A seeming spike in missing-children alerts posted on the Metropolitan Police Department’s social media accounts has sparked concerns of a potential sex-trafficking ring targeting the city’s youth, but officials say the prevalent issue isn’t abductions or trafficking, but runaways.
MPD has tweeted alerts for over two dozen missing young people in the city since the start of the year, but Cmdr. Chanel Dickerson of the department’s Youth and Family Services Division assures that there has not been an increase in the number of missing persons cases, and the current cases are not likely related to sex trafficking, but are continuation of the city’s runaway problem.
Dickerson, who took her post in December, said the apparent rise in cases is due to an effort on part of the division to raise awareness when a youth goes missing or located in the city. She says the posts are to inform the public in a timely manner, not a sign of a rising trend.
“Public awareness has increased, not the number of cases,” Dickerson said.
Nearly 10 of the children recently reported missing have been safety located, including 15-year-old Bayyinah Peoples, who had disappeared Nov. 29.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline said in 2016 it had 85 reported cases of human trafficking in D.C., and 35 of those cases involved minors.
Dickerson said though sex trafficking is always a critical concern in missing children cases, investigation in the current cases show no evidence of it and all such cases are handed over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and victims are assisted by partner organizations like Covenant House and FAIR Girls.
“Sex trafficking is always a concern, but while investigating the cases, we do not see any evidence of that,” Dickerson said, adding that in most cases, missing children turn up unharmed with two to three days, without any overt signs of being subjected to sex trafficking.
Most cases are actually instances of runaways, an issue Dickerson said is equally important. One 12-year-old girl has been reported missing and located on the police department’s social media accounts four times since October.
Dickerson said she wants to end the stigma attached to runaway cases and treats each case with the same level of attention. She said when children go missing, several things could happen as a result of them becoming homeless during that time.
“Every case where a child is not where they are supposed to be … gets the same level of attention and is investigated thoroughly,” Dickerson said. “Once a child is out there, they can be victimized or criminalized if they turn to survival crimes.”
Dickerson said the highest instances of missing persons in the city — both adults and children — are in Wards 7 and 8, and the largest group of missing juveniles are girls age 12-17.
“Growing up as an African-American girl, I understand some of the socioeconomic issues these girls are facing,” Dickerson said.
Once a missing child is located, Dickerson said various social services are extended to them and their family to address any existing underlying issues.
Dickerson is also in the process of establishing a mentor program for missing children identified as runaways. Still in the beginning stages, the proposed program has already garnered support from several community groups.