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D.C. officials said the city is roughly halfway through implementing its plan to combat the scourge of missing children and keep District youths safe, just weeks after Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the launch of the initiative.
So far, as outlined in the initial plan, the number of officers with the Metropolitan Police Department’s Youth and Family Services Division assigned with locating missing youth has increased, growing from 11 officers to 16. MPD’s Missing Persons website has been expanded to include a case catalog with specific information for open cases, frequently updated statistics and links to resources for families who need to report a loved one missing.
“We have been talking over the past couple of weeks about what the situation is in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said at a May 24 press event highlighting the progress of the plan’s six steps to protect D.C. youth.
The number of missing children in the city was the subject of national news after MPD Cmdr. Chanel Dickerson, head of the Youth and Family Division, led the charge to publicly share the profiles of all critically missing persons in the city, in hopes that the use of social media would help return them home.
But the public responded with rumors of the seeming increase of missing persons reports being connected to child abduction and sex trafficking that spread across the country.
City officials immediately assured that there had not been an increase in the number of missing persons cases and open cases did not show evidence of being related to sex trafficking. They declared that a majority of the open cases seemed to be a continuation of a revolving door of runaways in the city’s most vulnerable communities of Wards 7 and 8.
Nevertheless, the city soon after launched the plan to address the issue, with half of the plan’s six outlined initiatives currently labeled “Status: Complete” by city officials.
Public service announcements have also been produced and shared on the mayor’s social media accounts in an effort to educate the public and young people on preventing youth from leaving home.
“We know that in Washington, D.C., we don’t have a particular or unique problem when it comes to missing children, but we have made the very intentional decision to talk about it differently and publicize it differently, and to address it differently,” Bowser said. “We are going to be able to galvanize the resources we need to be effective.”
The mayor was joined for the press conference by Dickerson, Child and Family Services Agency Director Brenda Donald, and Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants Director Michelle Garcia.
Donald’s and Garcia’s agencies, charged with the development of a consistent response protocol across city agencies and service providers, have submitted a drafted evaluation tool to assess the circumstances of a youth’s departure from home and possibly needed intervention and prevention services. The proposed evaluation will be reviewed by agency partners and budget teams to identify resources required for implementation.
A working group led by the two agencies also submitted recommendations identifying methods to streamline the protocols and polices when a missing child is located under the categories of response protocol, support for families and youth and prevention.
“Right now the police and some of our partners do an excellent job of identifying and finding the kids, but then if they are returned home … if whatever is going on at home is not resolved, then that child is likely to run again,” Donald said.
Recommendations include supportive services for the family while a child is missing and the creation of a 24-hour drop-in center for children who feel unsafe. Current site suggestions are Sasha Bruce in Southeast.
Currently, each case is assessed on a case by case basis depending on what agency a child is located by as each agency many have its own mechanism for providing services.
“This is the first time, and maybe a model for the nation, where we will have a systemic response where kids can come and not only to be safe, which is the critically most important thing initially, but then to establish that ongoing support system and continue that work with their families,” Donald said.
The plan also called for additional grant support for nonprofit partners addressing youth runaways. The City Fund Safer, Stronger D.C. Community Opportunity Grant request for proposals will close June 2. Awards are expected to be announced in mid-July.
Of D.C.’s 885 reports of missing juveniles this year, only 28 remain unsolved.
Officials said there will be ongoing change regarding how the city deals with missing youth.