December 25, 2013

TWO RECENT cases of D.C. police officers allegedly sexually victimizing teenage girls have justifiably focused attention on the department’s hiring and disciplinary practices. Overlooked, though, are some other critical questions. What about the girls? How did they come to be trafficked? Are they now getting the support they need? Most fundamentally, are there holes in the system that allow vulnerable youth to become easy prey?

Linwood Barnhill Jr., a 24-year member of the Metropolitan Police Department, has been charged with prostituting two teenage girls. His arrest this month followed the apparent suicide of another officer who had been arrested for taking lewd pictures of a 15-year-old. Police said they believe the two cases are unrelated. No doubt, as Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier contended, the behavior is not representative of the police force.

But there are troubling commonalities, notably that both cases involved missing or runaway youth. These teens are the typical victims of human trafficking. In need of food or housing or simply a sense of belonging, they are easily exploited. Often, they have previously been victims of abuse. Jamila Larson, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, is critical of the District’s efforts to publicize, locate or help these vulnerable children. Why is it, she asked us, that you have to dig on the Metropolitan Police Department’s Web site to find a link to an outdated listing (it included four people when we checked, including a woman murdered three years ago) by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children?

In its annual study of state efforts to combat sex trafficking, Shared Hope International gave the District a D in 2013. That’s a step up from the F it got last year, but advocates said there is much the city needs to do to update laws, improve training, increase communications among agencies and provide more services. More support for transgender youth is a particular issue, as is the need for harsher penalties for the men who pay for sex with minors. The District still has on the books — although officials say it is rarely enforced — a law that makes juveniles subject to arrest for prostitution, a clear conflict with their status as victims.

Thankfully, it doesn’t appear the victims in these recent cases were prosecuted; officials said confidentiality bars release of any information. We hope they are getting the critical services that survivors need and that their terrible stories prompt D.C. officials to examine whether more can be done to protect other children.