WASHINGTON ― Last week, 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 that 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 that 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 Wednesday, 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 several times 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 them. 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.
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How many juveniles are missing in D.C. right now?
Twenty-two as of March 22, 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 persons 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 webpage with the most recent missing-persons information. And Bowser is expected to announce a task force to help find missing juveniles and determine what social programs runaway teens have a need for.
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 a younger child is 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 Wednesday’s 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 his or her 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, says 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.”