Mayor cre­ates plan to help ru­n­aways af­ter so­cial me­dia e≠ort went awry

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - THE DIS­TRICT BY AARON C. DAVIS aaron.davis@wash­post.com

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.

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