Last month, a rumor that more than 500 mostly black and Latino children from the District of Columbia had been abducted and sold into sex slavery went viral on social media. A new decision by D.C. police to alert the public whenever children were reported missing had backfired; most of the kids had been found safe within 24 hours, but those updates never spread as far as the initial reports. Worried people, from the Congressional Black Caucus to LL Cool J, raised alarms over what looked like a sudden epidemic that was being ignored in ways that would be unimaginable with white children.
Hoping to quell the outrage, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser assured the public that there has been no surge of missing kids. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t children that need our help,” she said March 24 as she unveiled plans to create a task force to work with vulnerable teenagers.
Hundreds of children of color have been reported missing in D.C. at some point since January, but those numbers aren’t higher than usual. The police say 2,242 children were reported missing in 2016, down from 2,433 in 2015. Virtually all of them were found unharmed within 24 hours; in many cases the children, who showed no evidence of being exploited by sex traffickers, had repeatedly run away from home, according to a spokesman for the mayor.
Which means many children do indeed need our help — and we need to pay more attention to the home lives that they might be running away from.
Rates of reported child abuse are disproportionately high for black children. According to the Justice Department , black children ages 12 to 19 are “three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect.” As many as 7,354 young people ages 12 to 24, most of them black, experience homelessness each year in D.C., and more than 2 million children nationwide do. In one national survey, nearly half reported intense conflict, neglect or physical harm by a family member as a major factor in their homelessness. Others experienced family instability due to unaffordable housing, or left the juvenile-justice system or the foster-care system without enough education or support to make it on their own. Research from the Administration for Children and Families shows that up to 42 percent of runaway and homeless youth are sexually abused before they leave their homes.
Black children are also disproportionately likely to suffer treatment at home that’s so bad that they want to flee. In 2015, black kids had the highest rate of abuse and neglect, at 14.5 per 1,000 children, compared with 8.1 per 1,000 for white children, according to the Children’s Bureau, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 3,600 black children in the United States have died as a result of maltreatment in the past decade, a rate three times higher than for all other racial groups. Suicide rates among elementary-age black children have nearly doubled since the 1990s, while the rates for white children have fallen, according to a 2015 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A disturbing number of children in D.C. and elsewhere are gambling that life on the street could not be worse than their abusive homes. I made the same choice in 1987 and in 1991 while growing up in Trenton, N.J.
I ran away from my adoptive family when I was 9 and again when I was 12. After the second time, I refused to go back, and I ended up yet another black child in New Jersey’s foster-care system. A warm bed and steady meals in my adoptive home were not worth constant “whuppings” and verbal abuse — which my adoptive parents and the wider black community said were love, discipline and protection from the police or white racists. I felt safer on my own, even if that meant living on the street. From age 12 to 14, I was shuttled between foster homes, youth shelters and group homes, until I was fortunate enough to win an academic scholarship to the Lawrenceville Prep School. So I understand where many of these kids are coming from.
My own experiences helped shape my role as an advocate for children, and it’s painful to see how common such abuse still is in my community. Without question, the toughest part of my work is convincing black people that a “no hitting” zone at home is crucial to helping children feel and be safe. Whupping kids is not “a black thing.” But parents argue that without whuppings, their children will end up in prison, even though we’ve been having national conversations about mass incarceration for decades. They cherry-pick Old Testament scriptures to justify hitting. They argue that there’s a difference between spanking and abuse, as if a child’s body experiences pain differently based on what parents call a swat or the intent behind it. And many people proclaim that they were whupped as children and “turned out fine,” even though they’ve grown up to see striking a child’s body as normal behavior. It’s a violent, unnecessary parenting practice planted in our culture through colonialism, slavery, forced indoctrination into Christianity and centuries of racial trauma.
If we are going to talk about missing children in D.C., we must look at beating kids as one of the root issues. Yes, sex trafficking does happen, and yes, the types of children who go missing in Washington and other cities — mostly black; mostly poor; disproportionately lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer — are more vulnerable than other kids. But neglect and abuse are among the most common factors.
So much of our national focus on black children is on how “bad” they are: how they need more physical punishment, zero tolerance at school, harsh sentences from the courts. They are blamed for their own deaths at the hands of adults who claimed they were afraid of them. That systemic devaluation of black children even extends into classrooms. In 19 states, students are still subject to corporal punishment; a disproportionately higher number of black children receive it. According to reports by the Education Department’s office of civil rights and Human Rights Watch, racial bias contributes to this problem, along with black parents signing opt-in forms empowering teachers and administrators to hit their children.
These messages have consequences. When black children are constantly told that they are a problem, that they are unworthy and undeserving of empathy and kindness, that they can be beaten in schools, in the streets, by cops and by the people who love them, running away from home doesn’t seem like such an extreme choice. If home so often isn’t a safe haven, should we be surprised?
The best way to keep black children out of the headlines — to protect them from a predatory foster-care system, the school-to-prison pipeline, sex traffickers and other traps — is to make their homes safer and more loving. That means more parental education on child development, so parents can set reasonable expectations for their children, as well as giving parents information on non-violent discipline practices. Churches need to become safe sanctuaries that reinforce positive parenting strategies, instead of having clergy who preach “spare the rod, spoil the child.” We need to send a strong message to black youths that their families and community institutions will protect them by providing counseling, advocacy, shelter, safety planning and emotional support. Service agencies need ethnically diverse, culturally competent staff members who will avoid policies and practices that perpetuate trauma and institutionalized racism. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for impoverished communities dealing with generations of poverty, trauma and divestment.
Black children’s lives need to matter before they become a statistic or a hashtag. But the blame doesn’t rest entirely on outside forces. We need to take responsibility for protecting our children in the place that matters most, so that home is place they’ll run to, and not away from.