Missing girls (236008)
Credit: Black and Missing, Inc.

It all started with some tweets.

In late 2016, Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police began using Twitter to inform the public of missing persons. An Instagram post compiled some of the tweets and told the world that in a 24-hour span, 14 Black girls went missing in the District. The public outrage was instantaneous and unforgiving. The hashtag #missingdcgirls began trending. School walkouts and candlelight vigils began happening.

But according to MPDC, this information isn’t correct.

“Actually it’s a decrease,” Commander Chanel Dickerson said in a news conference. “But when we talk about numbers, I’m not trying to minimize when I say there’s not an uptick or there’s been a decrease. It’s just that we wanted to be transparent so everyone can see.”

Statistics show that the number of missing child cases in the District dropped from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016. 2001 has the highest total recorded recently with 2,610.

Gone are the days of faces on milk cartons. In the age of the internet, social media is the way to spread information.

“Social media is a vital tool in finding our missing,” said Natalie Wilson of Black and Missing, a nonprofit that brings awareness to missing people of color, assists families in searching for them and educates the community on personal safety. “It is an amazing resource for garnering awareness and acts as a tool. For the last few years it has been telling a story about our missing people. We use it quite frequently numerous times a day.”

Black and Missing was founded in 2008 by Wilson, a media relations professional, and her sister-in-law, who is in law enforcement. These two components, Wilson said, are critical in locating someone who is missing.

“We can’t wait for regular news cycle,” she said. “Awareness is key, and time is of the essence.”

While social media is an important tool in locating missing persons, it can have its downsides, including spreading false information.

The Instagram account for Entertainment for Breakfast, a popular gossip site, gathered the information sent out by MPDC into a post that claimed 14 girls had gone missing in the district in a 24-hour period on March 23. The post went viral and sparked outrage among citizens and celebrities alike. But it turned out to be false. Although the girls had gone missing, it was over a time span of weeks, and many had returned home according to MPDC.

The confusion may stem from a change in the social media strategy of MPDC. The department began using social media more frequently to post its missing flyers, and many either took the flyers as numerous girls missing at once or did not see when the girls were found and returned home.

“We’ve just been posting them on social media more often,” Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Rachel Reid told AP.

Still, public outcry remains. Many have pointed out that the missing girls received little to no media coverage and have wondered why no AMBER alerts were sent out.

“I know that it wasn’t the same day [that the girls went missing], but it still doesn’t change the fact that not a single Amber Alert went out for these Black girls as far as I know,” said Briahnna Brown, an alumna of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

While MPDC has stated that the majority of missing girls are runaways, some are fearful that the girls are being drawn into sex-trafficking, organ harvesting or something worse.

“We have seen an increase in the number of stories/contacts from family members,” Wilson said. “Kids are being drawn or lured into sex trafficking. We do hear that this may be organ harvesting. We don’t have statistics, but that’s something that our community has been saying.”

In letter released in late March, members of the Congressional Black Caucus asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey to “devote the resources necessary to determine whether these developments are an anomaly, or whether they are indicative of an underlying trend that must be addressed.”

Days later, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the city would dedicate more resources to children who go missing.

Wilson encourages anyone with information about a missing person or who has a loved one missing to contact Black and Missing at Bamfi.org.

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