A number of young people from Washington, D.C.—in particular, young black girls—are missing.
In fact, more than 500 children and teens have gone missing in our nation’s capital since the beginning of 2017. So, while our nation focuses attention on the disappearance of a white Tennessee school teacher and his female student, many think not enough is being done to find the youth missing from the D.C. area.
The latest account is that 12 black teen girls have disappeared between March 19 and March 25. While some dismiss these accounts as spurious, they have drawn attention to an issue that has spurred some very real reactions. For example, not one amber alert has been issued to make citizens aware of these missing children of color.
Chanel Dickerson, the new commander of the D.C. Police Youth and Family division, came up with the idea of using social media to get the word—and photos—out about these missing children. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser started a Twitter account to publicize every case deemed “critical,” assigned more officers to each case, and expanded programs aimed at runaways. So far this month, they have tweeted 27 missing-person flyers of missing minors ages 10-17.
But these postings should not distract from the bigger issue: the racial dimensions of how law enforcement treats these missing children compared to others.
More attention, more diversion
The Washington Metropolitan Police Department insists that nothing sinister is behind the recent disappearances, and says the number of missing girls isn’t increasing. Black members of Congress are calling on the FBI to investigate these large numbers of missing black and Latino children in our nation’s capital. But now the focus has shifted: black parents, the black Congressional caucus, black activists, and celebrities are drawing attention to the failure of the police and media to bring more awareness of these cases rather than addressing why these kids are missing in the first place.
Yesha Callahan of The Root asks how often cases like this are given the spotlight in comparison to cases featuring our white counterparts. This phenomenon, first called “missing white woman syndrome” by PBS reporter Gwen Ifill, occurs when the mainstream media gives more attention and preference to missing young, attractive, white girls and women from middle- or upper-class homes, than to those who don’t fit that criteria—particularly girls of color. Well-known cases of nearly nonstop coverage include Natalee Holloway, who disappeared on a trip to Aruba in 2005 following her high school graduation, and Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped as a teenager in 2002 before being rescued nine months later.
Why is this happening?
One school of thought suggests that dealing with missing minority children might expose the ugly truth about possible anger and abuse in single, black, female-headed households; it posits that some ran away to escape unbearable living conditions at home.
Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the nonprofit Black & Missing Foundation, has a different perspective. Wilson applauds the police for their efforts, but says 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, “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 points to the recent case of an autistic Baltimore girl who vanished for six days this month. She was found in Prince George’s County, and police are investigating whether she was the victim of human trafficking. Wilson says the D.C. region is a prime target for these type of crimes.
“The metropolitan area is an easy way in and an easy way out,” said Wilson. ”So you have the port in Baltimore [and] I-495 as a corridor, and some of the cases that have come to our attention are the result of human trafficking.”
Wilson says that while social media has been a great tool for police in alerting the public to missing teens, it is also a place where predators are targeting juveniles who are simply putting too much information out there.
“One of the things we’re encouraging parents to do is create a fictitious social media account, and try and befriend their child online to see exactly what they are putting online,” Wilson said.
One missing young person is one too many. If you have information on the missing teenagers of DC, call the Washington, D.C., Police Department at (202) 727-9099.