Brandi Stallings is usually home before her 16-year-old daughter, Kennedi High, completes the half-hour ride from school on the local Baltimore City bus. But one evening, when that 30-minute ride turned into 60, then 75, then 90 minutes, Stallings knew something was wrong. She and her husband, Eric, called around to family and friends. No Kennedi. They made the drive to her school. Still no Kennedi. "When nightfall hit, I was still trying to be optimistic," says Stallings, 40, a federal government employee. "But I was scared. I wondered where she was, wondered if she was safe. I was crying. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I was worrying about her but I had to stay strong and vigilant and positive.”
For six torturous days, she didn't see or hear from Kennedi, a 10th grader who has high-functioning autism that Stallings says makes her even more trusting than the average teenager. There were no indications that Kennedi had been unhappy at home and no reason to believe she'd run away, but that was all there was: guesses and assumptions. Then, a development emerged in the investigation jointly led by the FBI and Baltimore City police – an Uber driver recalled picking Kennedi up from Washington, D.C., and dropping her off at an apartment complex in Laurel, Maryland, directly between D.C. and her home in northeastern Baltimore. Authorities learned that even though her mother had previously confiscated her phone, Kennedi had been sharing personal information on Kik, Instagram, Snapchat and the dating app Plenty of Fish, where older men preyed on her innocence. One of them picked her up from school and, according to her mother and local activists, tried to lure her into the sex trade.
Her case is one in a recent string of black and Latino teens who have gone missing in the I-495 corridor that stretches between Baltimore and D.C., believed by some activists and experts to be a growing hub of sex trafficking. In D.C. alone, 10 children went missing in less than two weeks this month. Most of them were girls. Some of their pictures are indicative of happier times; others are clearly mugshots taken under duress. There is Kennedi in a bright smile and stylish red-framed glasses. There is Yahshaiyah Enoch, 13, who went missing from southeast D.C., grinning at the camera with a puff of gorgeous hair stacked atop her head. There is Chareah Payne, 17, lovely but sad-eyed in a photograph against the backdrop of a slate gray wall, a photograph that circulated after she disappeared from the southwest section of the city. Each report has been just as heartbreaking as the one before it, yet it seems to be only communities of color who are paying attention.
Though it could appear that there's been an uptick in missing children, the outcry might be, ironically enough, a result of the Metropolitan Police Department's push to communicate more effectively. Earlier this year, when Chanel Dickerson took over as commander of MPD's Youth and Family Services Division, she made a pledge to be more transparent with the public when it came to missing children. "During my first few days in my position, an 11-year-old African-American female went missing," says Commander Dickerson. "Of course, that got my immediate attention. I talked to her mother to find out that she had left home previously that same year. It was heartbreaking." They posted her flyer on social media and sent out a press release – and began doing the same for every similar case that came up. "Not long after that, cases about other African-American girls started to come through my email," she says, "so I began to look at what’s going on and what the policy is in reference to how we handle these cases.”
But the increased transparency jarred the public, who not only learned about the number of missing girls but held police accountable for not doing enough to both protect and find them. The FBI, who declined to comment for this story, did not engage in every case, but Dickerson, along with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, assured city residents and concerned advocates that there has been no uptick in the number of missing girls. (The Center for Missing and Exploited Children confirms the validity of her claim.) Yet citizens organized town halls and bombarded the police with tweets as Washingtonians of color worried that their girls were being targeted without protection.
At a March 20th press conference on the steps of Covenant Baptist Church in southeast D.C., Rev. Dr. Vanetta Rather assembled media, local clergy, students and concerned community members to respond to Mayor Bowser's comments and keep the developing story about the missing girls from fading from the news. "I talked to a police officer yesterday and he told me, 'I see your passion but these girls are repeat runaways,'" Dr. Rather told the crowd. "Even if that's true, girls who are running away are running from something, so we need to focus on multiple areas to help them.”
Dr. Rather, founder of My Sister, My Seed, an organization that helps vulnerable girls avoid the advances of sex traffickers, talked about how children end up in the hands of predators."A missing girl's case may not start out as trafficking, but it definitely has a high potential to turn into trafficking," she said. "You can only sell a drug one time, but you can sell a girl over and over. They're a commodity that can be easily manipulated and make traffickers a whole lot of money. So we need to look at sex trafficking, but our focus should be on healing abuse and self-esteem building for young girls." In response to the fury, Mayor Bowser created a task force to address core reasons why children leave their homes and to support teens who may be at risk for running away.
While additional staffing, working groups and community grants are a good start, that might not be enough really address the problem – in these low-income communities, there are high rates of LGBTQ teens running away or being thrown out, as well as unsafe group and foster homes, sexual abuse and parents and caretakers struggling with addiction. According to Derrica Wilson, president and co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps families find their loved ones, given how much danger a child could face on the street, it's not enough to stop when a missing child is found. "It's critical for the appropriate follow-up to take place once they come home or they've been found to get to the root cause of why are they leaving," says Wilson. "One of the things people are not touching on is how these predators are using children's own peers to recruit them into trafficking. They're comfortable going with someone they trust, not knowing about the dangers or the ulterior motives." If parents really want to know how their children are presenting themselves online – a preferred tool of traffickers and other predators, like it was in Kennedi High's case – she suggests creating at least one dummy social media account and friending them to get an authentic perspective.
As one girl under the age of 18 is found, another almost immediately goes missing, and in the wake of MPD's social media campaign, grassroots organizations are taking to high schools to let at-risk students know they're not alone. As for Brandi Stallings, she's happy to have her daughter home, but is still concerned for the other children who haven't been found. "I keep thinking about the what ifs, what could have happened," she says. "I was fortunate. But the fact that there are moms and dads whose kids are still missing, that breaks my heart.”