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#MissingDCGirls: how a seldom-discussed social issue became a social media flashpoint

Children of color go missing more often than white children, but their cases receive less news coverage.

A “Critical Missing” press release issued for 16-year-old Anjel Burl by the Washington, D.C. police department.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The viral hashtag #MissingDCGirls started as a way to raise awareness of several cases involving missing black and Latinx teenagers in Washington, DC. But it’s led to complications for the DC police department, which is now attempting to curb public alarm over what authorities claim is a typical number of missing persons cases.

In short, the hashtag has promoted the inaccurate belief that DC has recently seen a surge in missing persons cases involving teenagers of color. Numerous factors have fueled this belief — including the police department’s use of social media to circulate information about missing persons cases, questions about a potential link to human trafficking, and the historical lack of police and media attention that cases involving missing people of color tend to receive.

But even though much of the uproar is rooted in an incorrect assumption, there’s reason to believe it may have a positive outcome. Here’s why the situation is so complicated.

A change in the DC police department’s social media strategy helped fuel public outcry

In December, the DC police department changed its social media strategy. Acting Police Chief Peter Newsham began issuing press releases for every “critical missing person” — a classification that includes any missing person under the age of 15 or over the age of 65 — and circulating the releases on Twitter, where the DC police department has about 160,000 followers.

The District’s recently appointed Youth and Family Services Division commander, Chanel Dickerson, has said she is committed to making sure each missing child’s photo is circulated individually and repeatedly on all of the police department’s social media channels.

According to the DC police department, it currently has 22 open cases in which juveniles have gone missing since the beginning of the year, and 38 open cases in total. Of the 22 missing juveniles, 18 are under the age of 15, and all of them are black or Latinx.

And as the department has continued to tweet about its open missing persons cases, people have begun to notice the press releases circulating on social media. As a result, some observers have incorrectly concluded that DC has recently seen a sharp increase in missing persons cases involving teens.

Writing at the Root on March 12, Yesha Callahan asked, “Does Anyone Care About DC’s Missing Black and Latinx Teens?” She noted the press releases the DC police had been circulating and criticized a lack of coverage in the media:

Do you see those faces? Have you seen those faces on the news? How many times did you see Natalee Holloway’s visage on the news when she went missing? Do you recall how long her search went on?

Callahan’s article led to a viral tweet from Twitter user @BlackMarvelGirl:

This inspired people to start using the #DCMissingGirls hashtag, as well as related hashtags like #DCMissingTeens, which have been active ever since.

As the hashtags gained momentum, alarm spread. DC residents packed a town hall meeting on March 22 to discuss the situation. That same day, members of the Congressional Black Caucus sought assistance from the FBI and the attorney general to find the missing teens quickly.

The DC police department has been fact-checking the alleged increase in its missing persons cases

At a press conference on March 16, DC police assured the public that having 22 open missing persons cases involving juveniles is not abnormal. The police department claimed that the number is in line with typical statistics on juveniles who are reported missing, the majority of whom are runaways who are later found.

The department also referred to its recent use of Twitter to circulate press releases about missing persons: “The number of missing persons reports has remained constant since 2014,” DC Mayor Muriel Bowser stated at the press conference. “What has changed is our way of getting that information out quickly and the tools that we are using to get that out.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has supported the DC police department’s claim that there has not been a sudden rise in missing persons reports in the District.

In fact, according to DC police, the overall number of missing children in the area has declined significantly, decreasing overall since 2001. Additionally, Chief Newsham has claimed that the number of overall missing persons dropped by more than 1,000 reported cases from 2012 to 2016.

There is currently no known connection between DC’s missing persons cases and human trafficking

Newsham also stated at the police department's March 16 press conference that there is no reason to believe any of the cases are linked to human trafficking.

Dickerson has echoed this statement, explaining in one interview that while the police department’s increase in press releases and social media posts about missing juveniles “has caused great concern that juveniles were being abducted or victims of human trafficking,” the truth is that a “large number of our cases are runaways.”

However, Dickerson was widely criticized after she was asked during the same interview how teens can avoid becoming victims of human trafficking and responded by advising teens to “stay home.” Though the quote makes a lot more sense in the context of talking about runaways, it didn’t do much to dispel concern.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to understand why many people readily speculated about a connection between the missing persons cases and human trafficking, or concluded that the number of missing teens in DC had reached crisis level without the news media reporting on it.

Missing persons of color rarely receive widespread media attention or public outcry

In her article at the Root that initially inspired @BlackGirlMarvel to tweet about the missing persons cases, Callahan observed:

Over the last week, my timeline on Twitter has been inundated with retweets from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., with photos of missing black and Latinx teens. Within the last week, 10 teens have gone missing in D.C. But you wouldn’t know about this unless a) You follow the Metro Police Department’s Twitter feed, b) You’re a relative of one of the missing or c) You watch the local news. And even with c), I can’t say that I’ve seen news reports of all these teenagers.

Callahan’s observation has been echoed repeatedly as concern for the missing teens has grown.

These criticisms are accurate. Even though children of color go missing more often than white children, they receive far less media coverage and public attention.

This phenomenon is so observable that there’s a name for it: Missing White Girl Syndrome. Advocates for missing children of color argue that the racial bias against thoroughly reporting on and investigating cases concerning missing children of color kicks in from the moment of their disappearance: One study found that out of 173 Amber Alerts issued in 2010, 47 percent were for white children while only 30 percent were for black children.

So even though the DC police department is downplaying the characterization of the current number of missing persons as a “crisis,” the broader reality is that communities of color in the US are justified in their worry that DC’s missing persons cases aren’t receiving enough attention. In the Congressional Black Caucus’s March 22 letter to the Justice Department, chair Cedric Richmond (D-LA) cautioned the government to treat the issue not as a sudden outbreak, but as an area of ongoing need:

Whether these recent disappearances are an anomaly or signals of underlying trends, it is essential that the Department of Justice and the FBI use all of the tools at their disposal to help local officials investigate these events, and return these children to their parents as soon as possible.

In the meantime, many people in the affected communities are taking matters into their own hands.

The internet can be an effective, if double-edged, sword when used to increase visibility for victims

Increasingly, the internet and social media play a vital role in cases involving missing persons and victims of color.

The Rilya Alert, which was created in the vein of the Department of Justice–run Amber Alert system, is overseen by the volunteer-run organization Peas in their Pods and is intended to help raise awareness of missing children of color. The alert, which frequently circulates on social media, is named for Rilya Wilson, a 4-year-old girl who went missing from the Florida foster care system in 2001.

Additionally, the families of missing persons of color often circulate information about their cases on social media and seek assistance from true crime podcasts that cover missing persons and little-publicized cases. Podcasts like The Vanished and The Trail Went Cold have frequently featured little-known cases involving black and Latinx victims, with the victims’ families often directly asking the podcast hosts to help raise awareness of their cases.

Social media pickup can lead to increased attention from the public, which helps to incite action from authorities who were previously slow or reluctant to investigate. In one recent case that was covered repeatedly by The Vanished, a Latinx teen went missing in October from a construction training camp in California, but authorities assumed he was a runaway until another boy went missing from the same camp just three weeks later. In January, a third person went missing (he was later discovered deceased), and in February — four months after the first teen went missing — the FBI joined the search. Similar stories can be found around the country.

Though the cases of the missing DC teens are currently generating so much attention because they’re being inaccurately viewed by many as part of an escalating crisis, the ultimate and most powerful effect of the DC police department’s new social media efforts may be to raise awareness of just how prevalent these cases can be in the everyday lives of America’s communities of color. Even though the #MissingDCTeens hashtag has caused uproar, the level of resulting alarm arguably wasn’t undue, but long overdue.