If you receive your news through social media, you may have read an alarming headline: “14 girls have gone missing in D.C. in the last 24 hours.” While this has been debunked by various sources, I couldn’t help but notice a startling uptick in images of missing girls.
At first, I assumed I was receiving these updates because I follow people based in D.C., but then people from other parts of the country began expressing concern. The girls, all in their teens, had gone missing since the beginning of the year to very little fanfare.
I began to wonder how so many teenaged girls living in the nation’s capital could go missing without it being on the news. With the recent awareness of human trafficking within the country’s borders, one would assume that a high number of missing girls from a single city would cause some concern.
As word spread about the missing teens, theories began to circulate. Some were concerned about human trafficking and others feared a serial killer. The most disturbing aspect was the lack of interest of the media.
In the past, stories about missing teen girls received national attention. Natalee Holloway and Elizabeth Smart became fixtures on the Today Show and other morning news shows. Their families’ pleas for help, their faces, and updates on their stories were inescapable.
So, why was the media mostly silent? Even if you’re cynical about the press, there was plenty of reason to cover this story. There was a pattern, there was potential for hysteria, and a captivating storyline for the potential of a new serial kidnapper or killer.
While that initial headline may have been inaccurate, it still highlighted a dangerous and upsetting media trend. The media only seems to show concern for certain types of victims. But, what type of victim do you have to be for people, who don’t know you personally, to care?
The only difference between the stories of these girls and the ones that have received national attention was the race of the girls. They were all black.
In communities of color, there is a feeling that people do not care about missing children unless they have a certain look: blond hair and blue eyes. In other words, the media cares about white victims.
D.C. City Councilmember Trayvon White tells CNN, “We just feel like, you know, if this was a white person or from another neighborhood, there would be more alarm about it.”
Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richman and D.C.’s nonvoting representative, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey.
The letter called for 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.”
In 2006, National Public Radio’s Ed Gordon interviewed, then Vice President of External Affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Herb Jones. In the interview, he is asked about the differences between law enforcement’s response to missing black children and missing white children.
“There is a concern when we receive calls or when law enforcement receives calls from 13 years and up that they tend to think that that child is a runaway,” said Jones.
D.C. law enforcement officials have stated most of the missing teens in D.C. have been classified as runaways. Kevin Harris, spokesperson for Mayor Muriel Bowser, says, “Often times, these girls are repeat runaways.”
Looking beyond D.C., FBI crime statistics show that, in 2014, nearly 37 percent of all missing persons under the age of 18 in the U.S. were black. This disproportionate number possibly reflects how law enforcement treats cases of missing children of color.
“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. Wilson says, “They do not get an Amber Alert or media coverage.”
While the girls in D.C. may be runaways, this does not change the fact that the girls are still missing and there still has been little to no media coverage. The response, or lack thereof, of city officials is frustrating regardless of the circumstances, but, I, like many others, find that it is the media’s responsibility to hold them accountable.
The silence that tends to fall on missing children of color, and children from low-income households, is deafening. Media has the power of being able to notify many people at one time. The fact that the media covers certain stories is painful for families who want to know what happened to their children.
According to the Washington Post, to combat the lack of media coverage, the Metropolitan Police Department, began “tweeting the name and photo of every missing person in the city whose case is deemed ‘critical.'”
Authorities believe this is the reason people feel that the numbers of missing teen girls seem to be on the rise in recent months. The increase in awareness makes it seem the alleged abductions and runaways are dramatically increasing. In reality, we are now having it put in front of us.
D.C. police claim that the open cases on missing children do not meet the criteria established by the Justice Department for an Amber Alert. “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.”
Mayor Bowser’s office has even taken steps to help reduce the number of runaways. She has announced 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.”
According to the National Runaway Safeline, teens from at-risk situations, such as impoverished, low education and low-income, have a greater likelihood of running away from home.
Robert Lowery, vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, tells CNN that people are often dismissive of runaways.
“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.”
While concerned activists continue watching how the case of these missing girls unfolds, I will also be watching. I hope that the major media outlets will also join the conversation. It is important that people are given the chance to show concern for missing teens, regardless of race or circumstance. It could mean the difference between life and death for many of them.