Wednesday, November 20, 2013

MISSING: The Will to Find & Protect Our Exploited Youth

Our nation's capital has one of the highest rates of domestic child sex trafficking in the nation, according to the FBI. I only learned this after a 14-year-old child I have known since the first grade, “Shawna,” was found alone in a Los Angeles hotel room this spring after missing for weeks.  Through her, I found out about this dangerous and flourishing world. Then, I found out about something even more disturbing. Our community leaders and residents do not care enough about these kids to devote the resources to find them. The systemic neglect that we tolerate feels like a betrayal that rivals the crime.  

I have known Shawna since she was 6-years-old when I worked at her school in southeast Washington, DC. She had more personality than Rudy Huxtable, as she bounded down the hallway, her uniform perfectly pressed and her hair in neat twists bouncing behind her. You could see the warm confidence in her eyes. No matter what life handed her -- father in jail, homelessness, bullet through her kitchen window as she did the dishes -- she reached beyond the “survival mode” typical of her peers and was always helping other people. I was stunned when she went missing, and troubled that despite the dangers facing Shawna, the system let her down. The many holes in the legal, political, human resource, and law enforcement systems leave so many young people vulnerable to the worst kinds of crime against children.  

In our community, young teens go missing every day. "Runaways" are particularly vulnerable to predators who exploit their need for love, protection, housing and belonging. Dismissed as “bad kids,” their needs are often misunderstood and judgments are made about their families. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, an estimated one-third of the 2.8 million youth who flee their homes each year in our country are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of going missing. Many face turmoil at home and their families may not have the resources they need to find their child and bring them back to safety.

Who are these children? Sadly, the public doesn’t know. Go to the DC Police website and you won’t find names or photos of any missing children. If one digs deep enough, there is eventually a link to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), our country’s premiere nonprofit organization designed to help find and bring children home. However, its missing children list is woefully outdated. For most of this year, there were just three photos of missing DC youth, one of whom is a woman whose dead body was found three years ago (and is still listed as missing). The other two are infants, one of whom went missing in 1983. A 14 and 15-year-old were recently listed as "endangered runaways," missing since July and October 2013. Yet there is no press about these two girls or any of the other youth in similar peril anywhere except the notices tucked away on this webpage. How can anyone claim that our community cares about our children going missing when we don’t even show their faces?

A disproportionate number of runaway and homeless youth have been kicked out of their homes for being gay or transgender. Many other kids have been suspended or expelled from school like Shawna was when she went missing. School suspension policies that leave children wandering the streets contribute to their vulnerability to sex trafficking. Many older youth who are abused or neglected don’t show up at the door of the child welfare system. Our city leaders do not seem to understand that teens do not always fit into boxes. For youth who cannot stay with their families, there is a housing shortage resulting in hundreds being turned away from youth shelters each year, some as young as 12 years old. When this happens, many end up finding shelter through “survival sex” in exchange for a bed. 

When Shawna's mom felt like DC police were not taking her daughter's case seriously, her tiny room in DC’s largest family homeless shelter became "central command." She made her own missing person posters, fielded calls about sightings and tips herself, and followed up on leads at all hours of the night. “We encourage families to conduct their own search efforts,” a police lieutenant explained to me. During her search, Shawna’s mom had a hard time eating and sleeping. She was literally on her own and missed weeks of work without pay. Shawna's two worried brothers also missed school, becoming “detectives,” searching for their sister around town and putting up missing person posters. The eldest brother even planned to be the runner to rescue his sister should she be spotted. "I ran track for two years," he explained, "so we decided I'll be the runner." Every time mom got a tip, she would rush the boys into a car she borrowed, pick up their father, and drive to whatever scary park some stranger thought Shawna was spotted.

Although Shawna had run away for a day or two before, her mom knew this time was different. None of her friends had seen her and Shawna had told several of them she was going to Atlanta or Las Vegas to become a model. This alarming lead compelled me to file a report with NCMEC who was in the process of generating a flyer that would be shared beyond our jurisdiction. Surprisingly, the DC police department was not similarly moved by reports that Shawna might be outside the area to initiate a broader search beyond the city. Moreover, I was told they do not generally inform families of their right to report a missing child case to NCMEC in order to prevent the organization from being overwhelmed.

After Shawna was found by child welfare authorities in California, I sought help from many amazing local and national organizations that specialize in sex trafficking. Following dozens of conflicting phone calls, I learned that unless Shawna was abandoned by her family, got arrested, or ended up overseas, there were no funds to help her get home. Even with a master’s degree in social work, I got so tangled up in the many bureaucracies that my head still hurts. Parents battling poverty need to work extra hard and so do agencies helping them to bridge critical gaps. How can one expect a parent in crisis to take the lead on managing a search without support? One hotline worker actually suggested that Shawna, a teenage victim of sex trafficking, could take Greyhound and travel alone for 65 hours cross-country from California to DC. In the end, the volunteers with our organization that runs a teen program in the shelter raised money to buy Shawna’s plane ticket and bring her home.

Nothing of substance came from my meeting with the DC police and the Mayor’s Office for Public Safety. When I asked why 14-year-old Shawna did not get a missing person poster or mom did not get a return phone call for ten days, all I heard from them was victim blaming and a full-throated defense of the bureaucracy. The homeless working mother of three was criticized for not reporting the case immediately and for reporting it to the wrong agency. When police were not able to reach her by phone, why didn't they make a simple home visit to get the case moving for Shawna? They knew where her mom lived – the D.C General Emergency Family Shelter.

The police even criticized Shawna for telling her pimp that she had permission to go to California and for not being forthcoming with authorities, which anyone in the field will tell you is “textbook” behavior. I’ve learned enough about this issue to know that the dynamics of sex trafficking mean that you should expect the girls to lie about what happened. Under federal law, it does not matter if the child is a willing participant or crosses statelines. A majority of victims show anallegiance to their pimps and do not cooperate in the investigationinitially. Most victims were sexually abused as children and have estranged relationships with their parents, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation even if they do not realize it. Survivors often go back to their pimps and run away repeatedly until they get the help they need and are ready to take the road to recovery. These cases are often complex and can be difficult to investigate, prove and prosecute. But, that does not mean we should give up on any child or toss the case aside because it's too hard.

If our community really cares about child victims of sex trafficking, one would see pictures of missing kids on telephone poles instead of just missing dogs. There would be no need for the website to bring attention to the cases of missing African Americans. There would be pictures of local missing youth plastered on the ad space in the Metro trains and in the newspaper. We would hear weekly updates on missing kids on the local evening news. Pictures would be prominently featured on the homepage of the DC police department website and social media, and flyers would be readily available.

Shared Hope International, an organization that works to strengthen trafficking laws and build better policies to protect victims and prosecute traffickers, buyers, and facilitators, gave DC a “D” rating this year. While some progress has been made, we as a community can make a much stronger commitment to confronting child sex trafficking in our city. We can crack down on the online purchasing of commercial sex acts and devote more resources to the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. We can mandate a missing and rescued children reporting system, require law enforcement training, and other common sense laws that many other states have enacted.

Tonight, on K Street and all around our area, children coerced into prostitution will be working. Adult men will rape them, and the worst these perpetrators can expect is a modest fine, not much more than if they ran a red light. There is no fear of being charged with statutory rape; our laws do not differentiate between buying sex with an adult and buying sex with a minor. And yet children as young as thirteen are still being thrown in jail in DC on prostitution charges, treated as criminals instead of victims.

Courtney’s House is a survivor-run organization that provides life-saving support services to help children recover from sex trafficking.  Their outreach program searches the streets and the internet for suspected victims or children at risk of being trafficked. Director Tina Frundt welcomes new youth from across the region to the house every day with the magical combination of unconditional love and tough love. She told Shawna, “You can run, but I can run faster.” Isn’t that the message we, as a community, should send to our children? That no matter what, we will look for them, and we will bring them home?

In the District of Columbia, there's a hole in our safety net literally big enough for missing children to disappear through. We're not talking about a missing wallet; we're talking about a person. When a child is missing in our community, no matter his or her life circumstances, shouldn't it be personal for all of us?

In addition to being an amazing writer and powerful voice for some of our most vulnerable youth, Jamila Larson is the Executive Director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project . This incredible program, and both their amazing staff and dedicated volunteers  make sure that regardless of housing status, DC children and youth have the chance to play, explore, grow, and thrive. 

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