How much attention law enforcement agencies can give as they search for missing children is based on a patchwork of rules dependent on a child's age or officer discretion. As a result, kids the same age can disappear under similar circumstances and receive vastly different responses from the police. In dozens of cities and towns, the child’s age alone can move them to the bottom of the priority list, according to a USA Today report on standard operating procedure for more than 50 law enforcement organizations. Once that happens, it takes a preliminary investigation or an officer’s initiative to move them back up. More than 60% of the agencies examined set a maximum age at which missing children are considered “critical” or “at risk” and therefore worthy of thorough investigation regardless of the circumstances. If children are over the age limits, their cases require special circumstances — such as a health condition that requires medication or a drug addiction, to warrant the extra effort. That gives the first patrol officer who speaks to a missing child’s family enormous discretion. That officer’s opinions about the child’s maturity, mental health or relationship with parents can dramatically affect the quality of the investigation, or whether there is an investigation at all.
“The first initial encounter with law enforcement really sets the ball rolling for how these individual cases are being handled and treated and even responded to in the media,” said Gaétane Borders, president of Peas in Their Pods, a nonprofit that advocates for missing children of color and their families. “At the heart of it, that can be started by the inherent bias and racism that exists.” Often, children who fall outside the age limits or special circumstances listed in department rules receive virtually no attention from law enforcement, said Melissa Snow, an executive director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. A previous story by USA Today detailed how lack of diversity in DNA databases interferes with investigations into missing Black children. Policies giving law enforcement broad discretion, along with police rules that treat adolescents differently, run contrary to research on brain development and on “adultification bias,” in which children, particularly Black children, are viewed as more grown-up than their chronological ages. The adultification of Black youth by white Americans magnifies the problem, especially when it comes to girls, Borders said. Black girls also tend to enter puberty earlier, which “may perpetuate adultification bias, a form of racial prejudice in which Black children are treated and judged as more mature than others of the same age,” according to a 2022 study in the journal Pediatrics.