WASHINGTON--For years, activists like Natalie and Derrica Wilson, Tina Frundt, Henderson Long and other concerned D.C. residents labored with little recognition or notice trying to bring attention to the hidden crisis of missing Black and Brown men, women and children. All too often, the mainstream media ignored the plight of anguished parents and family members, while focusing the spotlight and attention on White girls and women who were missing or had been kidnapped.
Then someone sent out a tweet recently claiming erroneously that 14 girls had gone missing in 24 hours. The recent tweet spread like wildfire and was retweeted 47,000 times.
This fanned concerns and triggered the furor in the District of Columbia around the issue of missing Black and Latino girls. Entertainment and sports stars such as Sean Combs, Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill, actresses Sanaa Lathan and Howard University graduate Taraji P. Henson, rapper and actor LL Cool J, the Washington Wizards’ phenom John Wall expressed concern about what’s going on.
At the heart of the anxiety is a calculated decision by Metropolitan Police Commander Chanel Dickerson to publicize all cases of missing children on social media and other vehicles. Her action led to what city and police officials say is the mistaken belief by the public that the cases of missing girls has skyrocketed. Commander Dickerson, the new head of the department’s Youth and Family Services Division, has said there’s no evidence any of the missing teens have been kidnapped or involved in human or sex trafficking. She also notes that between 2012 and 2016, 99 percent of all missing person cases have been closed. Out of 19,000 cases, she said, 16 remain open.
Thirty-seven girls missing since January are Black or Latino, according to Julia Craven of Huff Post’s Black Voices. The number is taken from an analysis of online posts and other data.
“There’s no spike. The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children sent out a tweet recently saying that there’s no spike,” said Mr. Long, a certified Missing Persons investigator and founder of East of the River Missing and Exploited Wards 7 & 8. “Commander Dickerson decided to make sure that everyone gets exposure. She had her lieutenant to produce missing persons’ press releases and post updates and it got into the mainstream media. The Metropolitan Police Department is also updating the Missing Persons website. All this has increased awareness.
“I’m so glad that the District is taking the lead on this.”
Yet on social media and in Black neighborhoods across the city, Black men and women are rightly pointing out that even if the numbers of teens going missing is declining, that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for alarm.
The fact that even one child disappears is unsettling and that reality has spurred groups and individuals to go in search of those who’ve disappeared, caused them to press city officials for answers and prompted them to form ad hoc and forward looking organizations to formulate solutions. And that trepidation is shadowed by history. Rarely have missing Black and Brown children been given the same attention as the disappearances of their White counterparts.
“As an activist, I see it’s not a concern of the city because it’s Black children,” said Salim Adofo, national secretary for the National Black United Front and historian for the Northern Urban League Young Professional Network. “If this was happening in Georgetown or Rock Creek Park, it would be a very different response and Mayor Muriel Bowser would probably be going to people’s homes rather than having a town hall.”
“The police chief and mayor responded because of social media. So I give credit to ordinary people for sounding the alarm.” At a hastily-arranged town hall to address the community’s concerns and at a March 16 news conference to ally people’s fears, Mayor Bowser concurred with Mr. Long.
“What’s important is how we changed our policies on notifying the public,” Mayor Bowser told MSNBC’s Joy Reid on AM Joy over the March 25 weekend. “We used to only do notification if we suspected foul play, kidnapping or abduction. In 2017, we started notifying adults on all missing children. All are included in one number. The police department made the decision to affirmatively put information out so we could get these children home or under the care of an adult or guardian. Any child out there can become a victim if you have left home and parents don’t know where you are.”
Mayor Bowser, Interim Police Chief Peter Newshaw, other city officials and child advocates say that the number of cases has dipped in recent years. In 2012, there were 2,600 missing young people and so far this year, that figure stands at 501 juveniles.The tally, Mr. Adofo said, may be misleading.
“From what I’ve gathered, according to MPD, the numbers have decreased but that’s only what’s reported. People may be missing and FBI and MPD may not know,” the New Jersey native and D.C. resident said. “On the flip side, the number of missing people nationally has gone up. Not everyone is kidnapped. That is a misconception. Some children come home and run away multiple times.”
“The biggest complaint from families is that there isn’t adequate family healthcare or mental health care. It was brought out during the town hall that officers were molesting children. And what happened in 2013 (when some officers were arrested for luring children into prostitution and human trafficking) further destroyed people’s faith in the system. Sex trafficking is a very big deal and is being lost in some of this.”
Kiki McBroom, a D.C. activist who lives in Congress Heights, east of the Anacostia River, said she is pleased that members of the community and city officials are concentrating on an issue that for too long has been ignored. Her concern though, is that people seeking the limelight have jumped before the cameras in an effort to capitalize on a tough and heart-breaking set of circumstances.
“A lot of people are tagging along on this whole topic because it’s getting a lot of attention,” said Ms. McBroom, founder of People United to Silently Heal (PUSH) and a program partner with D.C. government on a number of community issues. “I didn’t make the town hall. I was at another meeting at the 911 Telecommunications Center. When I got there, things were wrapping up and I saw lights, camera, action and reporters talking to non-relevant people. I’m not a media whore. I don’t care about being on TV.”
“We had some good organizations there though, such as Mission in Black and the Exodus Project. The Exodus Project’s Roxie Farrow, myself and other ladies met and had lunch before all of this and we talked about how to pull things together. We brainstormed on ways to bring attention and awareness around children’s issues, human trafficking and other topics.”
Ms. McBroom said she recently did some research about human trafficking. What she saw and read caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand up. While she’s deeply concerned about human trafficking, the former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner said no one can ignore the fact that children in the city are running away to escape what’s going on in the home.
She cited a case she’s familiar with of a young girl and her sister who fled from the molestation by their mother’s boyfriend. One of the two girls is currently missing after both were sent back home by D.C. child welfare officials, she said.
“Why would they send the girls back there when they know what’s going on? And what’s worse is that their mother has a history of mental illness,” she explained. “Then a lot of times adults harbor kids. Little Ray Ray goes over to Pookie’s house and stays and Pookie’s mother doesn’t bother to tell Ray Ray’s mother he’s at her house. If you have a child staying at your house and you don’t contact the legal guardian, you should be held responsible and charged.”
In other instances, children are being defiant, won’t listen to their parents and decide to leave home, and then there are children in foster care who are being mistreated, abused, molested and sometimes raped.
“We need government to look into all these areas, put money in their budgets to hire staff, do more oversight and hold people accountable,” said Ms. McBroom. “I’ve been in foster care. I’ve been through dealing with what kids have. I wasn’t molested but people mistreated me. People mistreat you. We as a community have to come together to address these issues and come up with solutions.”
Ronald Williams, a D.C. farmer and businessman asserts that the issue, while one that is very serious, has been blown out of proportion.
“Some people don’t stem the problem, they kick up some dust and nothing’s really being done. Muriel Bowser has provided a solution, while (D.C. Councilmember Trayvon) White and Markus Batchelor are kicking up dust.”
Mr. Williams and Mr. Adofo each lauded Mayor Bowser for her response and they spoke of the need for the community to get and stay engaged going forward.
“I don’t think they know all the things they need to do,” Mr. Adofo said of Mayor Bowser and city officials. “The sole responsibility is not on them by themselves. We have to bring in experts. I’m not going to jump into the blaming game. Trayon White jumped on it and did an excellent job. Chanel Dickerson too. They’re doing something. The thing is, let’s come back six months from now and see what it looks like after the pressure dies down and the lights have been switched off.”
“The city must put funds into organizations and institutions to properly address these issues,” he said.
Adeola Little, a wife and mom, got tired of seeing Facebook postings about the missing girls in D.C. but nothing about what people were doing about it. She decided to do something.
“I put a post on Facebook asking for help to call all of the D.C. Public Schools to see what they were doing to keep students safe. Two sisters responded and we divided up the list to contact principals,” she told The Final Call.
“They gave various responses. Some were very grateful we called. Some requested resources and others declined to talk. I’m sure they were wondering who I was and if I was a predator.”
Majidah Muhammad, wife, mom and co-head of the Muhammad Homeschool Coop, also responded. In addition to contacting principals, she created two fliers schools could distribute to parents, one for younger students and one for older students.
“As I spoke to principals, I realized they needed help to communicate with parents and that’s why I created the fliers. Some principals told me they would have gender based conversations to talk to students about the best ways they could stay safe. Some said they didn’t need our help and others said they would forward the filers to other groups that worked with students and needed resources,” she said.
Mrs. Little created a power point that schools could use to show parents, staff and community members the best ways to keep students safe. “Our girls are lured with advertisements for quick money as models. We want to teach them how to tell the difference between a good deal and a deal that’s just for sex,” she said.
Her work only starts with the schools. “I also want to also contact the recreation centers to see what they are doing and to give them our resources. A friend of mine has an organization called Doing It in the Hood and he asked me to be on a panel about this. My work is just beginning.”
Sudan Muhammad, another wife and mom, sees the horrors of sex trafficking in her neighborhood. “I don’t know about the missing girls but I know sex trafficking takes place every day in D.C. They are after our boys and girls. Young people come to me because they know they can trust me and I will help them. This area has no jobs and no jobs are coming. They need money and I’m so tired of seeing White men in fancy cars driving in my neighborhood picking up young people.”
“Beauty supply stores are the new recruiting zones for porn producers. They are targeting girls younger and younger with advertisements for Pornfest. Boys are at risk too. They are asked to do things just for money and being poor, they do it,” said Sudan Muhammad.
“One teen committed suicide because he did not know they were filming what he was just doing for money. They put it on a website for all to see. He killed himself.”
Sex trafficking came up during the mayor’s town hall meeting. Things got heated, especially when the community members reminded police of a former officer arrested and convicted for prostituting teen girls. Linwood Barnhill Jr., a 24-year police veteran admitted to pimping young girls and was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2014.
“During the police panel discussions, they just tried to ward that off and act like that (trafficking) does not exist,” said Nation of Islam Student Minister Abdul Khadir Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque No. 4 in Washington, D.C.
Some of the people in the audience were angry, he explained.
“They started shouting, ‘you all don’t know what you are talking about, it’s human trafficking, we can’t find our babies,’ ” he told The Final Call.
He attended the meeting with Frank Muhammad, also from Muhammad Mosque No. 4. During a follow-up meeting with Councilman White, the Fruit of Islam, men in the Nation of Islam, were invited to join community groups working with young men in vulnerable Wards 7 and 8, to teach and train them how to become protectors of their community and families, said Frank Muhammad.
“That’s an invitation he extended to the F.O.I. and then I also represent a street organization from among the 10,000 Fearless called Brotha’s Huddle so that’s a collaborative effort that will take place on Saturdays,” Frank Muhammad added.
The F.O.I. have been working consistently on Saturdays in Wards 7 and 8, making their presence seen and felt, said Min. Khadir Muhammad. They have worked with groups such as Cease Fire: Don’t Smoke the Brothers, Crews, Alliance of Concerned Men and Union Temple Baptist Church.
The National Congress of Black Women headed by Attorney E. Faye Williams is collaborating with organizations, including the National Action Network, to do something about the missing girls.
She told The Final Call, “We are supporting various community efforts to address this problem. This is a very important issue to us and we believe working in a coalition with other groups is the best way to have the maximum impact. Our whole mission is about helping Black women and their families.”
Final Call staffer Nisa Islam Muhammad contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.