WASHINGTON ― In mid-March, The Huffington Post and other news outlets published stories about the number of missing black and Latinx teenagers in the nation’s capital. In the time since, Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department has tried to address concerns about the rate of missing teens.
During a March 16 press conference, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the yearly rate of people reported missing in the District has remained constant since 2014, meaning the latest reports don’t constitute an uptick. She added there’s no evidence to suggest the recent missing-person reports are somehow related to human trafficking.
Bowser’s remarks didn’t do much to reassure D.C. locals or social media users. On March 22, tensions between the police and the predominantly black residents of Ward 8 flared during a town hall held to further address concerns. D.C.’s interim police Chief Peter Newsham, who at times seemed slightly dismissive of residents’ concerns about trafficking, was interrupted more than once by attendees who wanted more concrete answers from the department. One woman told the panel that while the current cases of missing teens may not be linked to human trafficking, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening in general.
In truth, this is a complicated issue. MPD’s stance is that more kids aren’t being reported missing, there’s no evidence of human traffickers taking these teens, and police are actively doing their best to make sure all the teens come home safely. But some members of the community aren’t convinced that the police are as concerned about the missing teens as they are. There are also questions about which missing kids get Amber Alerts, what the department is doing to combat the stigma surrounding runaways and why no one seems to know the precise number of missing teens.
The Huffington Post is going to answer some of these questions for you. If you have any questions not addressed here that you’d like answered, please submit them using this Google form. We’ll update this post if we can provide an answer.
How many juveniles are missing in D.C. right now?
Twenty-six as of March 27, according to MPD.
Is that number going to change?
Almost certainly ― the number fluctuates quite a bit. MPD closes 95 percent of missing-person cases, and there’s no minimum waiting period if someone wants to report a kid missing. So the department might tweet about a missing child on Tuesday, for example, but by Wednesday the child will have been located.
At least 501 out of 774 people reported missing in D.C. this year are juveniles. MPD has closed 95 percent of missing-person cases this year, Newsham said, and he assured the public that most teens reported missing are ultimately located or returned home. The department is also making an effort to publicize information about every missing person deemed “critically missing.”
MPD has faced criticism for not updating the public in a timely manner once a missing kid has been found. They have begun taking steps to change this, including launching a web page with the most recent missing-persons information.
Why aren’t Amber Alerts issued for all of these teens?
According to federal activation criteria, in order for an Amber Alert to be issued, an abduction of a person under the age of 18 must be confirmed. Law enforcement officials have to make the case that the juvenile is at risk of serious bodily harm or injury. Sufficient descriptive information ― such as what the child was wearing or a license plate number for the abductor ― must also be available.
Most missing-person cases don’t fit these criteria. But some people argue that the criteria should be expanded to include runaways. A teen who technically left home willingly, but who was actually lured away by a trafficker, wouldn’t fall under the heading of a “confirmed abduction” ― and thus the case wouldn’t get the same police or media attention as a full-fledged Amber Alert.
“When you have a teenager who is groomed by a potential trafficker, who’s lured away, that would fall under the runaway category because they were not physically abducted,” said Mary Graw Leary, a law professor at the Catholic University of America and a co-author of Perspectives on Missing Persons Cases. “But I think we’d all agree that that has a different scenario to it than the child who doesn’t like home and runs away.”
Why do kids run away from home? And what about human trafficking?
Human trafficking remains a huge community concern. The current missing-person cases haven’t been confirmed as evidence of trafficking, but speaking generally, it does go on in the District. Confirmed sex trafficking victims are overwhelmingly female, and 40 percent of them are black, based on data from a 2013 Justice Department report. Meanwhile, Latinx people account for 56 percent of confirmed labor trafficking victims.
Juveniles are reported missing for a number of reasons. It’s typically because they failed to check in at home, work or school for innocuous reasons. But there are cases that revolve around conflicts at home. When younger children are reported missing, they could have been taken by a relative during a custody battle. Missing teenagers are more likely to be running away from physical or sexual abuse.
Black and Latinx teens are more susceptible to the type of abuse that causes a teen to run away from home because they’re more likely to live in a high-risk environment. Risk factors that could lead to a child being trafficked for sex include parental substance abuse and physical or sexual abuse at home. Teens in the LGBTQ community and kids in foster care are at an even greater risk, Leary said.
Some kids run away because they have a behavioral or mental illness. April, a mom who spoke at the town hall, told the crowd that her daughter is a chronic runaway due to a mental illness. She claims she didn’t hear from MPD for 72 hours after filing a missing-person report for her daughter. April eventually found her daughter on her own in an abandoned building.
What does MPD do when a kid is returned home?
When a missing juvenile is found, MPD completes an evaluation of the child’s family circumstances once he or she returns home. “If there’s any indication that the child could be in any kind of danger, then we’ll take appropriate action,” Newsham said. “If necessary, we will get social services involved.”
What role have the stereotypes of black and Latinx girls played in the media coverage?
A huge one. This is evident in the case of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old who went missing in D.C. in 2014. The only major national news outlet to cover her disappearance extensively was The Washington Post. Cable news shows did not aggressively cover Relisha’s disappearance like they did for Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart and Caylee Anthony. The media suffers from what is often called “missing white woman syndrome,” meaning that when a story concerns a missing person of color, most news outlets give it only a fraction of the attention they would give a story about a missing white woman.
Hillary Potter, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said this disparity in mainstream media coverage is rooted in the idea that black and brown girls are inherently less valuable. This would explain why MPD appears to use mug shots for missing persons who have arrest records instead of using family photos. (MPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its use of mug shots.) The relative lack of coverage also helps perpetuate the myth that black and brown girls aren’t victimized. And when these cases are covered, it’s not uncommon for news outlets to incorporate one or more common stereotypes about black and Latinx girls (that they’re angry, promiscuous, lawbreaking, etc.).
“We have to consider how, generally, blackness is devalued,” Potter said. “There doesn’t seem to be as much of a care if something happens to us.”
Shouldn’t there be a task force to locate the missing and vulnerable?
Bowser announced six new initiatives to find missing teens on March 24. The number of officers assigned to locate missing persons will be increased. The city is creating a task force that will help identify how to improve the home lives of runaway teens, and it will also allocate more funding to nonprofits that work with at-risk teens.
Additionally, MPD will be sharing more details on each missing juvenile via department social media accounts and the missing-persons landing page. The department will alter some practices it uses to find missing children. The community will be notified of all missing-children reports, not just those that involve a suspected abduction.
“MPD is at the forefront with its focus on missing children and the work we are doing with the community to bring them home,” Bowser said in a statement.
How many black and Latinx girls from D.C., in comparison to black and Latinx boys, are missing and have not currently been found?
There are eight open cases for missing black and Latinx girls under age 18 compared to five open cases for boys, according to MPD’s website.
How is MPD working with the media to get out information about critically missing black and Latinx girls?
MPD told HuffPost that the department is actively publicizing missing-person cases through its Facebook and Twitter accounts. Its website is updated with the latest information, including statistics and active case flyers. The police are sending out press releases to the media and the community when missing-person reports are received and again when an individual has been located. The department is also staying in contact with community stakeholders.
Has an outside fact-checking group verified the accuracy of MPD’s claim that most of these cases end in success?
“We maintain a close partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” a spokesman for MPD said.
Are the 95 percent of missing-person cases closed by MPD closed because the person is found or because the case has produced no leads or relevant information to warrant further investigation?
MPD closes missing-person cases once the individual has been located.
What percentage of the missing teens in D.C. are black and Latinx?
MPD did not provide HuffPost with a racial breakdown of the cases, but a spokesman said black and Latinx people comprise a majority of missing-person reports involving teenagers.
What information do the police have that allows them to conclude that human trafficking is not a concern with regard to the missing black and Latinx girls?
“We take every report on a case-by-case basis and, so far, there isn’t any evidence to suggest human trafficking is involved,” a spokesman for MPD said.
Are there be safe havens (organized establishments, homes, etc.) for troubled runaway teens who are physically or sexually abused to go to instead of being caught up in the sex trafficking trap?
There are currently more than 200 emergency shelter and transitional housing units for runaway and homeless youth under the age of 25, as well as street outreach services and drop-in centers, according to the D.C. mayor’s office. Most of these programs serve youth between the ages of 18 and 24, but D.C. has special programming for minors as well. The city also partners with local nonprofit organizations ― including Covenant House, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Casa Ruby and the Latin American Youth Center.
“The mayor’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, in collaboration with advocates and nonprofit service providers, has spent the last 12 months working on a new strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness among youth, which will be released this spring,” a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office told HuffPost. This plan, which is based on data collected over the past two years, will examine how to scale these programs to provide better services to vulnerable youth and their families.
What is being done about abused foster children who aren’t getting any help when they report abuse?
All reported allegations of child abuse are investigated by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. “If CFSA discovers maltreatment in a foster setting they have the ability to revoke the foster license and close the home,” a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said.
Additionally, the Office of Youth Empowerment provides educational services, vocational training and other life skills training (such as financial literacy) to D.C. youth between the ages 15 and 20 who are living in foster care.
This post has been updated with questions submitted by readers.