Our Missing Children’s Lives Matter
By Jamila Larson, Executive Director
Three weeks ago, Playtime experienced our fourth missing girl since 2010, and the news shocked and frightened us. We jumped into action, sharing on social media, distributing fliers, and working with the family and local authorities. Fortunately, the teen was found within a week, but the incident brought the national discussion on missing black girls to our doorstep, once again. Then just this week, we learned a former Playtime participant was among the missing.
As of this writing, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) reports for this year so far, 14 juveniles are missing from Washington, D.C. There are as many boys as there are girls, ranging in age from 14-17. Another three are still missing from 2016, and Relisha Rudd is the only child still missing from 2014.
Increasing Awareness that Our Missing Children Matter
This spring has brought a flurry of unusual local and national attention to the plight of missing youth in the District. Local blogs and twitter campaigns inspired many to raise the issue, including churches, the Congressional Black Caucus, and media outlets ranging from the New York Daily News to CNN and USA Today. Thanks to this increased public pressure, MPD held a press conference on March 16 reassuring the public that the numbers are not increasing, but that their increased sharing of missing child posters on social media has simply raised awareness of a long-standing problem.
For years, Playtime has advocated for a central online location to share images of missing children in real time. On March 16, that website became a reality. A week later, a packed town hall meeting in Ward 8 demanded more action from MPD and the Mayor. While it’s important to understand that our youth aren’t literally being snatched off the street, we know they are at serious risk of exploitation, even if they left home voluntarily. Improvements have been made in police training, connecting recovered youth to services, and using social media, but we can all agree with Derrica Wilson, president of the Black and Missing Foundation that, “one missing child is one too many.”
It’s worth noting that all unsolved cases of missing youth in our city have one thing in common: they are all black and brown. “Missing White Women Syndrome” describes a reality in our country that the vast majority of attention is reserved for young, white, upper class girls and women who go missing, reinforcing a lack of value associated with children of color.
“If cars of a similar make and model were disappearing from the more affluent neighborhoods of our city, there would probably be more outrage,” wrote Courtland Milloy in a recent column for The Washington Post.
All the recent media attention has brought some changes. Mayor Bowser announced on March 24 that she would create a task force and devote more city resources to children who go missing. “It is heartbreaking to see the number of our young people in our city who leave home because they believe there are no other alternatives,” said Commander Chanel Dickerson, head of MPD’s Youth & Families Services Division. “I want to let them know that they are valuable assets to our community and we have not counted them out or written them off; we are here to help.”
Teenagers living at the DC General Emergency Family Shelter are sometimes just one serious argument away from feeling like living on the streets is a better alternative to life in a shelter. Imagine sharing a single room with parents and siblings for months, even years, with no private place to escape, no bedroom door to slam. In recent years, we had two 14-year-olds in our program run away because they found living in these circumstances intolerable. One was recruited by a female pimp who promised her a modeling career and was discovered in California two weeks later. Her case was not taken seriously by police at the time because of her history of running away, compelling Playtime to get involved in advocacy.
Looking at What We Can Do
Playtime volunteers have organized candlelight vigils for missing youth, paid for our recovered teen’s travel home from California, testified before a public oversight hearing on the topic, and even helped inspire legislation that tightened the safety net for missing children in D.C. Each time a youth in our Playtime family goes missing, we bring in a crisis response team to offer additional support to our youth, volunteers, and families. Every day, we work hard to help youth see their own value, offer support to parents, and new skills to our staff and volunteers.
Three years after Relisha was abducted by a staff member at the DC General Emergency Family Shelter, some additional protections have been put in place to better keep track of children in shelters. But for most families experiencing homelessness, there are still no case management services that pay attention to the unique needs of children. No parenting support, educational advocacy, or coordination of mental health services. Families and their children are largely left to manage crises on their own. Relisha had her young age in her favor, but her sweet innocence wasn’t enough to put her on the national news. As we honor the third anniversary of her disappearance, we owe it to her to redouble our efforts to show children in shelters that their lives matter.
Here’s what we can do:
1. Educate ourselves and the children and families we serve about the complex dynamics of child sex trafficking. Courtney’s House and Fair Girls offer a good place to start locally. Read this powerful memoir, Girls Like Us.
2. Fight the stigma that “runaways” are devious, and instead see their actions for what they are: a cry for help. Returning youth and their families deserve compassionate assessment, services and support to help them address issues. The Polly Klass Foundation explains this issue beautifully.
3. Share images of missing D.C. youth on social media, and demand the mainstream media cover missing black and brown children with the same sense of urgency they do white women and children.
4. Dispel the myth that it’s just girls. Right now, for example, just as many boys are missing in D.C. as girls. We also know that LGBT youth are at a disproportionate risk of running away and that boys and transgender teens are at high risk for child sex trafficking.
5. Lift up the value of our children as precious and worthy of every protection afforded all children.
We are grateful for our community of Playtime volunteers and supporters that do this every week. What other ideas do you have about what more we can do together?