Missing Girls: How Our Country is Failing Girls of Color

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Missing Girls: How Our Country is Failing Girls of Color

By Alicia Gill, Director of Research and Program Evaluation, YWCA USA

You may have seen the viral Instagram post, or the viral tweet sharing that post. Attached to the tweet was a series of photos of fourteen Black and Latinx girls, all reported missing.

While the 24-hour timeframe in the tweet was incorrect (because several of the girls in those images had been missing for much longer than 24 hours), I am still moved by the sadness that arose from the black-and-white viral photo. I recognized one face immediately.

Her name was Relisha Rudd, a little girl who had gone missing from a local family shelter in 2014. Her mysterious disappearance, and the pain and heartache surrounding the circumstances of her life in the shelter, sparked outrage about child safety, homelessness, and abuse across D.C. and the country. I scrolled through the list of girls in the images again and again in shock. How could this happen again?

As momentum built and the hashtag #MissingDCGirls began trending in all over the United States, I was struck by the lack of empathy for the girls who were missing. Some girls were labeled “troublemakers” and others were considered “runaways.” The media has shown us again and again that only some girls are recognized as victims.

When Black girls disappear, public reaction dredges up the “troubled teen” narrative. Girls who are reckless, impetuous, and fast. Given longstanding biases against Black women and girls, it seems Black girls just cannot be acknowledged as victims. Black girls are hypersexualized, and seen as more aggressive from early ages. They are disproportionately policed compared to other girls. Black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race, and are more likely to be kicked out of class for dress code violations than White girls. These disparities begin as early as pre-school. It is no wonder, then, that so many mainstream gender-based violence and anti-trafficking organizations are quiet about these missing girls who fall outside of our ideas about the “perfect victim,” even in childhood.

We don’t really know if these girls have run away, or if they have been taken from us, like Relisha Rudd, but we want them – all of them – home. However, when Black and Latinx girls run away, which they might, what are they running from? The answer is most often, sexual and domestic violence, and abuse. Girls of color live at the intersections of systemic racism, classism and gendered violence. They are navigating complex and sometimes antagonistic education systems, social services, communities and family relationships.

According to some studies, more than 50 percent of Black girls will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. For girls engaged with juvenile justice systems, 90 percent self-disclose a history of trauma. Girls in the juvenile justice system are four times more likely than boys to have experienced sexual abuse. In fact, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system. What’s more is that girls’ rate of complex trauma (five or more adverse childhood experiences) is nearly twice as high.

Girls are overwhelmingly arrested for running-away, substance abuse infractions, and curfew violations. However, when you view these behaviors through a lens of reason and compassion, it’s easy to see that they are common coping mechanisms girls use to deal with trauma and keep themselves safe. Yet, we drive girls into justice systems for these coping behaviors at a rate four times that of boys.

So yes, these girls may be runaways—running away from family violence, displacement, punitive school discipline policies, child sexual abuse, community trauma, and sexual abuse. But running away does not change the fact that these girls have been victimized. That the behaviors society accepts as common, age-appropriate responses to trauma for White girls, are policed, and punished in Black, Native, and Latinx girls, is a contemporary manifestation of a long, racist history of criminalizing people of color.

The way our country’s White-led law enforcement, government, and justice systems treat girls of color sends a message that they don’t matter – that no one cares if a girl goes missing. But I care, and so do millions of other women of color. We care that they have gone missing, we care about all the reasons they may have fled or been vulnerable, and we are deeply invested in bringing them home. And we don’t just want them home, we want them in safe, loving homes, schools, and communities.

Washington, D.C. – and every jurisdiction in the country – must begin prioritizing girls of color today. But who will push them to do that? We will. Black women have always organized around our needs and the needs of all women. Women of color will continue to fight for ourselves and our communities. This is just one of the many reasons that we need to see more women of color in visible and influential leadership positions from the classroom, to the boardroom, and to the halls of Congress. In the meantime, we will continue to organize from the communities we are in right now.

We will persist and resist. You can too, by signing petitions like the one by “Protect Our Girls Campaign,” by getting involved with Black Youth Project and other organizations fighting for the lives of Black youth, and by connecting with the Black and Missing Foundation. Women of color lead change every single day. And we will not stop. Will you join us?

This April marks YWCA’s 10th annual Stand Against Racism, and this year, we are focused on a very important theme: Women of Color Leading Change. Why? Because women of color lead change and have been leading change since the very beginning, but are far too often overlooked or silenced. We know that when women of color lead, positive change happens and everyone is lifted up.

Join us as we celebrate and honor women of color leaders and talk about the barriers that create racial and gender disparities to leadership. Together, let’s highlight and lift up stories of determined, fierce women of color leaders and trailblazers in our communities and throughout history.