The Real Story Of DC’s Missing Girls
Social Media Outrage Sheds Light on a City’s Longstanding Problems with Race and Human Trafficking
Co-written with Rantt News writer Abbey Barker
Though politics in Washington are always national news, D.C. itself is rarely featured on the national stage. This has not been the case the last several weeks, as an outcry on social media over the disappearances of fourteen children of color in the nation’s capital put the city and its longstanding issues with race, youth runaways, and human trafficking at the center of conversation nationwide.
Concerns began last month when D.C.’s police department posted a list on social media of the most critical missing persons cases. This caused alarm among many residents, further heightened by an Instagram post from the celebrity gossip website, Entertainment for Breakfast, which erroneously reported that 14 girls went missing in 24 hours. The outrage spread on Twitter and other social media sites, with the hashtag #missingdcgirls going viral and being retweeted over 47,000 times, including many celebrities. While true that there is a high influx of missing children cases in Washington, D.C., over 500 since January 1, they do not tend to remain open for very long.
Most of the anger was focused on the Metropolitan Police Department and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for inaction in addressing what many perceived as an epidemic of missing girls. Hundreds attended meetings and town halls to demand answers. Why were these disappearances not discussed further by the media? Who was taking these girls? Why were Amber Alerts and efforts not enacted for them? Have the police not been acting because these victims were women (and men) of color?
Ironically, it was D.C. police’s renewed approach to missing persons cases that caused much of the outrage. The department had launched a new task-force focused on runaway youths, and begun a new strategy of disseminating information about missing persons via social media in an effort to gather more information about them. The lack of communication regarding these efforts led to a misguided belief that there was a spike in the actual number of new cases reported. In fact, D.C. has seen a slight decline in missing persons cases; according to local news outlet NBC4 the number of cases dropped from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016, and several of the victims that drew attention had already been found. Nor was there any indication that the cases publicized were victims of abduction or trafficking; most were reported as runaways.
The effort by Mayor Bowser and the police to set this record straight proved to be cold comfort for many D.C. residents. Many saw the mayor’s response to their concerns as indifference, as if the public ought to be comforted knowing that there are always large numbers of children missing in the city. A further insinuation that the best way to prevent girls from becoming human trafficking victims is for them to stay home, made by Chanel Dickerson, who leads the D.C. Police Youth and Family Services Division, only angered residents more.
Many leaders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, quickly took up the issue. It even reached Jeff Sessions’ desk, though there is no word from the Attorney General’s office on possible actions the Justice Department will take.
The city’s ever-present racial divides were highlighted by the response to the missing girls reports. Many of the District’s mainly white recent transplants were shocked to discover this was even an issue to begin with, while the city’s more longtime, and predominantly African-American, residents rightly demanded to know why it had taken so long for this issue to be given the attention it deserves. Such differences were most evident when only black residents of the city showed up to one of the main town halls regarding the missing girls. For many, the lack of attention on the part of white residents and the police was just further evidence of the gross indifference a rapidly gentrifying city pays to its African-American residents in particular (who have traditionally made up the city’s majority) and its residents of color in general.
Race plays a part in the incidence of missing persons in the US. More than 36 percent of missing children are black, despite African-Americans making up about 13 percent of the US population. There has also been a longstanding claim- dubbed “White Girl Syndrome” by the late journalist Gwen Ifill- that cases of missing minority victims, particularly those who are poorer as well as male, receive lower attention from both law enforcement and the media compared to cases of victims that are white, female, or from more affluent backgrounds. Media bias for white victims has itself been widely documented. Most recently, a 2015 study by Clara Simmons & Joshua Woods of West Virginia University found that African-American missing children made up 35 percent of cases in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, but only 7 percent of media references.
Many also claim the Amber Alert system, the method of alerting the public of a missing child case, is mostly used for white girls at the expense of other victims. It is hard to say that this, in and of itself, is the case: the 2015 Amber alert report states that 31 percent of alerts were issued for black victims, falling roughly in line with the observed proportion of black victims reported. The system’s guidelines also focus on outright abductions, which explains the lack of alerts for many of the D.C. cases in particular.
However, the Amber Alert report does not stratify the statistics on recoveries of children by race, so it is hard to see if the effects after an alert is issued yield the same results, regardless of a victim’s background. The system’s exclusion of runaways is also problematic, because it assumes that they cannot be abducted and/or trafficked, when in fact many runaways are coerced to leave by their traffickers. This has led many organizations to call for improvements to the Amber Alert guidelines, and one organization, Peas in their Pods, to develop its own Rilya alert system, giving particular attention to runaways and victims of color.
Entertainment for Breakfast’s horribly irresponsible reporting aside, the social media outcry also brought the U.S. capital’s longstanding problem of human trafficking to the forefront. D.C. has long been a hub for the trafficking of persons: part of a corridor along I-95 on the U.S. Northeast coast that is host to a disproportionate number of trafficking reports. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports 85 cases in D.C. in 2016 alone, more than in 27 other states. Most cases involve sex trafficking, but at least a quarter of cases involve labor trafficking. Many organizations who work to prevent trafficking are seeing a rise in cases reported, though it is unclear whether this is due to more awareness of the issue or truly a greater incidence.
There are a myriad of factors that contribute to D.C.’s disproportionate number of missing persons cases: the city’s central location on the East coast and proximity to other metropolitan areas; its many domestic and international transportation links; the continuous presence of gangs and other criminal organizations with broad, domestic and international networks; a poor education system and strained social services; as well as a large population of residents suffering from chronic poverty, many of whom are minorities. Members of this last group, particularly women and minors, are most vulnerable to being trafficked, though there are also many cases of men and boys trafficked too. Most of the time, victims are not kidnapped, but rather coerced and manipulated into being trafficked by someone they know. Runaways are particularly at risk for this, as many of them are manipulated into leaving by perpetrators. One in six children reported missing as runaways end up as victims of child sex trafficking, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As incredible as social media can be for raising awareness for a multitude of issues, there can be an irresponsibility to what is disseminated, even with the best of intentions. Though there was no malice to detect in the burst of misleading information on social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to suss out what is fact from fiction. In cases involving missing persons and runaways, timely accuracy is key, but the emphasis needs to be on accuracy before being there with the news first. It is this approach to stories — especially those of distressed human interest — which deserve the caution and patience that is not often associated when one presses “send” on a tweet or Facebook post.
Oftentimes the difference between a story causing a ripple in the news cycle or not is who is standing behind the story. The speed at which the stories of these missing children went viral caught the attention of celebrities with large social media followings such as Olivia Wilde, Ava DuVernay, and Patton Oswalt. While the benefit in this story reaching a larger audience is clear, the truth is that it is often momentary.
While of course we all want these children to come home to their families, it is a cultural failure of ours to want to see the quickest cure for our current ailment. The true end to perpetuation of repeat runaway cases and children ending up in human trafficking rings is to create a discourse outside of social media which asks how we got here instead of how can we end this. Social media cannot attack and solve the systemic aspects to these stories, awareness is a step, but it is not the end goal.
Taking awareness and civil discourse another step further is to educate ourselves, both individually and as a community, on how to spot human trafficking in all its forms and becoming involved with the organizations dedicating their efforts to rescuing and rehabilitating these children. The common misconception and ultimate downfall as to how we handle the discourse and trafficking cases themselves is that we do not see it as something that happens often. As a culture, we have chosen to see human trafficking in the United States as something low on the totem pole of things to worry about. As we see with other pervasive and insidious behaviors, such as opioid addiction, it is often after it is too late that we take action.
Human sex trafficking is not prostitution. By definition from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is a modern-day slave trade which exploits human beings for commercial gain. Unlike prostitution, it is not the individual’s choice to be enslaved. This fact, unfortunately, does not dispel the stigma that comes from being entangled in the sex industry. These stigmas keep victims from coming forward under fear of penalization, creating a greater shield for perpetrators.
Human trafficking is sorely underreported. More often than not, we will see victims labeled as “missing,” or “runaways,” rather than noting their manipulation into sex and labor trafficking rings. By not being aware of the frequency and seeing patterns in our own neighborhoods, there is a disservice being done to our communities. The phrase, “it takes a village,” may seem old hat at this point, but when it comes to matters like this, it takes a village to rise up and demand more information from law enforcement.
Members of this village in the fight against human trafficking include, but are not limited to, the following organizations we at Rantt are proud to stand with:
As with many non-for-profit organizations, the success and longevity of their mission is dependent on private donations and public grants. If you are able to, please consider donating to these organizations. These groups offer education for the community on what is at stake and provide invaluable help and care to families of missing children and victims of trafficking.
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