Last March, the Internet was flooded with pictures of missing teens—all black or Latinx girls—from the Washington, D.C., metro- area. The very real history of discrimination in missing persons cases and cultural devaluation of marginalized lives, paired with their stark physical commonalities (most were 5'5 or under and slightly built, clustered in the same age bracket), helped the story quickly go viral on social media. In the 21st century, marginalized communities expose stories that otherwise go largely unnoticed in mainstream media coverage.
But not long after the story blew up on social media, D.C. officials pointed out that this was no sudden surge of missing persons. In fact, the number of cases had gone down in recent years. As D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced a task force dedicated to missing children, a key element of the story—shared by everyone from TMZ to Facebook busybodies—was a point all too often used to dismiss the cases of missing youths of color: most of the girls were probably runaways.
The term is often wielded as a slur, used to discount the lives of the young people who chose to flee. But for many of the youths who run away, the unknown can feel less frightening—or toxic—than the world they're escaping.
According to activist Ruby Corado, founder of multicultural LBGTQ non-profit Casa Ruby, one of the biggest misconceptions is that most kids are missing for an extended amount of time. "Believe it or not, a lot of the kids that go missing come home pretty quickly when they are attached to a traditional family," she tells me over the phone.
The prolonged cases often involve children in foster care or government custody, and a disproportionate number are in the system—one 2011 study found that more than 30 percent of surveyed runaways had been in foster care at some point. (Corado notes that a lot of the agencies, encourage family reunification whenever possible.) Other vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ youths, children living with addicts, and young immigrants often aren't reported missing at all.
Before they ever hit the streets, a startlingly high number of runaways experience abuse; one study found that between 21 and 70 percent of runaway and homeless youths had experienced sexual abuse, compared to 46 percent and 38 percent for physical and emotional abuse, respectively (and low single-digit rates for sexual abuse among the general youth population).
"I've seen a lot of kids stay home even when their parents are beating the shit out of them," Corado says. "But when they get molested, the kids run away."
And once they leave, the kids become prime targets for exploitation—sometimes criminal, sometimes sexual, but always to the financial gain of the exploiter, who taps into what most runaways were seeking in the first place: family.
"A lot of them, really, are leaving because they feel alone. They aren't leaving because they want freedom.They just want family members who love them." This can be especially true of LGBT runaways, who often escape—or are abandoned by physically or emotionally—unaccepting families. "I hear words like 'rejects' and 'disposable,'" she says. "A lot of the kids feel like rejects … they literally feel disposed."
For LGBTQ runaways—who make up between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youths, yet only five to 10 percent of the general population, and are more likely to be people of color—the risk of sexual exploitation is heightened. "Particularly with the LGBT kids, [for] almost every single one," the exploitation is sexual, says Corado. "It's seen as an object of desire, the exploitation of queer bodies."
As part of the D.C. mayor's task force, Corado has been instrumental in figuring out the steps that need to be taken to not only find missing kids, but to provide them with the family environment they're seeking, through resources they likely weren't aware of before running away.
"We came to the conclusion that we must center the needs of these young people, and provide them with support 24/7," she says. A partnership between organizations including Casa Ruby and groups dedicated to human trafficking and those leaving the sex trade will aim to offer the intersectional needs of runaways. "Casa Ruby will provide 24 hour drop-in services and facilities where they can come and sleep, and they can find that safe haven until the next steps can be taken."
She adds: "All of us are going to hit the streets and find these girls."
Looking to support missing and homeless youths and marginalized folks? Along with Casa Ruby , check out the Sasha Bruce Youthwork , FAIR Girls , National Coalition for the Homeless , and Black and Missing .