Bowser will increase the number of police officers assigned to find missing children and establish a task force to determine what social services teenagers who run away need to stabilize their home lives. The city would also allocate more money to nonprofit organizations that work with vulnerable teenagers. Her office said the goal is to ensure that city agencies work together to protect children and that the onus doesn’t fall entirely on the police department.
“Often times, these girls are repeat runaways,” said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor. “So if we really want to help solve this problem and bring down the numbers, we have to break the cycle of young people, especially young girls, who repeatedly run away from home.”
On Friday afternoon, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said she would introduce national legislation requiring the U.S. Department of Justice to publish detailed demographic characteristics — including race, gender and sexual orientation — of missing children.
D.C. police insist that there has not been an increase in missing teenagers but rather that the law enforcement agency has made a more concerted effort to publicize these cases. Last week, acting police chief Peter Newsham said his department has recently started tweeting out the name and photo of every missing person in the city whose case is deemed “critical.”
That definition includes anyone age 15 and under, including chronic runaways, and people 65 and over. In the past, publicizing such cases was discretionary. Bowser also plans to update a city website to include more information on each missing child.
Deborah Shore, founder of the Sasha Bruce Youth Network, has been working with homeless and displaced young people in the District for more than 40 years. She said her organization has seen a slight uptick this year in young people reaching out to their hotline or visiting their drop-in centers.
“We are a city of many disparities,” Shore said. “Young people who don’t have a lot of resources and are in a situation that is unstable, they are pretty vulnerable.”
When young people run away from home, they typically will stay with someone they know and sleep on a couch, Shore said.
“There’s a view out there that this is a friendly kind of situation,” she said. “But there are people who prey on young people. We have just seen and heard from so many young people that these arrangements are not friendly. They require some kind of payment, and often it’s for some kind of sexual favor.”
National media outlets, including the New York Daily News and ABC's "Good Morning America" have run stories on the District's missing teenagers. A headline in the Root, an African American culture and news website, demanded to know if "anyone even cares" about the District's missing black and Hispanic teens.
On Thursday, black members of Congress called for the Justice Department to help local police investigate missing children in the nation's capital.
Even if some of the media’s coverage is misleading, Harris said the mayor thinks that the attention the issue is receiving is positive and could help bring these children home quickly and safely. Harris said that if jurisdictions across the country adopted the District’s social media policy, every missing child could receive the attention that those in D.C. are getting.
Harris said these new initiatives aren’t a response to the alarm raised by media coverage, although he said she announced it Friday because of the attention it is receiving.
“This is what the [social media] policy was intended to do,” Harris said. “It was intended to get these teens’ faces out there. It was intended to provoke conversation. We don’t ever want this to become the norm.”