Lack of coverage for missing D.C. girls is dangerous
Hundreds of black and Latina teenage girls have been disappearing in staggering numbers in the D.C. area, and nobody seemed to notice until recently.
Since January, over 500 children and teenagers were reported missing and, as of March 22, twenty-two are still yet to be found.
This lack of attention may not be completely surprising with the media's wall-to-wall coverage of our current president's political antics. Still, we know the media is not shy about providing extensive coverage surrounding cases of missing women, so why haven't these girls been given the same treatment?
This might make more sense when looking at the description of some of the girls.
One 15-year-old who was last seen Jan. 10 in the 700 block of M Street SE was black. Another 14-year-old who was last seen Feb. 2 in the 1300 block of Saratoga Avenue NE was also black. Just this past week, a 14 year-old was last seen on the 4000 block of 6th Street, Southeast. She was also black.
Derrica Wilson, co-founder and chief executive of the Black and Missing Foundation, says that though black people make up 13.2 percent of America's population, people of color account for 40 percent of all missing persons cases in the country. Journalist Gwen Ifill is said to have originated the phrase "missing white women syndrome," which describes the extensive media coverage that often surrounds the disappearances of young, upper-middle-class white girls. This is why you probably remember the names Natalie Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, and Jon Benet Ramsey, but have never heard of Relisha Rudd.
In light of the disparate coverage of missing black and Latina girls, Rudd's story has once again been brought to light. In 2014, Rudd lived with her mother at a homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital. She was eight years old. Rudd was reportedly last seen spending time with the shelter's janitor, Kahlil Tatum, who shot his wife and then himself not long after. It was later suspected that Tatum abducted Rudd and killed her.
As this investigation was unfolding, The Washington Post was the only major news outlet that made an effort to keep track of the story. Rudd's body was never found and her story disappeared along with her.
On the other hand, news sites such as The Washington Times, CBS News, Fox News, and NBC Washington, all released stories about 46-year-old Tricia McCauley, a D.C. yoga instructor who went missing last Christmas and was found soon after in the car of her alleged attacker. There have also been several in-depth stories released this past week on the mystery surrounding Tom Brady's missing jersey — a jersey. While this may be of extreme importance to the sports community, it is shocking that there wasn't a similar, widely reported manhunt being undertaken for actual human beings that have gone missing.
D.C. police officials also stated that they have not seen an increase in the number of missing people in their jurisdiction. "We've just been posting them on social media more often," department spokesperson Rachel Reid explained. Chanel Dickerson, commander of the D.C. police’s Youth and Family Services Division, says that these recently reported cases could also be due to better reporting by family members.
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Police Department stepped up efforts to find these "critically missing" girls by sending out a series of tweets with the names, photos, times, and locations these girls were last seen. Twitter users, such as @BlackMarvelGirl, have also joined in to increase efforts to help spread the word and gather support for the families of the girls.
On March 23, The Associated Press obtained a letter sent by Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond and Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the D.C. in Congress. In the letter, Richmond and Norton urge Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey 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.”
Sessions was briefed on the issue last Friday and is reportedly looking into it.
Though efforts have increased to help find these missing girls, there is still the mystery surrounding the cause of these disappearances.
D.C. police believe that many of these girls have just run away from home, though they are not certain this applies to all the missing persons cases that have been reported. The National Runway Safeline cites family dynamics, peer and social issues, and abuse as reasons why teens usually run away from home.
"When children of color go missing, authorities often assume they are runaways rather than victims of abduction," added Richmond and Norton in their letter. But assuming that these girls have acted of their own agency, rather than being kidnapped by someone else who wishes to harm them, leads to a lack of urgency that can be the difference between life or death if their cases do turn out to be abductions. If the people meant to keep them safe assume the girls are simply rebelling, they may not take the immediate, appropriate steps to return them to their families. Furthermore, the continuous lack of attention and downplaying of the situation in the media may even prolong the problem, as public awareness can be an important source of pressure in finding missing persons.
Apart from running away from home, Sharece Crawford, a member of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Southeast Washington, believes that these girls could also be victims of sex trafficking, a practice which has a dark history in D.C.
In 2016, around 70 defendants were prosecuted in federal and D.C. courts for charges of conducting human trafficking, including abducting or enticing a child into prostitution, over the span of eight years. Many of the defendants were convicted, but this still remains a major issue in the area.
Police have denied that human trafficking is to blame for the cases though many people following these disappearances have not ruled it out entirely.
Girls disappearing is a serious problem going on in D.C., and there are still young girls missing whose families are longing to see them again. D.C. police are now urging people to share missing person fliers to raise more awareness for these girls, but the initial inequality in media representation prevented the world from noticing and responding to the situation sooner. Now, the most important thing is that these girls are acknowledged and found — they are no less worth saving, or talking about, as missing white women and football jerseys. They have been ignored long enough.