The Danger of Forcing the ‘Runaway’ Label on the Missing DC Girls

Relisha Rudd, FBI handout

Double-digit numbers of young black and Latinx girls in the nation’s capital are missing and, as expected, there has yet to be a national outcry. Instead, within the past week, Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department and other social media outlets are now focused on emphatically underscoring the message that social media distorted the stories and numbers of those missing.


The effort to find a handful of missing teenagers is being used to illustrate how a community is supposedly lying. But what’s still abundantly clear is that young black girls are missing, and many don’t care. The lack of rage over these young girls reveals a troubling truth: Missing girls are oftentimes immediately thought of as “runaways” who are not being harmed by systems of exploitation and victimization.

This mindset allows black girls to experience harm and trauma, while the assumption that girls are runaways puts the blame on caregivers, removes the government’s role and implies that these girls got what they deserved for being “fast”—stereotypes of oftentimes physically, emotionally and psychologically abused girls.

According to Police Cmdr. Chanel Dickerson, who leads the Youth and Family Services Division of the MPD’s investigative unit, D.C. has witnessed a slight decrease in the number of juveniles reported missing this year. From 2012 to 2016, there were 200 missing juveniles reported each month; this year that number has decreased to 190.

This nonuptick in numbers is being used to diminish the feelings among black people in the District—feelings that are beginning to develop nationwide—that law enforcement and many elected leaders don’t care about these black girls. These numbers are also being used to assure the public that there isn’t a real sense of urgency and that this “black outcry” is opportunistic and nonfactual. We know better.


As of March 28, 14 cases of missing young black girls and Latinx remain open in D.C., including 14-year-old Shaniah Boyd, who went missing March 18, and 17-year-old Demetria Carthens, who was last seen Feb. 7. For many black people, it isn’t surprising that only we are discussing the trauma associated with what could be happening to the missing girls.

This lack of compassion for the black experience is part of a long line in history: Multiple missing black girls, in the eyes of white America and, by extension, white media, will never equal one Natalie Holloway. Many of us recognize this at a young age, so we don’t have to curb our enthusiasm when we find out later in life that law enforcement doesn’t value us.


Thanks to websites like The Root and black community activists and advocates, however, we have become more aware of this story.


Last week, on March 22, there was a missing-girls forum hosted in Southeast D.C., where residents expressed grievances and demanded government accountability and answers. The forum—livestreamed by Ward 8 D.C. City Council Member Trayon White—showed one important detail: The audience was all black, save for a police officer or news-outlet representative.


Usually, a sea of melanin would never frustrate me. It’s clear that only black people will defend and protect our own because only we know how to do so safely. It’s apparent that the black community is the only one to see us in a genuine, nontransactional, non-quid-pro-quo way. Nonetheless, my frustration was somehow exacerbated because there was nary a white face in sight.

No, white people will never save us, but in the realm of “All Lives Matter” and “We Are the World” progressivism, one would think that white America would learn how to hide its apathy better. With apathy, not only is it possible to see who is valued less, but we also see who is valued more.


But it isn’t just white people who are promoting this system of institutional violence toward missing and exploited young black girls. D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, for example, has made it a point to divert blame to the youths’ parents, thus removing government accountability for why D.C. girls are missing. It’s easy (though anti-black) to blame parents, but it’s much more difficult to own the government’s role in the crisis of missing and exploited children.

On Friday, Bowser announced a series of initiatives, including a task force, to find missing girls in the District. Two solutions proposed thus far are identifying the necessary social services for these girls and increasing the number of police officers used to locate them.


While I’m pleasantly surprised by the announcement, it forces me to wonder, if the number of missing black and Latinx youths, particularly girls, hasn’t increased in recent years, why, then, spend additional government money, District dollars, on what is only perceived to be a problem but isn’t?


And then I think about how damaging it’ll likely be to increase the number of officers to solve any problem within black and Latinx communities. Around the country, we see the danger of police control and the rampant sexual victimization of black bodies. We know that black girls are criminalized even when they are survivors of violence and it is law enforcement that sexually violated their bodies.

What’s worse, the narrative around many of the missing girls has been to frame them as runaways warranting no real investigation. This perpetuates the incorrect and harmful belief that black and Latinx girls can’t be part of criminalizing enterprises like trafficking and kidnapping.


In fact, it’s this thinking that increases girls’ susceptibility and vulnerability to violence. After all, who’s going to look for girls who many don’t believe could be missing involuntarily? Sure, some people run away, but automatically concluding that black and Latinx girls are runaways creates a perception that these girls ran away as an illegitimate and illogical act of resistance, as if violence and sexual abuse, oftentimes by male figures in the homes, aren’t what’s being escaped.

Concluding that these girls are runaways can also cause law enforcement—and the government writ large—to pull back on the resources spent on seeking them because these girls are assumed to be “fast-tailed” and involved with older partners. This is typical of the line of reasoning that America uses to not address structural and institutional violence.


Violence against women and girls is a reality worldwide, regardless of what any one statistical analysis might show. We know that black girls experience harm, and this shouldn’t be denied because of our pre-existing notions about who can and cannot be a survivor of violence.

Over the years, I have witnessed young black and Latinx girls go through the unspeakable in the abuse-and-neglect division of the Family Court of the District of Columbia Superior Court. Last week I also noticed a community of black people voicing their concerns and desire for well-deserved government social services, financial support, community policing and overall well-being. It was beautiful to see, but also heartbreaking that they needed to make these demands.


White people won’t solve the problem of our missing girls, and neither will law enforcement. Those who will lead the way to uncovering the truth behind missing and exploited black and Latinx girls are our own—because only we know how to survive the myriad forms of violence thrown our way every single day.

Preston Mitchum is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, activist and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor to The Root and The Grio and has written for The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, Out Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.

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