Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. operate under a patchwork of rules that govern how intensely they search for missing children. The degree of effort often depends entirely on a child's age or an officer’s discretion. As a result, kids the same age can disappear under similar circumstances and receive vastly different responses from police. In dozens of cities and towns, the child’s age alone can move them to the bottom of the priority list, finds a USA Today analysis of standard operating procedures 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. For the New Hampshire State Police, the general age cutoff for more extensive police investigation into a missing child is 17. For Louisville police, it's 10. More than 60% of the agencies examined set a maximum age at which missing children are considered “critical” or “at risk” and worthy of thorough investigation regardless of the circumstances.
A missing 11-year-old in Louisville would typically draw less attention from law enforcement than a 16-year-old in New Hampshire. 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 extra effort. That gives the first patrol officer who speaks to a missing child’s family enormous power. That officer’s opinions about the child’s maturity, mental health or relationship with their parents can dramatically affect the quality of the investigation – or whether there is an investigation at all. That discretion can result in discrimination. 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 of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.