WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Recent publicity surrounding missing children in Washington, D.C. has launched a firestorm of conversation and controversy about the issue in the nation’s capital and across the country. Police have been quick to point out there’s no uptick in the cases and no evidence of abductions or sex trafficking, but the cases highlight the problem of how jurisdictions deal with teens who run away from home -- young people who police and advocates say are in peril despite a broad public perception that their cases are far less important than other missing child cases.
Though cases of “stranger” and family abductions can often generate media attention and are more likely to meet the criteria needed to activate local “Amber Alert” systems, runaways account for an overwhelming percentage of cases the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assisted with in 2016.
Across the country, police departments have fielded concerns that teens are too quickly classified as runaways even though that may not be the reason for their disappearance. Derrica Wilson, president and co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, says her group finds law enforcement is more likely to classify black or Latino teens as runaways. Some families have said that cases of teens who do run away -- especially teens of color -- aren’t taken seriously or investigated with the same resources as a suspected abduction would be.
In addition, the media is often less likely to cover a missing person of color, Wilson said -- though they are more likely to disappear. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but nationally 38.5 percent of missing youth are black, according to the FBI. Wilson cited the case of Natalee Holloway, a white teen whose 2005 disappearance in Aruba garnered intense media spotlight.
In Washington, the issue rocketed to the forefront last month, when an Instagram post inaccurately claiming 14 black and Latina girls went missing within the space of 24 hours went viral. On social media, several celebrities used the hashtag #missingdcgirls to help raise awareness, and emotions boiled over at a town hall meeting March 22 at a Washington school amid public outcry over a lack of media attention to the cases.
Police rushed to calm fears and prove the claim false, saying a new initiative to share cases of critically missing people on social media may have given the wrong impression that there are more of those cases in recent months. They cited police data that shows the number of missing child cases in the District actually dropped from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016. Of the 574 young people reported in the District missing since the beginning of 2017, 10 of those cases remained unsolved as of Monday -- most of those children of color. Many of the cases involved runaways who left home voluntarily but returned, police said.
But that’s done little to assuage the concerns of advocates, who say the fact that there’s been no increase doesn’t detract from the severity of the longstanding problem.
“I think the outcry is that the community didn’t realize this was such a huge issue,” said Wilson, of the Black and Missing Foundation. “The fact of the matter is this has been going on for years.”
The concern also spurred a letter from Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., and D.C.’s Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey asking them 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,” the AP reported.
When it comes to both the media and police departments, missing children of color can be treated with a “veil of suspicion,” said Vanetta Rather, a Washington, D.C. community advocate and founder of My Sister My Seed, which advocates for the safety of women and girls.
“We don’t look at girls of color as children in need of assistance, we’re looking at it suspiciously, like ‘What did they do?’” Rather said. “Like we have to pass some respectability test in order to see our young girls as worthy of being treated the same way as other girls are treated. They’re just children and they need to be found -- we don’t need to screen them first.”
Cmdr. Chanel Dickerson, who heads the Youth and Family Services division at Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, has said she’s heard those concerns, and that’s why her division aims to investigate each case equally -- regardless of race, immigration status, or whether the person is a runaway -- because it’s always a possibility the person could be in danger.
“It’s dangerous out there, and young people are vulnerable,” Dickerson said. “I just think they can be taken advantage of and pulled into a situation they don’t realize the seriousness of until they’re already in it.”
The MPD has said there’s no evidence to indicate any of the teens were abducted or lured into sex trafficking. But some community advocates say children who run away are still at risk of falling prey to predators -- or may be leaving home because they already have. Since some of the teens remain missing, they say, there’s no way to know they haven’t been trafficked, and the longer they remain on the street, the greater the risk.
Police agree, and they say that’s why they’ve increased their efforts to spread the word about cases deemed “critical” -- people 15 or younger, 65 or older, or those who may be particularly vulnerable -- on social media. Dickerson told Crimesider she implemented the policy shortly after she took over the department’s Youth and Family Services division in December.
Though the push may have contributed to fears, it did help publicize the cases. Previously, Dickerson said, police commanders only publicized critical cases at their discretion -- it wasn’t a requirement.
When Dickerson took over the division, she took note that a large number of the cases appeared to be girls -- particularly girls of color, though boys have also been reported missing -- between 12 and 17. Some had been reported missing multiple times.
While the FBI law enforcement database that tracks missing kids doesn’t use a specific classification for runaways, it recorded 465,676 reports of missing children in 2016 and 460,699 in 2015, numbers that include multiple reports for the same child if that child ran away more than once. NCMEC says they assisted law enforcement and families with more than 20,500 cases of missing children in 2016, and of those, 90 percent were endangered runaways. 6 percent were family abductions, and one percent were non-family abductions.
“Obviously a very young child who may be abducted from a street corner is going to garner a lot of media attention, and for good reason – the risk that child faces is astronomical,” said Robert Lowery, a vice president of the missing children division at NCMEC. “But when we think about runaway children, we don’t always consider the risks those children face.”
Of the more than 18,500 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2016, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking, the group says. Tina Frundt, who founded Courtney’s House, a District organization that supports sex trafficking survivors, says she receives four to six referrals a week -- all girls and boys who left home, many because they were “groomed” by a sex trafficker they met online or in the community.
Advocates say it’s important to hone in on the reasons why a child may run away -- they may be fleeing abuse or neglect, or may have been lured by a predator over social media.
“They’re either running from something, or they’re running to something,” said Frundt.
Despite these risks, law enforcement and advocates often confront a “desensitized public” when it comes to runaways, Lowery said.
“When you say the term runaway, the natural inclination is the child is a behavioral problem -- that broad interpretation is oftentimes wrong,” Lowery said.
The longer a child is away from home, the more at risk they are, because they need to find ways to provide themselves with clothes, shelter and food. They’re more likely to be victimized, lured into gangs or to become involved with criminal activity, officials say.
“I think what’s more important is we need to remember we’re dealing with children who are going to gravitate towards those they believe will care for them, when it fact often times that’s not going to be the case,” Lowery said.
Dickerson said she’s concerned when she sees comments on social media asking whether a missing teen is “just a runaway.”
“People talk about runaways like this negative connotation -- maybe people are looking at it and not taking it seriously,” Dickerson said.
Even if a teen is a repeat runaway, it’s possible the child was being “groomed” by a predator who at first poses as a friend to gain their trust, but later abducts them, she said.
“I say this to the men and women working in Youth and Family: We have no idea when that one case may be ‘the case,’ where someone is abducted and held against their will,” Dickerson said. “We have to treat every case the same.”
Most children who leave home are generally found within a short period of time, at a rate of about 98 percent, Lowery said. That was the case for District teen Jacqueline Lassey, 15, whose case was among those that generated the recent media attention. When the teen didn’t return home form her northeast Washington school on Friday, March 10, her mother Tawana Lassey immediately reported her missing.
By that Sunday, the teen had returned home, Tawana Lassey told Crimesider. She said the girl had been at a friend’s house, and she suspects an adult made her daughter return home after seeing the case on the news.
Jacqueline Lassey told Crimesider she wanted to get away for a few days, but didn’t say why she left.
“I didn’t go missing like some of these, I just didn’t call home and tell them where I was,” the teen said.
Tawana Lassey said she felt police took her daughter’s case seriously and searched for her. She said she’s relieved her daughter is safe.
But not all cases are so quickly resolved, and many have tragic results.
Maryland teen Damaris Alexandra Reyes Rivas left her Gaithersburg home in December of 2016. Her mother told CBS affiliate WUSA9 the 15-year-old had become involved with the notoriously brutal MS-13 gang, and said the teen ran away when she learned of her mother’s plans to send her to live with family members in Texas to get her away from gang members. Rivas’ body was found in February in a Springfield, Va. industrial park. Fairfax County police say they believe the girl was held against her will, taken to the park and then slain in a killing they called “savage.”
“Take care of your kids,” the girl’s mother urged parents in an interview with the station. “I tried to take care of mine.”
In Massachusetts, 16-year-old Lee Manuel Viloria-Paulino was found decapitated along a Lawrence riverbank Dec. 1 after being reported missing by his family Nov. 18. A 15-year-old classmate of Viloria-Paulino’s has been charged in his murder.
The victim’s family has criticized the Lawrence police department, saying that officers didn’t take the case seriously enough because they at first thought the teen was a runaway.
“We are poor. We are Hispanic. They considered this a normal runaway case. I told them from day one that it wasn’t,” the teen’s grandmother, Ivelisse Cornielle, told the Boston Globe.
Lawrence Police have disputed they mishandled the investigation, calling their search “relentless.” Lawrence mayor Daniel Rivera has since announced an independent investigation into the handling of the case.
In Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser last month announced several new initiatives aimed at missing young people and runaways. They include increasing the number of officers assigned to the Youth and Family division, adding support systems after a missing youth returns home to try to reduce the instances of repeat runaways, and establishing a task force aimed at at-risk children, said Bowser’s spokesman Kevin Harris.
Harris says he hopes the District’s new push will fill the gap for children who go missing, but don’t meet the criteria required to activate “Amber Alert” systems. While each jurisdiction is different, the DOJ issues suggested guidelines for the criteria, which include evidence of an abduction, a description of the suspect and suspect’s vehicle, and that the child is in “imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.”
Those guidelines have come under fire from advocates who say they ignore the risks faced by missing children who aren’t abducted.
“I think all youth who are missing meet that criteria,” Rather said. “When a young person is away from home, with all the predators we have in this country, to say that’s not imminent danger, to me, I don’t know what imminent danger is, then.”
Harris said the District agrees that the Amber Alert system “doesn’t fit the reality of why it is a lot of children of color go missing. What we’ve done in the District of Columbia is adjusted policies locally...to ensure our children don’t fall through the cracks.”
“This is not just an issue in the District of Columbia, it’s an issue nationally,” Harris said. “What makes D.C. unique is not the fact that we have this problem, but how we’re addressing it. We believe the current system is inadequate to address the number of young people who go missing who left home voluntarily but are still in danger -- it shouldn’t take an abduction or something worse for a missing child case to get the level of attention it deserves.”