In March of this year, the popular website Entertainment for Breakfast, put up a post on their Instagram account. The post included a picture of some children and a disturbing headline. The headline declared that fourteen children of color had gone missing from Washington DC in the last twenty-four hours. The post then accused the police of ignoring the disappearances.
The post sparked outrage on social media. The Instagram post went viral and soon the hashtag #missinggirlsdc was trending on Twitter. Soon the narrative emerged on social media that there was a crisis in DC: Black and Latinx children were disappearing at incredible rates and that the police weren’t doing anything about the disappearances.
Multiple celebrities joined in the conversation on social media. Taraji P Henson regrammed the Instagram post. LL Cool J retweeted the post and said that he wanted to make sure that #missinggirlsdc would be trending on Twitter. His followers gladly obliged the request. Viola Davis retweeted the information about the missing children and Gabrielle Union put out a note on Instagram. Sean Combs (the artist formerly known as P Diddy) took to Twitter to let the families of the missing children know they were in his prayers.
With so much celebrity support, the story became national news and another narrative emerged: that police and the media nationwide don’t pay enough attention when Black and Latinx children go missing. When white kids go missing it’s a crisis, but when children of color go missing there’s silence. A new hashtag emerged: #findourgirls and people used both hashtags to draw attention to the missing children.
But here’s the thing: the original post by Entertainment for Breakfast was fake news. Here’s all the real facts about #missinggirlsdc and #findourgirls.
12 14 girls didn’t go missing in 24 hours
The original post from Entertainment for Breakfast went viral before anyone really had a chance to fact check whether or not the claim was true. By the time that people were publicly refuting the claim, it didn’t really matter whether it was true or not. The Internet believed it was true and they created their own narrative that legitimized the claim.
Eventually, the post did get fact checked and it was confirmed that fourteen children did not go missing from the DC area in a single day. The DC police department shared their statistics on children missing from the DC area and the number didn’t match up with the claims. Shaun King, a popular social justice writer for the “New York Daily News,” chimed in on Twitter and said that the pictures used in the Instagram graphic were from a story he did about missing Black children, but that the girls had been missing for years and some of them weren’t even from the DC area.
11 The DC police implemented a new and really confusing social media policy
As the Instagram post was investigated further it was discovered that the story had been sparked by a misunderstanding of the DC Police Department’s new social media policy. The police believed that sharing reports of “Critical Missing Persons” cases on social media would help the cases get solved quicker. A “Critical Missing Person” case is a case where the missing person is under the age of fifteen or over the age of sixty-five. These individuals are considered most at risk, so when they go missing, the department deems their cases critical.
In an attempt to get some of these critical cases more public attention, the Washington DC Police Department began posting a series of tweets with information about “Critical Missing Persons” cases that remained unsolved. Entertainment for Breakfast took these tweets to mean that the children had gone missing within the time period the tweets had been posted, the previous 24 hours. But this was not the case. The DC police were simply sharing information about cases that were still open.
10 Numbers of missing children in DC have actually been trending down
In fact, the number of children who’ve gone missing from the DC area has gone over the past year and a half. In 2016 46 less children went missing from the DC area than in 2015. The numbers for 2017 are trending to be lower as well. The DC police department is receiving, on average, ten less reports of missing children per month in 2017 than the average number of reports per month over the last five years. When the number of children missing in DC is compared to the number of children missing in other major cities nationwide the numbers are very similar.
Basically, there aren’t any more missing children in DC than there are in other major cities around the country, and there definitely hasn’t been a sudden increase in how many children have gone missing. The narrative that Black and Latinx children are disappearing from DC in unprecedented numbers just isn’t true.
9 The majority of the cases have been solved
Another story that emerged out of the Entertainment for Breakfast Instagram post was that police weren’t paying attention to these missing children and therefore, they weren’t being found. This is another narrative that turned out to be false. DC actually has a very good close rate for missing persons cases.
The DC Police Department has a website where they update statistics on their missing persons cases literally every day. The website says that the DC Police Department closes “more than 99 percent of their cases,” and that most of the cases are “closed in a short amount of time.”
In 2017, 1,817 missing persons cases have been opened, 1,207 of which were missing children cases. Of those 1,817 only 54 cases remain unsolved and not all of those cases are missing children cases. Of course, there are missing children cases out of the DC area that remain open for multiple years, but this is not uncommon in large cities. Many of the children who Entertainment for Breakfast claimed had gone missing in a 24 hour period had actually been missing for years, as Shaun King pointed out in his tweets.
8 But the social media frenzy started a really important conversation
Though the information in the post made by Entertainment for Breakfast was discovered to be false, the conversation that began as a result was still very important. Though fourteen children of color didn’t go missing from the DC area in one day, hundreds of children of color do go missing from the DC area every year. Hundreds of children of color disappear from cities all over the country. And when these children of color go missing, their cases are often not given the same attention as when white children go missing.
There is a problem with the way missing children cases involving children of color are handled in DC and in the country as a whole. Cases of missing children of color are often not taken seriously by local law enforcement. These cases don’t receive as much media coverage as when the missing child is white. Missing children of color don’t become household names the way Natalie Holloway did. And this is a serious problem, fueled by institutional racism.
Just because fourteen children of color didn’t go missing in a single day doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to talk about when it comes to how cases of missing children of color are handled.
7 A disproportionate number of the children missing around DC are Black or Latinx
The sad fact is that the majority of children missing from the DC area are Black or Latinx. The DC Police Department’s site for their missing persons cases doesn’t break down the statistics by race, so the exact number of cases where children of color went missing compared to the number of cases where white children went missing isn’t readily available.
However, if you scroll through their list of current open cases, which all have pictures, you’ll find that there are only two white children missing. The rest of their open missing children cases are children of color. Out of 34 open cases since 2010, 32 of them involve children of color.
Again, there aren’t readily available statistics showing how many total missing persons cases in 2017 involve children of color, but their open cases definitely show that a disproportionate number of DC’s missing children are children of color.
6 A disproportionate number of the children missing nationwide are Black or Latinx
Unfortunately, this pattern is true on a national scale as well. Between 35 and 38% of all the children missing in the United States are black. Around 20% of all the children missing in the United States are Latinx. So, more than half of the children missing in the United States are children of color.
This numbers become even more alarming when you compare them to the total percentage of the US population that are Black and Latinx. Only about thirteen percent of the US population is Black and only about eighteen percent of the US population is Latinx. So combined Black and Latinx people make up about thirty-one percent of the US population, but more than half of the missing children in this country are Black or Latinx.
Black and Latinx children are disappearing more often than white children and at a disproportionate rate considering the size of these populations.
5 Some of the missing Black and Latinx children are runaways
One of the common reasons that police all over the country and in DC specifically give for the high amount of missing children cases is that the missing children are runaways. Their parents call and report them missing, but the child hasn’t been taken, they’ve purposely left their home and not returned. Some of the missing persons cases are opened for the same children, who repeatedly run away from their homes. Many of these children are found quickly and returned to their homes.
It’s easy to dismiss cases of runaway children as not as serious as when a child is abducted, but this ignores the reasons why the children run away from their homes. In some cases, the running away is a run of the mill act of rebellion. The kid went out with friends for a few days and never told their parents their whereabouts. But in some cases, the running away is indicative of serious problems at home, primarily abuse.
When missing children who are discovered to be runaways are found, the police are simply closing the case rather than investigating the reasons behind the running away and whether the child is safe at home.
4 The police often dismiss missing Black and Latinx children as runaways
Since so many of the cases of missing Black and Latinx children involve runaways, it’s common for police to assume that a missing child is just another runaway. When the missing child is classified as a runaway right off the bat, their case isn’t treated as seriously as when it’s assumed that the child has been kidnapped.
It takes longer to discover that the child has been abducted because the police are following leads for a runaway rather than an abductee. If the child is considered a runaway an Amber Alert doesn’t get issued either. Without an Amber Alert, there’s less public attention drawn to the case, which means that the public isn’t on the lookout for a missing child.
Basically, when the police assume that a Black or Latinx missing child is a runaway, it changes the investigation and hinders their ability to find the child and their abductor.
3 The media covers cases of missing Black and Latinx children differently
When white children go missing there’s often national news coverage very shortly after they go missing. When Black and Latinx children go missing, there’s very little media coverage at all. There have been many very highly publicized cases of missing white children, especially missing white girls, but there have been very few highly publicized cases of missing Black and Latinx children.
When #missinggirlsdc and #findourgirls went viral, DC lawmakers began to speak publicly about the lack of media coverage for missing children of color. They acknowledged that fourteen girls hadn’t gone missing in one day, but they pointed out that ten children of color had gone missing in the past two weeks and there was barely any media coverage.A study published in the “Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology” looked at the online coverage of missing persons cases. They found that when white women go missing they receive a larger volume of media coverage and that these cases get much more public attention than cases where people of color have gone missing. According to a 2010 study, over 30% of the children who went missing that year were children of color, but their disappearances received less than 20% of the media coverage about missing children that year.
The harsh truth is that the media deems it more newsworthy when white children go missing than when children of color go missing. Regardless of the number of missing children, this is a serious problem fueled by institutional racism.
2 The Black and Missing Foundation was started to bring attention to these cases
In 2004 Tamika Huston disappeared from her home in South Carolina. One year later, Natalie Holloway disappeared while on a class trip. Everyone has heard of Natalie Holloway, but few people have heard of Tamika Huston. The media covered the Holloway case obsessively and people all over the country rallied to find her. Local media outlets had to be convinced to air stories about Huston’s disappearance and it never received any national coverage.
This comparison shows the blatant disparity in the way the media covers the disappearances of people of color. Derrica and Natalie Wilson were shocked by the lack of media attention being given to missing people of color, so they created the Black and Missing Foundation. The foundation complies information about missing people of color and puts it in to a searchable database. The Foundation then shares this information as widely as possible to get the cases the attention they deserve.
After the Entertainment for Breakfast Instagram post went viral, The Black and Missing Foundation gave multiple interviews to highlight the fact that even though the post was wrong, the problem of the lack of media coverage for missing people of color is real.
1 #missinggirlsdc and #findourgirls are still being used to bring attention to cases of missing Black and Latinx children
It’s been months since the original Instagram post claiming fourteen girls went missing in DC in one day went viral. The hashtags #missinggirlsdc and #findourgirls haven’t been trending on Twitter for a long time now. But both of the hashtags are still active and they both show recent activity. People are still using the hashtags on their Twitter posts to bring attention to cases involving missing children of color.
The fake news Instagram post and the hashtags it birthed created a very necessary conversation about the disproportionate number of Black and Latinx children that go missing every year. These hashtags also brought to the forefront the problems with the way these cases are handled by the police and in the media.
The continued use of these hashtags is important because sharing these cases on social media may get them the attention they need for these children to be found and these cases to be closed.
Sources: The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The New York Daily News, NBC Washington, Twitter, Instagram