hotline.
According to the mayor’s office, “When it comes to missing juveniles, a significant number have been reported missing on more than one occasion, and they are usually quickly found or return home.”
The MPD said there is no evidence to suggest the recent missing person cases are connected to human trafficking.
“We have no indication to believe young girls in the District are being preyed upon by human traffickers in large numbers. The numbers of reported missing persons aren’t going up,” Dickerson of the MPD told WAMU in an interview.
Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the non-profit Black & Missing Foundation that tracks such cases, however, says human trafficking cannot be dismissed as a possible cause of the disappearances.
Wilson applauds the police for their efforts but said the community’s fear is valid.
“What’s alarming is the number of kids going missing in such a short period of time,” Wilson said in an interview, “and although they have not linked it directly to human trafficking, we can’t dismiss that that’s an issue we face right here.”
Wilson, who co-founded the Black & Missing Foundation because of the racial disparity between the way police and the media treat missing persons cases. She mentioned that the D.C. region is a prime target for human trafficking crimes.
“The metropolitan area is an easy way in and an easy way out,” Wilson said. “So you have the port in Baltimore, 495 as a corridor and some of the cases that have come to our attention have been the result of human trafficking.”
She was referencing a recent case of an autistic Baltimore girl who vanished for six days this month. She was found in Prince George’s County, and law enforcement is investigating if it is a case of trafficking.
Wilson said missing persons should be a concern to all Americans.
“It doesn’t matter what your color is, because honestly missing persons isn’t a Black issue, it isn’t a white issue — it’s an American issue,” Wilson said, according to WAMU.