Just a few months ago, Chanel Dickerson, a newly promoted police commander at D.C. police headquarters decided that it was time to start harnessing the power of social media to speed up the process of locating missing children. As a result, an influx of tweets and retweets encapsulated by the hashtag #MissingDCGirls exploded. For many, the department’s new publicity campaign was interpreted as an epidemic — girls of color were going missing within the District at an alarming rate. Without context, misinformation and rumors quickly spread across the internet, with one viral Instagram post claiming that 14 girls had disappeared in just a 24-hour period.
Concerned and upset parents, families, and community members came together shortly thereafter to meet with law enforcement personnel and city council members to address the perceived crisis. In a debrief, officials explained that missing persons cases have, in fact, been trending downward. In 2016, 2242 persons were reported missing in D.C., as opposed to 2433 in 2015. 99 percent of these cases were resolved. The majority of disappearances in D.C. were cited as runaways — children and teens fleeing from bad situations at home.
While this meeting dispelled some safety concerns, an underlying sense of frustration still remained. Why was it so easy to believe that there really was an epidemic of black and brown missing girls in D.C.? Or that one might have been building without public outcry? According to the Washington Post, “the flood of attention to girls who leave home seemed like overdue validation of a real but rarely discussed problem.”
Race has played a strong role in distorting the attention that missing persons of color receive. In a study of national television stations, African American children and female children were significantly underrepresented in news coverage. The report behind these statistics argues that “newsroom diversity, news operation routines, media ownership, and commercial motives of media contribut[ing] to the race-and-gender-related media bias” all play a role in warping news reports. As a result, what we see today is a bias favoring coverage of white women and children, often characterized as “missing white women syndrome.” In D.C., a city that is divided by race in a striking, almost geographically visceral way, it seemed possible that once again, existing biases were masquerading troubles for black and brown households. Gentrification, according to the New York Times, has long been driving issues “deeper into the background” and one of these issues in D.C. is missing girls of color.
It’s heartbreaking to acknowledge that many of our neighbors do not feel that their children are safe in public spaces. Equally troubling is the worry families must feel that if something should happen to their children, society would stop short in noticing their need to be brought back home. These concerns have gone unaddressed for far too long, and while we should create a space to lament with communities of color, we are also overdue for a justice driven response to the problems before us.
While Mayor Muriel Bowser, and many others, worked to correct distorted statistics, the fact still remains that many children are in trouble. Both the issues that force a child to run away and the dangers that they encounter once they are out of the home should be of utmost concern. Many factors contributing to the cycle include poverty, domestic violence, and a broken foster-care system. For example, black children, according to the Justice Department, are “three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect.” If we look at the picture as a whole, we see that #MissingDCGirls is not the problem, but a systemic issue that is the result of many issues that have been neglected over time.
One of these issues is a lack of resources and support geared towards strengthening families in crisis. Children from broken homes are three times more likely to run away, suggesting that intervention, at the right time, could keep many children out of harm’s way. The Church can certainly have great influence in this area because it can provide a space to foster personal connections and can be a consistent and positive presence in one’s life. In order for children of color to receive access to the support they need on a daily basis, it’s necessary to tap into resources at a macro-level.
Mayor Bowser has outlined six steps D.C. will be taking to improve circumstances for children across the city. These steps look to remedy all of the issues children face. Solutions include, but are not limited to: expanding the number of law enforcement officials whose time is spent on missing persons cases, rehabilitating youth once they are found, studying prevention methods to keep kids safe, supporting local nonprofits through grant funding, as well as creating publicity tools that do not rely on news coverage in order to find children who disappear. While this plan does a great job addressing the complexity of the needs in D.C., it’s worthwhile to reflect on the many cities and populations across the country lack systematic solutions. Bowser’s steps create a framework we can champion — one that requires the participation of multiple institutions including government offices, nonprofit organizations, and the Church. These institutions beckon us into the many roles and service areas that are needed to love children of color in our community.
Children deserve to feel safe both at home and when they are in public. We should not have to live in a society where our deepest fears are repeatedly validated. The outlook for girls of color in both D.C. and across the US ought to be brighter. If we are willing, there’s a place at the table for us to participate. Let's go beyond the hashtag, and eliminate the need for one in the first place.
-Jenny Hyde works for a consumer rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C. She is passionate about cultivating active political participation, especially as it pertains to women's equality. Jenny graduated from Gordon College in Massachusetts where she majored in International Affairs. She enjoys writing both fiction and non-fiction.