Let’s not forget the real issue behind the missing DC girls story
If you’re active on social media, you’ve probably seen the story of a spike in missing black and Latina girls in Washington DC. By now you’ve maybe also seen stories outlining the miscommunication and misinformation that fed this flurry of social media activity. While it is important to rectify and stay vigilant against misinformation, the missing DC girls story does have a serious reality behind it that should continue to concern the public and has, rightfully, led to the creation of a special taskforce.
Recently, social media posts claiming that fourteen Washington DC girls have gone missing in the last week went viral with the hashtag #MissingDCgirls. People were rightly distressed by this story and a seeming media silence, and criticisms of racist indifference to cases of missing black and Latina girls on the part of media and law enforcement were raised, as well as the suggestion of a sex trafficking ring being responsible for the uptick in missing girls.
The post claiming fourteen girls went missing in the last week turned out to be incorrect, and the general sense of an epidemic of missing girls has been traced back to a change of social media policy in DC Metro Police Department. Early this year, the new police commander decided to increase the use of social media to share missing persons case, now using Twitter to share every critical case. This was intended to increase public awareness and chances of missing persons being spotted. However, it also resulted in a seeming sudden increase in missing persons in the Metro DC area – not helped by the fact that people tend to be less likely to share reports of found missing persons than the original missing person post. The overall result was a general sense that girls were going missing at an alarming rate and nothing was being done.
The reality is that there has not been an increase in missing girls in the DC area, and most of those who have gone missing in 2017 have been found. The monthly average number of missing persons cases for 2017 is currently 190, down slightly from the monthly average for 2016, which was 200. Currently there are twenty-two people under 21 missing in DC. That said, the facts of the current situation in DC and the origin of the viral post about fourteen missing girls in a week do not delegitimize the issues and fears that made that story believable for so many people.
Across the United States, black children do make up a disproportionate number of missing children’s cases. A majority of missing children’s cases are also children and teens who run away from home. According to 2016 FBI statistics, 36.7% of missing persons under 17 were Black. About 40% of cases in that age range were minorities, but cases of Hispanic missing persons were categorized as white so a different racial breakdown would likely yield a different picture. Each of these cases has its own history, of course, but the disproportionate numbers should not be brushed off.
Complex systemic factors account for these numbers, including disproportionate poverty and other issues that place children and teens of colour in vulnerable circumstances, whether at home or in public, racist prejudice that may make them targets of violence, and racist and classist bias on the part of the public and law enforcement that can lead to their cases being taken less seriously. While it is reassuring to note that most of DC Metro PD’s missing children cases have been closed within 24 to 48 hours, the big picture statistics are still disturbing and demonstrate that the fears that fed the recent social media story are based in reality. Unfortunately, the factors behind the statistics are not so straightforward to resolve as busting a mysterious sex trafficking ring. They are a symptom of deep and complex issues.
While it is good to see many outlets which originally spread the missing DC girls story doing the responsible thing by now spreading the facts, I hope that once this news/social media cycle has passed those same outlets continue to report on the real issues underlying this story’s spread. One lesson to take away is the importance of fact checking, and taking claims about the “mainstream media” with a large grain of salt, but that shouldn’t overshadow the true stories and true issues that are the background reality of this particular untrue story that was sensational enough to capture everyone’s attention.
Photo Credit: Katty Huertasthe
Liz Hill holds a Masters degree in History from the University of Alberta and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Victoria. Her Masters research focused on late medieval madness and leprosy, and she continues to maintain an interest in social, cultural, and intellectual history. As a graduate student, Liz received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, the Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship. She has presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta, and wrote the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the de Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage Division, and has worked at the Art Gallery of Alberta since July 2016.