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After viral story on D.C. girls, understanding the real perils for missing children of color

April 21, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
A recent social media campaign to alert the public of missing teens from the Washington, D.C., area accidentally backfired, sparking outrage and fears of an epidemic of missing children of color. But the effort does cast light on the many risks that young people can face when they leave home, like sex trafficking, as well as the factors that cause kids to run away. William Brangham reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: missing children and a racial divide.

When the Washington, D.C., Police Department tried to raise awareness about missing children and teenagers by posting their images on social media, the campaign backfired, sparking some national outrage and fears of an epidemic of missing children of color.

But the story also exposed many risks that young people face when they leave home, including exploitation and sex trafficking.

William Brangham has our report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On a recent night in downtown Washington, D.C., a drop-in center for homeless and at-risk youth begins to fill up. There’s pizza, and games, and a movie in the back.

Gabrielle Martin is a regular in this refuge, which is run by the nonprofit Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

GABRIELLE MARTIN, Homeless Washington, D.C. Resident: I have been on my own, basically, since I was 15.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Fifteen years old?

GABRIELLE MARTIN: Mm-hmm. And now I’m 27, so I have been homeless for 12 years.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Young people here have access to food, showers and a place to relax for a few hours. Martin says this center is essential, because homeless life can be exhausting.

GABRIELLE MARTIN: It can get frustrating sometimes, like, not knowing how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep the next day. Sometimes, we will just find excuses to go to the hospital, just so that we have somewhere to sleep that night, you know?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Martin first ran away from home in high school, after coming out as gay to her disapproving parents. She says she’s struggled with drug addiction and has bounced in and out of various living situations ever since.

GABRIELLE MARTIN: If I wasn’t in the streets, I was at different friends’ houses, or I would actually date people that I knew had their own place, just so I could stay there.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That led to a pregnancy with someone she was living with.

Martin’s parents reported her missing around the time she turned 17, and up until last December, she says she was still considered a missing person by Washington, D.C., police.

GABRIELLE MARTIN: Even though I’m 27 now, I was still considered a runaway because I ran away when I was a juvenile. So, it was still in their — it’s still in their system.

WOMAN: The desperate search for missing teens in Washington, D.C.

WOMAN: Outrage about missing children in the District.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A spate of more recent cases in the nation’s capital were thrust into the spotlight last month after Washington, D.C., police, for the first time, started posting alerts about all missing children on social media.

Prior to this year, they would usually only notify the public of missing children when they suspected foul play. But after celebrities like Viola Davis and LL Cool J retweeted the alerts, the story went viral, fueling concerns that D.C. had a sudden epidemic of missing kids.

WOMAN: We can’t go nowhere by ourselves. We can’t do nothing, because we’re all just get worried about somebody trying to take us.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The story turned out to be largely overblown. Not only was there was not a spike in missing kids, but 2016 saw fewer children go missing than the year before.

However, Washington, D.C., acting Police Chief Peter Newsham doesn’t regret using social media to highlight these cases.

PETER NEWSHAM, Acting Police Chief, Washington, D.C.: It took on some legs that we hadn’t anticipated, but I do think that it was an eye-opener for a lot of people to see how many young people we do have that run away.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Newsham also says that nearly all the missing kids are located.

PETER NEWSHAM: We find 99 percent of those kids. I think the awareness that has come about as a result of this, though, is a lot of people are asking the question, why are they leaving in the first place? And the other question which is really important to get to the bottom of is, what happened to them while they were away?

DERRICA WILSON, Black and Missing Foundation: Regardless of why a child is going missing, we need to find out what are they running away from and who they’re running away to.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Derrica Wilson is the president of the Black and Missing Foundation. While she applauds D.C.’s attempt to raise awareness, she says that, for too long, the media and public officials have ignored cases of children of color going missing.

In fact, according to the FBI, while blacks make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up more than 38 percent of all missing youth.

WOMAN: It’s heart-wrenchingly frustrating that we don’t have answers as to where she is right now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For example, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd went missing in Washington in 2014. At the time, her mother begged for her daughter’s return.

SHAMIKA YOUNG, Relisha Rudd’s Mother: Come back home to your mother safely and unarmed. And I love you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Over three years later, she’s still missing, and Wilson says Relisha Rudd never became a household name, not like Chandra Levy, or Natalee Holloway, or even the more recent case of Elizabeth Thomas, the Tennessee 15-year-old who was kidnapped by her teacher, and found yesterday.

MAN: A FOX News alert now on a nationwide manhunt coming to an end, and apparently a successful one. Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Thomas is safe.

DERRICA WILSON: This is not an epidemic that just popped up. This is something that’s been going on for quite some time. There’s a term that’s often used, which is the missing white women syndrome, where if you’re not with blonde hair and blue eyes, your story is just not sensational enough.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Even the terminology we use about missing kids needs to change, according to Robert Lowery, vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. His organization no longer uses the term runaway.

ROBERT LOWERY, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Because the moment we put on our poster that this is a runaway child, we deal with a desensitized public, a desensitized media.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Because people just think, oh, they ran away, it’s their fault in some way.

ROBERT LOWERY: This child ran away because they’re a behavioral problem. And that’s not the case.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When she was a kid in Chicago, Tina Frundt left home after a typical teenage fight.

TINA FRUNDT, Founder, Courtney’s House: On my 14th birthday, I got mad at my parents because I couldn’t stay out past 7:00.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: She called a man who had befriended her, but he kidnapped her, took her to Cleveland and forced her to work for his grandmother, who ran a local prostitution ring.

TINA FRUNDT: He came from a family of pimps, so his grandmother is actually the one who controlled us. She used to tell me that God wanted me to be a ho, and that’s what we were put on earth for.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A year into her ordeal, the police raided the home and she was freed. While her trafficker never faced charges, she spent a year in juvenile detention. She was 15 years old.

TINA FRUNDT: And I was charged with prostitution, you know?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At 15?

TINA FRUNDT: Yes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And Frundt isn’t alone. One in six children reported to a federal database that tracks those who leave home are involved in sex trafficking.

Today, she runs Courtney’s House, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that counsels young sex traffic survivors.

TINA FRUNDT: The reason why the survivors bond with me is because my story really is their story. And it happened the same way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Gabrielle Martin says more needs to be done to prevent kids from leaving home in the first place. And she says the answer isn’t simply to publish more names on the list of kids missing in Washington, D.C.

GABRIELLE MARTIN: I know a few of those people on that list, and it’s like they’re not really missing persons. They’re people who just chose to move on, because what they left behind sucked.

Like, I think people don’t really care about kids that are in the system, and that’s what makes us — that’s what makes us choose to run away.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Since the beginning of the year, more than 700 young people have been reported missing in Washington, D.C. Sixteen of those cases remain open.

The city announced more police officers are being assigned to these cases, and it’s creating a task force to address the factors driving kids to leave home in the first place.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

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