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National

The Missing Kids Of Washington, D.C., And Social Media

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of kids are reported missing each year in America. They disappear for reasons that are both mundane and disturbing. Some run away after having a fight with their parents. Others are lured from home by sex traffickers. Washington, D.C.'s, police department recently launched a social media campaign to try to help find missing children, but as NPR's Ian Stewart reports, the effort has had some unintended consequences.

IAN STEWART, BYLINE: D.C. police started their program back in December. Their posts on Twitter and Facebook attracted attention but also fear and confusion. An Instagram post sounded the alarm. Four girls have gone missing in D.C. in the last 24 hours. Another headline asked - does anyone care about D.C.'s missing black and Latina teens? It seemed like there was a sudden wave of missing kids, so last week city officials organized a meeting to address the community's growing concern. Mayor Muriel Bowser got on stage and told a crowd of parents and kids she was as caught off guard as they were.

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MURIEL BOWSER: So I, like you, when I saw the number of tweets going out - I recognize how scary and how much anxiety and outrage is generated by seeing these young faces on the screen.

STEWART: The mayor was there to listen but also to make a couple points clear. Yes, there are many more cases being shared on social media, and, yes, about 2,200 kids do go missing in D.C. every year. But the number of missing people hasn't gone up, and police say the vast majority are found. As the forum wrapped up, acting Police Chief Peter Newsham acknowledged those statistics offer little comfort.

PETER NEWSHAM: We actually have fewer missing persons reported now than we did back in 2012 by about a thousand, which is significant, but it doesn't make folks feel any better. And there's frustration. There's frustration in this community that children of color are not getting the same attention that some of the white people who go missing.

RACHAEL POWERS: Research fairly consistently finds that minorities are less likely to be covered in the media as victims.

STEWART: Rachael Powers is a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. And she says when missing people of color do get featured...

POWERS: ...The extent of that coverage is often less. The word count in a story may be less. There may not be humanizing details. They might not have a clear picture on the - on the television or in the newspaper.

STEWART: On top of that, people of color are overrepresented in missing persons cases. The FBI says almost 40 percent of missing kids are black. Derrica Wilson co-founded the Black and Missing Foundation to draw more attention to the problem. Like the police department, her group also uses social media to feature missing people, and it's working.

DERRICA WILSON: Two and a half weeks ago, we were contacted by a mother out of Baltimore regarding her autistic 16-year-old teen.

STEWART: The mom said her daughter had disappeared. Wilson's team got in touch with the local police department and posted the girl's picture on Facebook. Several days went by. One morning, Wilson got a call.

WILSON: It was a Uber driver. Something really stood out to him. He was like, you know, why is this young girl out this time of morning? it was around 3:30 in the morning. And he happened to see our post and said that young lady was in my car last night.

STEWART: With the help of the FBI, the girl was reunited with her mom, and that's the hope, with more pictures of missing children on Facebook and Twitter, they'll be found and returned home more quickly. Ian Stewart, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.