The story of a surge in missing black girls in Washington D.C. has gone viral, but the extent to which the massive exposure of the so-called epidemic was based in actual fact remains largely under question. It is true that Washinton D.C. police began to post numerous pictures of missing teens on their twitter page, but the resulting panic led to a lot of speculation and misinformation.
Now, a New York Times article is attempting to parse through the myths of the story and address the fallout from the ordeal. While there are, in fact, more than a handful of missing black girls in the city, it does seem that many mistook a new social media initiative on behalf of the police as evidence of a surge in kidnappings, sex trafficking, or other nefarious deeds.
“There is no epidemic in the nation’s capital of people being snatched,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said definitively in an interview this week. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t children that need our help.”
Indeed, numbers on missing children are quite staggering. That being said, the stat is also on the decline: 2,242 children were reported missing here last year, down from 2,433 in 2015. Fortunately, about 99% of those children are found; many of that group are kids hoping to escape trouble at home.
But things get even more interesting when you break down the data by race: 35 percent of missing children accross the country are black, and another 20 percent are Latino, according to Robert Lowery, vice president for the missing children division of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. These numbers hold true for D.C. as well.
Whether or not many of the claims about D.C.'s missing girls are true, the issue highlights the importance of racial politics in justice and media, with many minorities seeing both police organizations and news reporting as at best indifferent and at worst antagonistic: “The bottom line is there is an anti-blackness, an anti-brownness that exists in every conversation you could ever have about social issues in our society,” said Tamika D. Mallory, a civil rights activist in New York who helped organize the Women’s March on Washington in January. “And if you allow white media to tell your story, it won’t be told.”
Others are less confident about the mayor's minimization of the problem. “To say, ‘Oh, they’re just running away,’ is troubling,” said Phylicia Henry, director of Courtney’s House, a nonprofit here that counsels sex-trafficking survivors. “The biggest indicator of a young person being sex-trafficked is this revolving door of going home, and leaving home.”
Despite the dubious reality of the scandal, the mayor has responded to the public outcry with plans to dedicate more police to finding missing children and is working on a more comprehensive task force to address the social issues that cause children to run away that she hopes will become a model for other cities. The mayor has since ackowledged that she “didn’t recognize the substantial number [of missing children] that we get on a daily basis.”