Weeks ago, as social media alerts from Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department ignited an outcry about the number of missing black girls in the District, we witnessed the synergism of our community at work.
We retweeted, reposted and reshared their photos and information. Folks discussed and debated the prevalence of contributing social factors. Celebrities, politicians and athletes engaged in the mass movement to #FindOurGirls. It was a unique moment in the continuum of public interest when the welfare of black girls was elevated to a priority and there was a heightened demand for better protections and measures to keep them healthy, stable and safe.
As their names and faces were circulated, there were, at one point, at least 10 missing teen boys and young men also on that official missing-persons list. Their stories have consistently been a footnote to the national media coverage that has outlined the dangers that threaten young black women but has only acknowledged in passing the disappearances of young black men.
Even in our own community, there’s been an absence of widespread urgency about their cases, perhaps fed by the assumption that boys are better-equipped to defend and take care of themselves. In the approximately two weeks since the start of April, three black boys have been reported missing. Their photos have circulated in fewer spaces. Tweets and posts containing information about them have been shared noticeably less often. But the vulnerability of young people spans sex and gender.
Although more girls have gone missing in a shorter time frame recently, boys generally tend to disappear for longer periods, explained Natalie Wilson, co-founder and chief operating officer of the Black & Missing Foundation. That’s evident from the list in D.C.: Fifteen-year-old Zyaire Flemmings, 14-year-old Navaras Johnson and 23-year-old Dionte Monk have all been missing since February, and 17-year-old Kejuan Sellman disappeared in October 2016. The longer they’re unaccounted for, the more susceptible they are to becoming victims of crime, if that’s not the root cause of their disappearance in the first place.
“I think the perception is that it’s unusual or uncommon for young boys to go missing. We need to change that narrative because it’s not only our girls—our young men are being reported missing as well,” said Wilson, adding that parental abductions, mental-health issues and running away are among the reasons that boys disappear. “Sadly, many of our men and boys who go missing are killed. I’ve seen that in a number of cases, and we need to look deeper to find out what’s happening.”
It’s the absolute worst fear for parents and loved ones keeping vigil and hoping that their sons, brothers and nephews will return home. Statistically, though, they have good reason to stay hopeful. In 2016, there were 2,242 juvenile missing-persons cases in D.C., according to the MPD. Three remain missing. Though it’s small consolation to those three families that have been living in uncertainty, most missing persons are found relatively quickly, said Cmdr. Chanel Dickerson, newly appointed to lead the MPD’s Youth and Family Services Division.
“We work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the FBI is part of our task force for that. If we have a case where a child is missing and we believe we can’t find them, we engage that network,” she said. “A large number of our criminal and missing-person cases come from tips. That’s why we put the information out there. It has to be a joint effort with community members and faith-based organizations to do something in their neighborhoods. The problem is large, but we can all do small things to effect change.”
Seventeen-year-old Clayton Carter has been on the MPD’s list of critical missing persons the longest this year, last seen in the Southeast quadrant of the city on Jan. 11, 2017. As of Monday morning, 10 black boys and young men are missing from Washington, D.C., and one, 24-year-old Christian Muse, who disappeared five years ago, is missing from neighboring Prince George’s County, Md. His father, Michael, formerly a vocalist with the go-go band Rare Essence, believes that he is alive but may have fallen into unsafe circumstances.
“Christian loved sports, loved to wrestle, loved to challenge his friends. He was one of those leader-of-the-pack type of guys. Sometimes that mentality would get mixed up with his mischievousness, but it was typical teenage-boy stuff,” said Michael, who raised Christian; his twin sister, Milana, 24; and their older brother, Michael Jr., 28, as a single parent from the time they were teens.
Michael Sr. said that as Christian got older, he kept getting into trouble and acting out, although he was an accomplished student and football player. Still, he graduated with honors and went on to complete an HVAC certification program at the local community college. Michael believed that his son’s worst experiences were behind him.
One day, Christian started crying, unable to carry an emotional burden any longer, and revealed to his father that an older relative had molested him from the time he was 3 until he was about 16. Shocked, Michael pressed charges, and the police interviewed the accused, but he denied the claims. Because there were no witnesses and Christian refused to testify, Michael says, police told him he didn’t have a case.
The revelation of abuse set off a series of quick disasters, culminating in Christian’s disappearance after a friend dropped him off in Oxon Hill, Md. A bank account that his grandmother had started for him remains untouched, and he hasn’t contacted anyone in his close-knit family since that day. After he disappeared, a D.C. detective who was working in conjunction with the FBI busted a video sex ring. Christian was one of the victims.
“Kids were being paid to have sex, and it was posted on the internet. Christian participated willingly,” said his father, “but he was a minor at the time, so that’s child pornography.”
Michael was confident that the information from authorities would put questions about Christian’s whereabouts to rest and give Michael the peace of conclusion, but it just created more mystery and fear. It was especially frightening, he said, that “they couldn’t find any of the boys in the videos. They had all disappeared.”
New leads from law enforcement have since dried up. Michael says that the detective in charge of Christian’s case hasn’t contacted him in at least two years. Ignoring the occasional rumor or unsubstantiated sighting (Michael largely believes that they are made up), he’s staying prayerful that Christian, who was 19 when he disappeared, will ultimately come home.
“Whatever he’s been through, the very first thing I would tell him is, ‘I love you,’” Michael said, a surge of emotion cracking his voice.
“Right now I’m going through a period of what I call my soul crying. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes because I’ve had a dream about him, and I feel all the pain and sorrow that you feel while you’re crying, but no tears will come out,” he said. “It’s a terrible feeling. I give God the glory that I haven’t jumped off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, because this just doesn’t go away. It’s torturing me.”
Looking at national data compiled by the FBI, Natalie Wilson sees a slight uptick in the number of missing juvenile males. Though underreported, sex crimes against boys and young men are increasing, and the trafficking market that victimizes them continues to grow, especially as more people stand to financially benefit from the commercial-sex economy, boosted by the easy secrecy of the internet.
As with many of the cases of missing girls, sex trafficking is just one possible root cause of a disappearance that’s difficult to confirm until the missing person is located and interviewed by investigators. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes, sadly, it does not.
Both Chanel Dickerson and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have publicly and repeatedly reminded concerned citizens that there is no indication that young people are in any more danger now than before. But although there may be no spike in specific crimes—at least not according to information that is readily available to the public—that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern. If boys are running away from home, they could be running from something toxic there, but the flight response may navigate them from one bad situation into one even worse.
“The longer they’re out there, the more at risk they become for survival crimes,” said Dickerson. “I don’t want them to end up in the criminal-justice system because they had to commit a crime for food or shelter. I don’t want them to be victimized, not just in human trafficking but in any other crime.”
The coinciding question to this ongoing story for both boys and girls is, why are so many young people disappearing, even for brief but still frightening periods of time? Less than four months into 2017, so far 661 juveniles have been reported missing in D.C., according to the MPD. Now that the community is paying closer attention to the health and safety of our kids, it’s the perfect time to engage with the kids themselves, Dickerson advises. It may sound idealistic, but we have the power to create a safety net that protects our children from predators and, in many instances, themselves.
“If you see a child who’s not in school who should be in school, how about engaging the child to ask them, ‘How it’s going today? You didn’t go to school?’ Or maybe you just need to call authorities. It’s just about taking responsibility,” she added. “We’ve always heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to save one, too.”