A recent social media campaign not only brought awareness to the number of teens who have gone missing in the Washington, D.C., area — it also caused alarm bells to go off for some.
Chanel Dickerson, a new commander at D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department in charge of the Youth and Family Services Division, has turned to the Internet in an effort to raise awareness about the number of missing teens, with police posting information on Twitter and elsewhere.
She said the tactic is effective at solving cases more quickly.
“I have made it a priority to give the same level of attention to each and every case,” she said during a news conference on March 16. “Juveniles or other missing persons might be at risk of victimization or may be in need of vital medication. That is why we’re working hard to reunite all our missing persons with their families.”
Social media users took notice of their efforts, spawning hashtags such as #missingdcgirls and #helpusfindus.
But the sudden attention gave some the false impression that the number of cases was unusually high — that something more sinister was going on.
Not so, authorities said.
“MPD has reviewed its missing data and found the number of missing reports has remained constant since 2014,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said during the news conference last week. “What has changed is getting that information out quickly and the tools we’re using to get that out.”
Bowser said, “There’s no evidence to suggest there’s an increase in missing persons, and we have no evidence to suggest these reports are related to human trafficking.”
Since Jan. 1, there have been 501 reported cases of missing juveniles, according to police statistics. As of Friday, 22 remain open.
The most recent case of a missing teen girl is Shaniah Boyd, a 14-year-old who went missing on Saturday. Anyone with information is encouraged to call 202-727-9099.
“This is not an uptick of missing kids in the D.C. area,” a department spokesperson tells PEOPLE. “The majority of girls return home within 24 or 48 hours.”
Still, residents say the situation has illuminated a number of issues in D.C. neighborhoods, ranging from safety to underreported cases of trafficking.
City government and police officials attended a packed town hall meeting on Wednesday, at a local charter school, to talk about the cases.
“We can’t go anywhere by ourselves,” an unidentified girl cried during the meeting, according to local TV station WTTG. “We can’t do anything, because we have to worry about somebody trying to take us.”
Robert Lowery, vice president at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, who oversees their missing children division, agrees with the local authorities that the number of disappearances is not unusual.
“One missing child is too many,” Lowery tells PEOPLE. “But the prevalence of missing children in the District of Columbia is pretty similar to what we see across the country in major cities.”
The use of social media has been a remarkable tool when it comes to locating missing children, he says, and encourages the public to continue focusing on the missing children across the country.
“We really believe the conversation is a good one to have,” Lowery explains. “And the more awareness we can have about missing children, the better.”
“One of the best tools we have in place is our ability to engage with the public in real time and to make them the eyes and ears of law enforcement to report sightings of missing children,” he says. “That’s what is getting a lot of missing children back.”