Missing teen Faith Nelson Credit: Courtesy of MPD

The names and faces of missing children have appeared more frequently in Metropolitan Police Department press releases in recent weeks. In January alone, MPD issued 12 of them on missing children in the District, and as of the time of this posting, only one had been found. There is yet another one today about 16-year-old Faith Nelson, a Southeast resident who was last seen Jan. 13.

The question is whether more children have gone missing recently or whether there is simply a new focus on public awareness. Human Trafficking Awareness Month just ended, and while it’s true that the names of missing children appear in news briefs from time to time, there are only so many stories that get a fraction of the attention as, say, the tragic disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The faces of the missing teenagers—both boys and girls—got Loose Lips wondering how authorities are working to solve these disappearances and combat their underlying causes.

MPD Commander Chanel Dickerson, the new leader of the Youth and Family Services Division, says that she has recently started reviewing these cases to ensure they are being investigated thoroughly and consistently—and reported to the media in a timely manner. She says it’s more to inform the public than a sign of a rising trend. And she says that in most cases, the children turn up unharmed without any overt signs of being subjected to pimps, gangs, or sex traffickers.

And therein lies the problem, youth advocates say.

Tina Frundt founded Courtney’s House in 2008 to search for children who are forced into prostitution, bring them into a safe environment, and train public officials about how to respond to these cases and engage the public. “Yes, it’s happening all the time,” says Frundt, a sex trafficking survivor who receives four to five referrals a day. “We’re finally putting it up there and telling the public. Before, they weren’t going online at all. We pushed for more publicity.”

Frundt says that one challenge to law enforcers is that crime data systems log reports of child abuse, sexual abuse, abduction and prostitution, but sex trafficking is not specifically coded. “The statistics aren’t solid,” she says. “Some people are seeing more of it, but my numbers are the same. I’m busy all the time.”

Dickerson has a small staff of investigators and is still assimilating how various law enforcement units and social services agencies function and coordinate. “I’m trained to investigate cases,” she says of her new assignment. “I just got here in December.”

She will have her hands full. In Frundt’s experience, there is a lot of overlap in police agencies, and sex trafficking occurs over time and is hard to track. “We could have a person in the system as missing for two years, but they just came in as a sex trafficking case,” she says. “Many of those cases come under child abuse.”

Family-controlled trafficking is the number one culprit, Frundt says, then pimps and gangs. Children go missing, she says, and may have been kidnapped, but they can be deemed as runaways or as truants. When they return, sometimes police will book them and hold them on an abscondence charge to force them into probation and get them off the street and into social services.

“They are either running from or running to their pimp or trafficker,” she says. “If I’m the trafficker, I’m gonna tell you to go home, and then I’ll call you. It’s smart. It keeps them behind the scenes as a trafficker. This juvenile keeps touching the system, but it looks like it’s them running away, not the trafficker controlling them.”

The District is especially challenging because sex trafficking is an interstate enterprise, and much of it takes place in Virginia and Maryland. President Barack Obama created an advisory board that consists of survivors, and the secretary of state led the meetings under his administration, Frundt says. She’s uncertain whether that will continue under the Trump administration, but she thinks D.C. law needs to be reformed to better track sex trafficking as a distinct crime and coordinate the response to it.

Meanwhile, more education is needed for would-be victims, she says. Just yesterday, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine conducted a youth prevention training session at Kipp Academy AIM to warn children about the dangers of trafficking. He has launched a trafficking initiative and task force consisting of attorneys in the Public Safety and Family Services divisions. The task force attorneys are being trained about how to spot children who may be victims of sex trafficking but are in delinquency, truancy, and abuse, and neglect systems. They will conduct prevention trainings, create educational posters, and coordinate civic association and advisory neighborhood commission with the MPD and various business improvement districts, he says.

“Protecting public safety requires us to use new, data-driven, sustainable solutions rather than simply relying on traditional prosecution—and that includes working year-round to protect our residents from the horror of human trafficking,” Racine says.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also attended a forum yesterday at Howard University Law School. The office’s D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force website lists dozens of participating law enforcement agencies and NGOs, with links to each organization. It lists just five successful prosecutions between 2012 and 2014.

None of this is enough for Philip Pannell, a grassroots organizer and executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. “I don’t think local government has given it the attention it needs,” says Pannell, who most recently has spearheaded a project focused on unsolved homicides. “When we addressed it last year at a workshop in Ward 8, it came as a surprise to people there as to how much of it is going on. I follow the MPD listserv, but let’s be honest, the mainstream media doesn’t cover it enough or we’d be reading about it every day.”