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D.C.'s Missing Teens: A False Number That Spurred A Real Conversation On Race

The number was nothing less than a shock to the system. In text set beside a series of photographs, each one depicting a girl of color staring back at the camera, the image that went viral on social media last week claims to lay bare an appalling truth: "14 Girls Have Gone Missing in DC in the Last 24 Hours."

Trouble is, police say the claim is not true.

On Friday, the city's Metropolitan Police Department told NBC's local affiliate that at no point in recent weeks have 14 girls disappeared from the city in a single day. Rather, D.C. "has logged a total of 501 cases of missing juveniles, many of them black or Latino," NBC reports, citing law enforcement. As of March 26, police say all but 22 of those cases have been solved.

And as BuzzFeed News points out, New York Daily News writer Shaun King also rebutted the claim:

Still, though the specific claim may be spurious, it has drawn national attention to an issue that has lately spurred some very real actions in the political realm. Activists argue the inaccuracy of the post itself should not detract from the wider issues it has highlighted: the dangers confronting runaway youth, and the racial dimensions of how law enforcement treats missing kids.

First, let's take the political implications.

The Associated Press reports Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s nonvoting representative in Congress, sent a letter last week to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey. In the letter, they called on Sessions and Comey to "devote the resources necessary to determine whether these developments are an anomaly or whether they are indicative of an underlying trend that must be addressed."

The lawmakers pointed to an alarming number of their own.

"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," they wrote, according to the AP. "That's deeply disturbing."

The Metropolitan Police Department disputes the notion that there has been a recent uptick in the number of missing children. Statistics provided by the department indicate that so far in 2017, roughly 175 juvenile missing person cases have been opened per month — slightly less than the department's monthly average over the past five years. These statistics did not offer a breakdown of demographics.

Authorities instead contend that the public perception of an increase is actually a product of their more dedicated push to publicize these cases. As the Washington Post notes, the department recently began "tweeting the name and photo of every missing person in the city whose case is deemed 'critical.'"

That has not deterred politicians' efforts to solve what they see as the root problem of many of these cases.

"Often times, these girls are repeat runaways," Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Muriel Bowser, tells the Post. "So if we really want to help solve this problem and bring down the numbers, we have to break the cycle of young people, especially young girls, who repeatedly run away from home."

Toward that end, Bowser announced Friday that she will pursue a half-dozen initiatives "to locate young people who have been reported as missing, provide critical resources to better address the issues that cause young people to run away from home, and support young people who may be considering leaving home."

Robert Lowery, vice president at The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, tells CNN that people sometimes dismiss runaways as innocuous, or entirely voluntary:

"The natural inclination (about a runaway) is the child's behavioral problem is why they've left. We also see significant numbers of runaway children who are running away from a situation, whether it's abuse or neglect or sexual abuse in the home. These children face unique risks when they're gone so we applaud the conversation and we applaud the attention that this issue is being given."

Some activists see another problem at work here, too — an issue that exceeds D.C.'s city limits.

According to the FBI's crime statistics for 2014, nearly 37 percent of all missing persons under 18 in the U.S. were black — a disproportionate number that some see as a reflection of how law enforcement nationwide handles these cases.

"We also noticed that a lot of African American children that go missing are initially classified as runaways," Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, tells USA Today. "They do not get an Amber Alert or media coverage."

D.C. City Councilmember puts the matter more bluntly to CNN.

"We just feel like, you know, if this was a white person or from another neighborhood, there would be more alarm about it."

D.C. police say simply that none of the open cases meet the fairly extensive criteria the Justice Department has set for issuing an Amber Alert.

But Harris, the D.C. mayor's spokesman, says questions and conversations such as these are welcomed, even encouraged by the city's recent shift in approach to publicizing missing persons.

"This is what the [social media] policy was intended to do," Harris said. "It was intended to get these teens' faces out there. It was intended to provoke conversation. We don't ever want this to become the norm."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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