A task force on missing youth, calls for a federal investigation, and town hall meetings are just part of the fallout that continues over reports of missing Black girls in Washington, D.C.
On March 24, Mayor Muriel Bowser outlined initiatives for a new city task force, after hearing more outrage and concerns during a town hall meeting. Sentiments expressed at the event mirrored national fury, which erupted after a tweet in social media announced that 14 Black girls had gone missing in D.C. in a 24-hour period.
That wasn’t the case, city officials and police corrected, but it was too late.
The tweet had already gone viral, along with anger over the fact there was little to no media coverage.
MPD Commander Chanel Dickerson (head of the department’s Youth and Family Services Division) stated that those who disappeared were runaways who had left home voluntarily, and there was no evidence any of children were kidnapped or involved in human or sex trafficking.
But that only poured salt in the wounds of an already pained community, activists said. Meanwhile, Black lawmakers called for federal investigations, and human sex trafficking survivors and activists called for accountably from police officials, the mayor, and the Black community itself.
“Ten children of color went missing in our nation’s capital in a period of two weeks, and at first, garnered very little media attention. That’s deeply disturbing, and has drawn attention to a nationwide problem: when children of color go missing, authorities often assume they are runaways, rather than victims of abduction,” stated Congressional Black Caucus Members Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and the District of Columbia’s Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton in a March 21 letter to U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey.
So far this year, 501 juveniles went missing in D.C., according to MPD statistics. Thirty-seven are Black and Latino girls, reported Julia Craven of Huff Post’s Black Voices. Each year, more than 146,000 Black children are reported missing, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
“Whether these recent disappearances are an anomaly or signals of underlying trend, it is essential that the Department of Justice and the FBI use all of the tools at their disposal to help local officials investigate these events, and return these children to their parents as quickly as possible,” Richmond and Holmes Norton continued.
For her part, Bowser’s task form aims to address missing youth in D.C. by increasing police officers assigned to the Children and Family Services Division, expanding the Metropolitan Police Department’s Missing Persons webpage and social media messaging, and establishing the Missing Persons Evaluation and Reconnection Resources Collaborative, according to her office.
The initiatives also include providing funding for non-profits that address runaway youth and supporting public education that addresses missing youth in D.C.
Stacey Jewell was abducted when she was 19-years-old, she said. Now nearly 14 years later, the sex trafficking survivor works to help the very youth targeted by Bowser’s new task force.
She and other survivors as well as activists who serve youth insist sex trafficking is at play. They said they feel police and city officials have dismissed the serious nature of the problem and diminished the reality that sex trafficking is a large epidemic in D.C. and across the country, and that they rendered the missing girls more vulnerable to predatory pimps.
“MPD takes all of its missing persons cases seriously and is committed to ensuring that each case receives the same level of police service and exposure. We all recognize that when someone is missing, there is a risk that they are in danger and need our help,” stated Aquita Brown, MPD public affairs specialist.
She reiterated there is no indication nor does MPD have information suggesting the girls are being kidnapped or abducted, and that they’re leaving home voluntarily.
“Some of them are located with non-custodial family members, or with friends, or they return on their own. Our concern is to find them as soon as possible, and ensure their safety. Because we want to protect individual privacy, we do not publicize the specific circumstances of their return. Be assured, that we’re of the belief that any criminal activity had taken place against these individuals, we would aggressively seek to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Brown stated.
Jewell urged the Black community, parents, pastors, any kind of leaders working within it and communities in general to become aware of the reality of the sex trafficking epidemic.
“The reality is in 2016, 2,224 cases of missing children were on the books, and even though they may say that a lot of these cases have been solved, it doesn’t mean that they have been returned,” Jewell argued. “Solved cases” could be as much as a parent calling police and saying never mind, my child just ran away, she elaborated.
“People know from my story that my trafficker who held me at gun point, who took me off D.C. city streets, right in Southeast, where a lot of these girls and a lot of these victims are coming from, that my trafficker had me call my family and say I’m doing my own thing. I wanna be away. I wanna be with my boyfriend. I don’t wanna be there,” Jewell said.
“And what would my parent do? My parent would say, ‘Oh! My teenager’s being rebellious. My teenager’s running away,” so the parent won’t file the missing person’s report,” she said.
Jewell urged parents and community members to continue to file reports when their children go missing, regardless of how many times they go missing, run away, or how rebellious they are.
Shamere McKinney said she went from a sex trafficking victim, to a survivor, to a liberator.
There are ways to find out if a child has run away or is actually being trafficked, but people must ask the right questions, which don’t include: “…did a pimp do this to you? Did a trafficker do this to you,” McKinney explained. That’s because traffickers threaten to kill victims and/or their families if they don’t comply with demands and if they tell anyone, she said.
She asks girls where they were, what did they do, were they trying to make money, and if so, how, she said. That enables girls to alert they’re in danger without ever mentioning the words trafficking or pimp, McKinney explained.
Often times sex trafficking victims are ashamed because of the guilt and stigma affiliated with being trafficked, according to survivors.
“If they are not approached with love and support that would want them to come over, these young ladies are not going to because of the stereotypes in our community. ‘Oh. You’re a whore. Oh, you’re a slut. We look down on people who are engaged in prostitution,’ so that’s another barrier that would prevent someone from coming forward, which we see all the time in this movement,” McKinney said.