By Ryan M. McDermott - The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2017
The recent national outcry over missing children in Washington, D.C., has left residents east of the Anacostia River wondering why it took so long for people to recognize there was a problem.
“This is a prime example of how a lot of young people in our city, especially east of the river, have been suffering in silence,” said Markus Batchelor, a lifelong resident of Congress Heights in Southeast Washington.
Mr. Batchelor, who serves as the Ward 8 representative on the D.C. State Board of Education, said that since social media attention over missing children in the city has blown up, activists have been trying to mitigate a deluge of misinformation.
Rumors about abductions, child slavery and a massive increase in missing children spread like wildfire across the country, with celebrities sharing tweets and Facebook posts claiming that 14 girls went missing from the city in a 24-hour period. Metropolitan Police quickly debunked that assertion and noted that some of the photos floating around weren’t even of D.C. residents.
Missing persons cases have not increased in the District over the last five years, according to police statistics. In fact, they have fallen slightly this year.
The Metropolitan Police Department has received an average of 200 missing person reports a month over the last five years. This year has averaged about 190 cases per month. And about 99 percent of cases over the last five years have been closed, police say.
Still, talk about missing children only adds to the woes of residents in Ward 8, one of the city’s most impoverished jurisdictions. According to a recent D.C. Auditor’s report, about 50 percent of children age 5 and younger live in poverty in Ward 8. Comparatively, only 3 percent of children in Ward 3 live in poverty.
“The real crisis in communities like ours isn’t abductions, it’s the breakdown of the family,” Mr. Batchelor said.
He said many of the children whom police say are missing simply walked away from their homes because of an unstable or dangerous environment: “They don’t know that there are alternatives to just walking away and leaving it behind.”
Olivia Henderson, a Southeast resident who lives near the Maryland border in Ward 8, said the problem of children leaving their homes has less to do with the kids and more to do with a lack of accountability by parents, the community and government officials.
“Right now we’re not working together. A lot of people are saying ‘missing children,’ but this stuff starts with the household,” said Ms. Henderson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “If you just go out there and walk, you can see the neglect in sections of Ward 8. I’m out there walking, I’m talking to people. We are supposed to know our community.”
Mr. Batchelor agreed, saying that the community and government officials need to arm children with information about where to go when they’re in distress.
“People can walk away from home and walk into something much more dangerous,” he said. “As a community, we need to say, ‘We’re here if you need us, and here is information you can utilize if you need extra help.’”
Beyond that, some Ward 8 residents feel they have been left behind by their city government.
“You look for city services and you don’t get them,” said Ward 8 resident Anthony Muhammad. “If you tell a person they’re nothing, then that person starts living like they’re nothing.”
Mr. Muhammad said even the little things affect the way residents see themselves in the community. Even lighting on the blocks near Metro stations can signal whether a city cares about its people.
“It’s lit up on Barracks Row near the Metro like it’s daytime, but it’s pitch-black on Alabama Ave.,” he said, referring to the commercial area along 8th Street SE.
The blow-up over missing children in the District started earlier this year when Mayor Muriel Bowser and Metropolitan Police decided to more widely promote missing persons cases in the city. Reporters and social media followers started seeing a deluge of press releases in early January about those who have gone missing, prompting some to wonder whether some new crisis was occurring.
That wasn’t actually the case, according to Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris, who said there was no uptick in missing persons and that most cases were runaways and not abductions.
By late March, as the social media attention on the District reached a fever pitch, Miss Bowser announced a task force and increased funding for missing children. The mayor said she would increase the number of police officers dedicated to finding missing children and allocate more money for nonprofits that work with children at risk of running away from home.
“Regardless of where the numbers stand, we share the public’s sense of urgency for protecting our youth, which is why the policy changes we have instituted are so important,” Mr. Harris said. “By elevating the cases of all missing children in the District and connecting them with services, we are not only enhancing our efforts to protect our youth, but also elevating the District as a national model.”
He said the District is like any other big city with its share of challenges, especially when it comes to supporting its most vulnerable residents.
“But what sets us apart is the immediacy we place on spreading information about our missing young people and the priority we place on missing youth of color in particular,” Mr. Harris said.