Mothers of D.C.'s Missing Children Reveal Their Fears: 'When Your Phone Rings, You Don't Know If It's a Homicide
Dana Stevenson says her daughter, Dayanna White, has run away four times since turning 15 in September.
“It’s hard on any mother," Stevenson told InsideEdition.com. "It’s stressful and it wears a lot on the family."
Stevenson said her daughter's behavior abruptly changed in February 2016 after the family, including five of Stevenson’s six other children, moved to a different area of Washington D.C. She thinks her daughter got involved with the wrong girl in their new neighborhood.
“I want to protect my child the best way I can,” Stevenson said. “She’s a teenager. Her dad is not in her life. She’s learning, but she is learning the wrong way. It’s overwhelming at times.”
Dayanna is just one of many girls who have repeatedly appeared on D.C.'s missing persons list. Their parents are exasperated, feeling overwhelmed and uncertain how to stop the cycle.
Last month, the issue of missing girls of color in Washington D.C. shot to the forefront when an Instagram user inaccurately reported that 14 black girls had vanished in a 24-hour span in the District.
Celebrities like Taraji P. Henson and Kris Jenner re-shared the news, causing it to go viral. While there were and still are many missing black girls on the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department list, the information was proven false.
Police told the concerned public that there hasn't been an uptick in missing people, but that a new initiative by the department to share information on critically missing people on social media left many alarmed.
But to Dayanna's mother, the concern is real. Her daughter ran away for the first time in March 2016 and returned a month later. Most recently, she took off on March 3. Her mother found out when Dayanna’s school called her and said the ninth grader hadn’t shown up.
Stevenson, 38, reported her missing to the Metropolitan Police on two of those four occasions, according to police.
"D.C. police didn’t do anything," Stevenson told InsideEdition.com. "It was actually my family pressing on her friends, asking questions. You know, pressing on her boyfriend, whoever that little guy is."
Then on March 22, Dayanna called her mom.
“She [eventually] called and said, 'Ma, I’m on my way to the house.'"
Stevenson said she's done what she can do to keep her daughter off the streets, including enrolling Dayanna in the police department’s “Person’s In Need of Supervision” (PINS) Program, which is dedicated to helping juveniles who don’t attend school regularly or who have been on the missing list multiple times. The program is court-mandated and the children in it have a curfew and an officer who oversees them.
Stevenson has even filed a restraining order against the family she said her daughter stays with in an attempt to keep the teen out of harm’s way. She said her daughter is staying with the family of the girl she met when she arrived in their new neighborhood, but she does not know them.
“The parents allow them to stay in the house drinking, smoking and maybe that’s what she likes," Stevenson said. "She moved around here and she got turned out... She’s a totally different child now."
Dayanna is just one of the children who’ve appeared on the list time and time again. Authorities are aware of the problem.
“When I looked at the last list of our kids that are currently missing, in each case that child had been reported missing before,” D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham said in a news conference in March. “I can also tell you that frequently we will have some contact with somebody in many of those cases [who] will indicate that the child is not in jeopardy. Regardless of the circumstance, we are continually working to reunite these kids with their families.”
The number of missing child cases in the District dropped from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016, according to police data. More than 500 cases of missing juveniles, many of them black or Latino, were logged by the Metropolitan Police Department in the first three months of 2017.
The missing list, which is readily available on the department’s website, is constantly being updated. As of May 3, there were 14 open cases involving black and Latino children.
According to the FBI, in 2016, nearly 40 percent of children reported missing are children of color, yet cases of missing minority children have been generally underreported in the news.
“Ten children of color went missing in our nation’s capital in a period of two weeks and at first garnered very little media attention,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond said in the aftermath of the media firestorm.
Richmond and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C. called on FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to "devote the resources necessary to determine whether these developments are an anomaly or whether they are indicative of an underlying trend that must be addressed."
The list appears to be a revolving door for teens like Dayanna, who have appeared on it multiple times. Her mom is doing everything she can think of to keep her safe.
Shameta Zimmerman’s 16-year-old daughter, Chantese Zimmerman, has been reported missing nine times, according to police. She is currently on the list and has been since February 16.
“The longest time she has been gone is three months,” Shameta Zimmerman told InsideEdition.com. “She will be caught stealing or something and the police will bring her home. She just wants to be out in the street, I guess.”
Zimmerman said she doesn’t feel there is much she can do about the situation. She said she tried to get Chantese involved in Job Corps and in a local church to no avail.
The 16-year-old is currently not in school and her mom fears she may be having sex for money.
“She’s in it,” she said. “She said she ‘makes money.’ That’s all she says. She doesn’t have a job,” Zimmerman said.
A spokesperson from the Metropolitan Police Department told InsideEdition.com that they are “investigating information provided by [Chantese’s] mother, but haven’t found any information saying she has been sex trafficked.”
According to Chief Newsham, there is currently “no known link between missing people and human trafficking” in the District.
Although police say there is no evidence of a connection with the sex trade, it is still a risk — among many others — the longer a child stays on the streets.
“The D.C. experience we’ve had in the past month has caused a very welcome discussion," Robert Lowery, the vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told InsideEdition.com. "When we talk about runaway children, we meet a fully desensitized public and media about the danger these children face."
Lowery explained that runaways face dangerous circumstances each moment they are away from home, including child sex trafficking, violence and sexual violence, narcotics and gang activity.
Tragic cases involving young people highlight just how serious those risks are. In December, the body of 16-year-old Lee Manuel Viloria-Paulino, a Latino teen from Lawrence, Massachusetts, was found beheaded, two weeks after his family reported him missing on November 18.
His family criticized police in the aftermath of his murder, saying that police treated him as a runaway case and didn’t take it seriously enough
After the discovery of Viloria-Paulino’s body, Lawrence police Officer William Green spoke out on YouTube, saying that his department treats missing person reports like “nuisances” and believes Viloria-Paulino’s case was not adequately investigated. Green was later fired.
The mayor of Lawrence has since called an investigation into how the case was handled by police.
The teen’s 16-year-old classmate Matthew Borges, 16, has been charged as an adult for the murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Another teen, identified by The New York Times as Joannie, ran away two years ago at the age of 17 and moved in with a man she met on Kik, a messenger app.
The man, who told her he was 23, quickly told Joannie that in order to stay with him she had to work as a prostitute — to which the teen agreed. The man, identified by The Times as Mr. Johnson, threatened the teen with knives and a gun but she was able to escape the home after four weeks.
Johnson was later arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to sex trafficking. He was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison in October, according to the paper.
But Lowery, from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, applauded Chanel Dickerson, the new commander of the D.C. Police Youth and Family Division, for implementing a new and aggressive approach to alert the public about missing children’s cases.
D.C. police have also noted that many teens on the list are runaways who don't want to be found because of what they’re running away from.
Lowery said that when the public hears the term “runaway,” many presume it’s just a behavioral problem, but that isn’t always the case.
“There are cases like that, but it doesn’t account for the children who are running away from neglect, abuse [and] sexual abuse,” Lowery said. “We recognized this long ago, so much so that we took the “runaway” designation off our posters.”
Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, agreed we need to look beyond the term “runaway” to find out the real problem.
“Many of the children or young girls have returned home, but we still have to question what they are running away from and what are they running away to,” she told InsideEdition.com. “We need to take a look at the greater problem: Why are these young girls leaving their homes and venturing out?”
While it was missing young girls that garnered national attention, there are also several missing boys on and off the D.C. missing list — a fact that the mother of 15-year-old Zyaire Flemmings knows all too well.
Rekala Flemmings last reported her son missing on February 23. He’s run away so many times that she's lost track.
Zyaire had always been a “good boy.” He was involved in sports and was a bright student, but once he entered high school that all changed.
“He just fell through the cracks,” Flemmings said. “He lost interest in school. He started running with a tough crowd.”
The 42-year-old mother has five other children. Her attention is spread thin.
It makes her feel like a failure, she admits. "It's like I'm a bad parent," she said. "I'm a single parent. I do my best. He's my only boy.
"If he had a mentor, someone to look up to, he would be right. His father has never been in the picture. If I tell him to do something, he runs away. The police don't try to bring them home. These kids walk past them every day.”
She doesn't blame racism for the lack of reaction from authorities. She blames the poverty and high crime of her neighborhood in the southeast section of the District.
Zyaire has had brushes with the law and has been arrested for offenses including destruction of government property and running away from a group home, his mom said.
He hangs on the street and stays with friends when he runs away, she said. She's tried to help him, and has encouraged him to get involved in other activities instead of hanging on the streets and finding, or creating, trouble.
"He just wants some place to belong," Flemmings said. "And when he needs help, or gets weary of the street, he'll come home. He'll come back when he gets tired."
LaShelle Richmond, program manager at the Sasha Bruce House in D.C., said many parents feel overwhelmed with trying to take care of the children, especially teenage children.
“They need support. They love their children. It can be overwhelming. They are juggling the household, and finances and other responsibilities,” Richmond said. “They are dealing with kids that are dealing with peer pressure and have been exposed to so many things at such a young age.”
The Sasha Bruce House aims to give those parents - and their children - the support they need. It’s the only runaway homeless shelter for at-risk youth, ages 12-17, in the metropolitan area. They are open 24 hours a day and have 10 beds available for teens who don’t feel safe at home or are out on the streets.
When teens - predominantly kids of color - arrive at the shelter, they are met with a fresh pair of pajamas. Richmond said home décor with positive messages line the walls and on an individualized bulletin board above each teen’s bed, they can write their dreams and aspirations.
The shelter provides the teens transportation to school and tries to get them enrolled if they are not already. There are art classes and trips to basketball games, plays, museums, parks, movies and community events.
Richmond makes sure to affirm the kids anytime she has a chance.
“I tell the girls that they are beautiful," she said. "I highlight their smiles, hair accessories to reinforce that they matter and are worthy of being noticed in positive ways.
"I tell the guys, ‘I'm proud of you coming down and getting ready for the day. You made a good decision.’ The small praises are needed to encourage them.”
The shelter is short term, however. The average stay is three weeks and the goal is to reunite the teens with their families.
Out of the 130 teens that stayed at the the Sasha Bruce House last year, 80 to 85 percent went back to their families, according to the shelter. Staff meet with the teen’s parents or guardians and counsels them in an effort to bring them back together and figure out why the teen is running.
“As a community, we have to help guide our young people,” Richmond said. “We have to let families know that there are support services out there for them. Our families have gone through a lot of trauma, grief, and loss. There are limited resources so we all have to come together as a community to help.”
Dayanna Stevenson is currently staying in the Sasha Bruce House. She was placed there by the court as part of the PINS program.
In May, her mom finds out whether she will be coming home or not. If she does come home, her mom said she will have to wear an ankle monitor. If not, she will stay in the shelter.
Since Dayanna returned, Stevenson has had her undergo a psychological evaluation, of which she is still awaiting the results, and STD testing. She has no idea what her daughter is doing when she runs away.
Sometimes Dayanna posts pictures or videos of herself at parties or smoking marijuana on social media, her mom said.
“When your phone rings, you don’t know if it’s homicide. When someone knocks on the door, you don’t know if it’s the police for you to come down and identify your child,” Stevenson said. “I pray every night because she can still run away from the shelter house if she really wants to.”
Stevenson is trying to channel everything she is going through to start her own organization, “Sisters Helping Sisters.”
She hopes to start a hotline for kids who are thinking about running away or moms who are struggling and looking for their children.
“Some of these moms don’t have that assistance. They don’t have husbands, fiancés, fathers, parents, cousins, uncles, aunts… It is just them out there by themselves and they really need help and that’s what we are here for,” she said. “If I can save at least five kids, I think I did my job. If I can help five moms or more, I think I did my job.”
The mom doesn’t sleep at night. She stays up thinking about Dayanna, she said.
Stevenson said she may ask her sister if Dayanna can stay with her once the court decides the outcome of her case.
She is willing to try anything to keep her daughter safe.
“We have to work as a community and a village to raise these kids. If we don’t, the streets will eat our kids up,” Stevenson said. “We can’t move our kids to the streets. The streets won’t love our kids like we do.”
Dayanna was reported missing again on May 5 after this article was published. Additional reporting by Deborah Hastings