D.C. Police: Kidnapping, Trafficking Not Suspected in Recent Disappearances

WASHINGTON – An official with the Metropolitan Police Department said today that there is no evidence suggesting that a spate of recently reported missing girls in the District of Columbia is linked to kidnapping or sex trafficking.

Chanel Dickerson, commander of the police department’s Youth and Family Services Division, appeared for an eight-minute webcast today, three days after two members of the Congressional Black Caucus penned a letter to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking for a probe into “an apparent uptick in the disappearance of young girls of color across the nation.” Chairman Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) pointed to the fact that 10 children of color went missing in D.C. over the course of two weeks this month, garnering little media attention.

“When children of color go missing, authorities often assume they are runaways, rather than victims of abduction,” the letter reads. “Whether these recent disappearances are an anomaly or signals of underlying trend, it is essential that the Department of Justice and the FBI use all of the tools at their disposal to help local officials investigate these events, and return these children to their parents as quickly as possible.”

Dickerson cited department statistics showing that missing juvenile cases have actually decreased year-over-year in the district, adding that she isn’t trying to downplay the issue. According to police, there were 2,242 missing juvenile cases in 2016, and there have been 501 so far in 2017. She also said that in many of the cases, the missing individual turns up as a runaway.

“There is always concern for human trafficking, but we have no evidence of this,” Dickerson said. “If it’s another issue – there may be something in their home environment that they feel like they have to leave, and this is a cry for help.”

D.C. officials and residents came together Wednesday at a town hall meeting at the Excel Academy Public Charter School in the Southeast part of the District, with some residents reportedly criticizing law enforcement’s handling of the disappearances. Dickerson said that before the meeting, the department was investigating 18 cases of critical juvenile missing persons, but by the time the meeting wrapped up that number was 12 as six individuals had been located and reunited with families.

“I really don’t know (the cause), but that’s a great question, and we need to find out the underlying reasons that so many young people in the District of Columbia have chosen to leave home voluntarily because they feel that they have no other alternatives,” she said.

Teen Vogue drew attention to the situation in D.C. on March 13, reporting that 10 people of color, including one male, all between the ages of 13 and 16 had gone missing in 10 days. The story has gone viral, inspiring groups like the National Urban League to tweet about “gross” underreporting in the media for missing black youth.

“Where are they? Our community has the right to know! #missinggirlsDC,” the NAACP tweeted earlier today.

Dickerson, who is African-American, said there is no bias within the police department when it comes to investigating missing persons, regardless of race, immigration status, or location.

“We’ve all heard before that African-American and Latino people feel like their missing persons are not investigated the same way (as others),” she said.

The department, she said, is making sure that “every single missing person case within the District of Columbia received the same level of attention and media exposure, just to ensure there’s no discretion, that everyone feels like the police department is taking their missing person case seriously, and they’re receiving the same service.”

The department has recently increased its presence on social media to combat the issue, which she said has led to collaborative efforts with local hospitals, government employees, Uber drivers, and other community members in locating missing individuals. She added that social media will be a critical tool in determining the root cause of the issue.

Dickerson was asked during the webcast why the department has not been using AMBER Alerts when trying to track down individuals. AMBER Alerts are issued when law enforcement has “reasonable belief that an abduction has occurred” and that the child “is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death,” among other criteria.

“None of these cases meet that criteria,” Dickerson said. “We have no evidence in any of our cases that any of the missing persons have been kidnapped or are the victims of human sex trafficking.”

She noted that missing person updates are available on the department’s website, mpdc.dc.gov. She also asked that adults not leave their children home alone.

“If you’re an adult, you should not let your child reside in a home without their parents’ approval,” she said. “That’s what we found in some cases. We found some missing persons in the home with other adults. … We also ask that if you see a child that’s out of school during school days, call the police. Get the police involved because there may be some issues going on with that child, and we cannot help the child reach their full potential without an education.”