Mayor creates plan to help runaways after social media e≠ort went awry
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is taking steps to clean up after a social media campaign designed to draw attention to the city’s runaways grew wildly out of hand.
The District last week launched a new website — Missing.DC.gov — to highlight how D.C. police quickly solve 99 percent of missing-person reports in the city.
Bowser said she hopes the site will help dispel Internet rumors that hundreds of girls of color have gone missing or been abducted in the nation’s capital.
D.C. police will also begin using a local nonprofit as a safe zone for missing and runaway juveniles, the mayor said. Officers will be instructed to take missing kids they find to a private shelter in Northeast D.C. — and not immediately back to their homes. There, social workers will conduct a new assessment designed by the city to determine why each child ran away and whether government interventions are needed for the child and family. The number of police officers and detectives who focus on missing people has expanded from 11 to 15.
The initiatives were recommended by a panel of experts that Bowser convened after D.C. police began publicizing every report of a missing juvenile on Twitter and other social media platforms late last year. The reports often went viral, being shared hundreds or thousands of times, while follow-up notices that the young people had been found were shared far less often.
Although the District’s number of missing children was declining amid the campaign, the hundreds of tweets from D.C. police — many beginning with the all-caps bulletin “CRITICAL MISSING” — created a perception of an epidemic of missing girls. By March, National Basketball Association stars, rappers, Oscar winners and television personalities, many with millions of followers, began calling for action, tweeting with the hashtag #missingdcgirls.
“Those were some difficult days in the life of the District government, when everybody around the world is thinking that children are being snatched off our streets,” Bowser told reporters recently.
Bowser has acknowledged that the city launched the campaign without a public warning or explanation, which fed confusion and alarm. But she maintained that the net effect has been positive.
The additional publicity has translated into more tips to police about the whereabouts of missing juveniles, Bowser said. And she challenged other cities to follow the District’s lead.
“We do not have a unique situation here. There are missing persons reports across our nation, and, too frequently, especially when they involve youth of color, they don’t get the same attention from the media,” Bowser said. “We have identified a problem … and we’re going to be able to galvanize the resources to be effective.”
There have been reports of 885 missing juveniles since Jan. 1; all but 28 have been found, authorities said.
Some D.C. council members and other critics of the rollout say Bowser’s administration is taking action now that should have been implemented before launching the social media campaign.
But advocates for missing and exploited children said the most important thing is that D.C. is putting in place a comprehensive system to address runaways. It is a problem that particularly affects the city’s poor and predominantly African American community and has been ignored too long, they said.
“A system seems to be being built that we’ve long advocated for,” said James Beck, vice president of planning for Sasha Bruce Youthwork. The nonprofit runs a drop-in center for homeless and runaway youth in Southeast D.C. and a round-the-clock shelter in Northeast, known as the Sasha Bruce House, where police will take runaways. “It’s gratifying that there’s increased attention, no matter how this happened, and that unaccompanied minors will be able to have immediate respite from the street.”
Brenda Donald, director of the District’s Child and Family Services Agency, said that over the next two months, the city will develop the new program at Sasha Bruce, adding staff and creating a standard evaluation that can be used to assess the needs of each runaway.
“Kids who are found are returned in different ways. The vast majority are found by police, and this is a place for the police to be able to take them and tell them, ‘You are going to be safe, and this is what’s going to happen in the next couple of days,’ ” Donald said. “We want to find out what’s going on with you so we can support the youth and hopefully get them back home.”
Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, said she hopes that the District can effectively use the data it receives from assessments to “move upstream” and focus on issues that would prevent children from needing to run away in the first place.