Last Friday, the Mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, released a six-point plan to address what had by then become a national story of missing black and brown girls in the district.
The issue was getting so much attention—including an ask for federal help from members of Congress—that the mayor, who said that the plan had been conceived of in January, distributed a broad outline early, including more than half a million dollars in grant support for organizations that work with teens at risk, as well as the launch of a website which will eventually update those missing cases in real time.
The mayor says she wants to “break the cycle” of young people who go missing – the majority, according to the Metropolitan Police Department, of whom are black and brown girls, a large number of whom “voluntarily” leave home and are not necessarily abducted (which would trigger the ubiquitous Amber Alerts on our phones.)
“What the mayor wants to do is put more resources both inside and outside of the government … so that these children are getting the individualized attention that they need to hopefully address these problems,” says Kevin Harris, the Communications Director to the Mayor.
“What we know is that in order to get to the root causes of this problem, we have to be able to quickly locate them before they are harmed or fall prey to any danger. The second part is addressing why is it that they left home in the first place. Was it abuse? Is it maybe mental illness? Is there no food or heat in the home?”
Harris insists that the data does not suggest that those missing in D.C. are being abducted and sold into sexual slavery or trafficking rings, however, he acknowledges that, “it’s important not to wait until that is the case.” He says that the “overwhelming majority” of cases are repeat runaways, which can still lead to danger.
“You know that if a young person is out on the street constantly and they are not in the care of a guardian, they are more susceptible to [sexual assault and/or trafficking]. So let’s intervene now. That’s what we are trying to do.”
Harris, a 32-year-old director to the mayor, who came from serving Baltimore’s former mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in November 2016, explained that the first part of doubling down on assisting young people in the city was the change in policy of how the public is alerted.
In January, the city began using social media— specifically the MPD’s Twitter account—to alert the public about D.C.’s “critical missing,” which in strict terms refers to those reported missing under the age of 15 and over the age of 65, although the department usually tweets details of those missing under age 19.
The new social media policy was the brainchild of an African-American woman and police officer, Chanel Dickerson, who came to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Youth and Family Division late last year. The enterprise was wildly successful in that it almost immediately began receiving national attention.
City residents and many across the country flooded social media, infuriated that so many young women of color were missing, and upending the “Missing White Woman” syndrome; this time there was a vocal, critical mass people interested in the welfare of young black and brown girls.
Unfortunately, some traditional media picked up on the original Tweets and erroneously suggested that there was an deluge in the number of black and brown girls who have disappeared, leading some to panic and others to outrage.
Last Thursday, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and the Congressional Black Caucus asked the FBI and Justice Department to intervene to help find DC’s missing teens (the mayor has met with Rep. Holmes Norton to discuss the issue); a day before that, the mayor attended a packed town hall of D.C. residents who called for more to be done.
Harris says that since 2010, the number missing in DC has actually decreased, and the district’s closure rate (actually finding those missing) stands at about 95 percent. “We feel like we have a good grasp on the problem,” he notes.
Harris acknowledged, however, that although the MPD does a good job at locating those missing, the city doesn’t do such a good job in breaking the cycle that pushes them into the streets in the first place. Which is where the new plan comes in.
The six-pronged initiative, which was formally announced by the mayor last Friday, includes increasing the number of police officers assigned to the Youth and Family Division Unit; the expansion of the Missing Person’s web page; an initial $600,000 in grant funding to community-based organizations that serve at-risk youth (“the money will come from outside the budget process,” says Harris); bringing governmental agencies such as the Office of Victim Services and Justice and the Department of Child and Family Services into communion with city agencies such as mental health and the Office of Youth Rehabilitation services; and speaking to teens directly through social media, radio and television public service announcements.
One of the PSAs began running this week, and stars D.C. native Joe Clair. It encourages young people to #TalkDontRun if they are thinking of leaving home.
And, because the majority of those who leave home are young women, the mayor is specifically looking to support young girls of color and their unique issues and challenges, including sexual exploitation and assault.
In addition to working with and allotting more money to organizations such as the Sasha Bruce Youth Network, the Amara Legal Fund, Fair Girls and Casa Ruby, the mayor also has launched the Reign Initiative, which will work with young women in the D.C. Public Schools to develop leadership skills in young women and to support teachers with training on gender and racial equality within the school curriculum.
The hope is that there will eventually be a sharp decrease in those who run away, and therefore who are reported missing. Harris is confident that the city is on the right track.
“D.C. is not unique in the problem [of missing teens] but I do think we’re unique in the solution,” he says. “And the solution that we’re pursuing … is to make sure that young people don’t fall through the cracks.”