Antonio Holley-Grisham remembers Feb. 12, 2009, as well as any 12-year-old could have. It was the day his older brother Dominique left home and never returned. Dominique, from Rochester, N.Y., was labeled a runaway. Around the U.S., classification as a runaway often means officers put less effort into looking for a missing child, according to a USA TODAY review of more than 50 police procedural manuals. Under federal rules, runaways are disqualified from Amber Alerts – notifications to the media and on billboards and cellphones that draw urgent and widespread attention to missing children. Of children not located within six months, a disproportionate number are Black children. In Rochester, police rules at the time dictated that the department “thoroughly investigate” all reports of missing children, including runaways, unless they left group homes. The rules say such investigations should have included searching the neighborhood and contacting additional units within the department or neighboring agencies. A supervisor was not required to come to the scene and ensure those things were done unless a child vanished under “exigent circumstances." Such circumstances were defined as those that “would put a person in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death, either at the hands of another or due to a proven mental or physical disability or the age of the person requires immediate attention." Despite the definition, the interpretation of the danger often depends on what investigators believe are considered "exigent circumstances."
Of the 55 law enforcement agencies whose manuals were reviewed, more than 40% allow police to exert less effort to find runaways than other missing kids. In Nashville, police must search for missing children for at least three hours. The manual lists an exception for runaways who are not disabled or believed to be endangered: “In those incidents where it can be reasonably determined that a missing juvenile, age twelve or above, has left voluntarily (runaway) … a search can be terminated prior to the three hours.” Such practices have led advocates to push for an end to the “runaway” label. In 2012, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children redesigned its posters to remove the classifications of “runaway” and “family abduction.” The change was made because of the judgments people make when they hear those words, said the center's Angeline Hartmann. “Was that child actually lured away? Is that child going to meet somebody and was meant to come back 10 minutes later?” she asked. “There are lots of things that happen when a child is supposedly under the term ‘runaway.’ ” The National Network for Youth, which lobbies lawmakers to prevent and end youth homelessness, no longer refers to the children it serves as runaways, said director Darla Bardine. Children who leave home need help, not punishment, she said. “We know that most runaways are running away from domestic violence, mentally ill parents, substance abusing parents, or sexual abuse,” she said. “It’s not a fight about broccoli or ‘You didn’t buy me an iPad.’ There’s conflict or crisis in this family.”