L ess than two weeks ago, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released a six-point plan to address what has become an incendiary national story of missing black and brown girls in the district.
The issue was getting so much attention, in fact, that the mayor, who said that the plan was drafted in January, distributed a broad outline early, including $600,000 in grant support for organizations that work with teens at risk and the launch of a website which will eventually update missing cases in real time.
Mayor Bowser says she wants to “break the cycle” of young people who go missing – the majority, according to the MPD, of whom are Black and brown girls, a large number of whom “voluntarily” leave home and are not 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 32-year-old 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,” says Harris. “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. He insists that the overwhelming majority of cases are repeat runaways, yet acknowledges that they are still in 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.”
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 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 MPD’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, upending the “Missing White Woman” syndrome; this time, there was a vocal, critical mass of people interested in the welfare of young Black and brown girls.
D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and the Congressional Black Caucus asked the FBI and Justice Department to intervene to help find D.C.’s missing teens (the mayor has reportedly met with Rep. Holmes Norton to discuss the issue); a day before that, the mayor attended a packed town hall with residents who called for more to be done.
Harris says that since 2010, the number missing in D.C. has decreased, and the district’s closure rate (finding those missing) stands at over 95 percent. “We feel like we have a good grasp on the problem,” Harris 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 on March 24, 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 such as the one below featuring D.C. native Joe Clair.
The mayor is also specifically looking to support young girls of color by allotting money to community-based organizations such as Sasha Bruce Youth Network, Amara Legal Fund, Fair Girls and Casa Ruby as well as the launch of the Reign Initiative, which will work with young women in the D.C. Public Schools and train teachers on gender equality within the school curriculum.
However, some activists in the city have reservations around specific aspects of the mayor’s plan, including the narrative that the young women missing are “repeat runaways.”
“I think we’re in a good place in that the issue is being brought up and now the mayor office is actually taking this seriously and trying to solve it,” begins Samantha Paige Davis, founder of the Black Swan Academy, a nonprofit which works with young women “east of the river” in D.C.’s economically depressed Wards 7 and 8.
“One of the problems with saying they are repeat runaways or “voluntarily” leave home is it is society’s way of dismissing the youth as “bad” or “troubled”,” says Davis. “It plays into a narrative that constantly oversexualizes and criminalizes youth of color and ignores root causes. It’s not accurate or healthy.”
Also, the emphasis to increase law enforcement as it relates to the young women, has some like Davis, wary.
“I think that any time you’re bringing law enforcement into any kind of issue with black people in general, for me it’s a red flag,” she says. “We need to be thinking about how can we put the resources into the community so the community itself can have interventions and ideally prevent these issues, whether it’s trafficking or girls running away. With the six point plan, I appreciate the notion of supporting community based organizations, but I would love for that to be the main part of the initiative.”
In that vein, Black Swan Academy and Melanin Uprising are holding a community forum this week where young girls will be able to pose their own solutions to the issues surrounding the missing.
“We want to build on the black community’s legacy of caring for, defending and protecting our girls and our young people and making sure they have the resources they deserve for their social and emotional support,” says Davis. “And one of the ways to do that, which the mayor is proposing, is by funding those local organizations serving youth in their community.
“One of the pieces that I would like to center, though, is that when we’re talking about missing youth, that while yes, young men and women have gone missing, how do we make sure that we’re centering the youth who are most vulnerable—black girls, LGBT youth, trans youth or gender non-conforming youth. How do we put in the proper interventions for them?”
As this admittedly organic plan takes shape, the hope is that the mayor’s office will take all of this into consideration, and that there will be a sharp decrease in those young girls 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.”