Your 11-year-old son walks down the street to play with a friend after school.
When dinnertime approaches and he hasn’t returned, you call his friend’s mom and ask her to send your son home. Distress is palpable in her voice as she tells you he isn’t there. He left 45 minutes ago.
You panic, running down the block to make sure, but there’s been no mistake. Your son is gone.
Your fingers shake as you dial 911.
What happens next depends on where you live.
Law enforcement agencies across the country 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, according to 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.
More: Top findings of this investigation
More than 60% of the agencies examined by USA TODAY set a maximum age at which missing children are considered “critical” or “at risk” and therefore worthy of thorough investigation regardless of the circumstances. In Louisville, for example, the cutoff is 10. For the New Hampshire State Police, it’s 17. That means 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.
“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.
“In many scenarios … the only person that’s aware that the kid is missing is the person that made the report and the person that took the report,” she said. “In many situations, there is absolutely nobody looking for that kid other than people that intend to do harm to them.”
USA TODAY’s review of police standard operating procedures is part of an ongoing examination of disparities in cases of missing children. Previous stories detailed why a lack of diversity in DNA databases hinders investigations into missing Black children and how effective Amber Alerts are in finding missing kids.
In 2021, 335,000 reports of missing children were sent to the FBI, down from 365,000 the year before. About 90% of them were found. Of those not found within six months, a disproportionate number were Black.
How rapidly and thoroughly law enforcement responds to a missing child can make a crucial difference in the outcome. Thousands of missing kids a year are never reported to the FBI because they are quickly found.
The longer children are missing, the more likely they are to be harmed. A 2006 study by the Washington state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed the cases of nearly 800 missing children later found murdered. In 76% of cases, the child was killed within three hours. In 88.5% of cases, they were killed within a day.
Because of limited budgets and personnel, law enforcement is forced to prioritize, said Lt. Cyrus Zafrani, who oversees crimes against children for the Dallas Police Department. But he wishes they didn’t have to. All missing children are vulnerable because they can’t take care of themselves long-term, he said.
“They’re getting assistance from somewhere,” Zafrani said. “In a lot of cases, it’s who they run into in the streets, and predators are out there.”
Devon Hester’s aunt is certain something terrible happened during the three months he was missing – but he won’t tell her what.
After Devon, then 14, left home in July, officials knew exactly where to find him; he was wearing an ankle monitor because of a pending assault charge. Authorities in Philadelphia, where missing kids under 10 are the only ones automatically treated as a top priority, made no attempt to pick him up.
Instead, they shared his location with Devon’s aunt, Dianna C. Coleman, who drove from her home in Philadelphia to the Hard Rock Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to look for him. By the time she got there, he was gone. Two days of searching the area proved fruitless.
Soon after, the ankle monitor was disabled and stopped transmitting data on Devon’s whereabouts to juvenile officials, according to Coleman.
“They’re looking at this like it’s just another Black kid missing, and they’re not doing anything,” she said in October.
Coleman, who previously worked for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, has been raising Devon since he was 9, after years of abuse by his father. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he had found his voice, urging kids to get vaccinated as a youth ambassador for a nonprofit Coleman founded and publishing an article in an international teen magazine.
But the return to in-person school caused him to regress, and a fight in the cafeteria led to the assault charges. Coleman says her nephew was defending himself from a boy who had been tormenting him for more than two years.
Devon spent the night in the juvenile detention center before officials realized it had been a mistake to take him there, Coleman said. Devon, who had never been in trouble with the law before, was released the next day. He later told his sister on the phone from the road that he had been repeatedly beaten while in detention and ran away out of fear he would be sent back.
For missing kids 10 and older, Philadelphia Police Department rules require that an investigator enter their information into an FBI database and “interview, in person, the individual reporting a missing juvenile as soon as possible.”
Coleman said no investigator spoke with her about Devon’s case until after he was found in a building under construction in downtown Philadelphia on Nov. 2 — more than three months after he disappeared. Devon spent three more weeks in juvenile detention and agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor so he could get out, Coleman said. He was transferred to an inpatient mental health treatment program.
Philadelphia police officials did not answer USA TODAY’s questions about Devon’s case or why their rules call for putting more effort into finding kids under 10 than older children.
Devon won’t tell anyone where he was or what happened while he was missing, Coleman said. During a family counseling session, she recalled, he initially sat mute and refused to make eye contact. Then he left the room.
Not long after, Devon walked out of the treatment facility. He was later arrested on new charges.
“I don’t know where he’s been, what he’s been through or who he’s been with,” his aunt said. “There’s so much uncertainty about what happens next.”
Although numerous states and the federal government have enacted laws regarding missing children, most leave room for interpretation.
Several law enforcement officials told USA TODAY that because most children are found quickly, it makes sense to devote more of their limited budgets and personnel to younger kids.
“It’s about the ability of the agency and the resources that they have,” said Zafrani of the Dallas police.
But many police and sheriff’s departments were unable to explain why their agencies chose the ages they did.
“I do think it’s arbitrary,” said Snow, of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “I do think there was probably some decision made around, well, 12 and under is not a teenager, and so if we’re going to focus efforts, we need to focus on this other category of younger kids.”
Yet missing 15- and 16-year-olds, who more closely resemble adults, face a higher risk of sexual assault than prepubescent children, said retired Dallas Police Sgt. Byron Fassett.
“The person that’s going to hurt – to sexually abuse – a 10-year-old has a very specific mindset. We’re talking a preferential sex offender,” he said.
Some agencies receive guidance from nonprofits such as the National Center when choosing cutoff ages. Some pay for policies from Lexipol, a private company that helps departments reduce their civil liability. But even that does not ensure consistency.
Lexipol, which provides customizable policies to thousands of law enforcement agencies around the country, advises them to first look to state law when defining “at risk.” Barring that, Lexipol uses the criteria of 13 or under, a cutoff chosen after consulting with the National Center and other experts, according to spokeswoman Shannon Pieper.
The company settled on 13 because children that age “have not established independence from parental control for many decisions in their lives and have not established the skills necessary for protection from exploitation,” Pieper said in an email.
She emphasized that age should not determine whether an investigation occurs. Instead, it should help establish whether the child is at risk, which can affect some aspects of the investigation, such as coordination with the FBI.
According to the National Center’s model policy, every child reported missing should “be considered at risk until sufficient information to the contrary is confirmed.” The policy also lists several conditions that may place children at greater risk, including being 12 or younger.
In Milwaukee, the maximum age for more intensive searches is 11 unless certain other conditions are met, down from 12 in 2008, according to Sgt. Efrain Cornejo, the department spokesman. He said he didn’t know why.
In most jurisdictions, once police decide a missing child is not endangered, that status holds indefinitely. In a few, it can change over time. In Dallas, for example, children 10 to 17 are initially considered low priority. After 30 days, their cases are reclassified and assigned to the police department’s high-risk victims and trafficking squad, where detectives proactively search for them.
“If I had the resources, I would definitely bump that down to two weeks or maybe one week,” said Zafrani, the lieutenant in charge of the unit.
Even within the same state, rules may differ. According to its 2021 Department Standards Manual, the Riverside County, California, sheriff’s department classifies missing children 12 and younger as critical. But in Sacramento, the cutoff is 15.
“The reasoning behind this age range is general maturity and the typical ability of a 16-year-old to travel independently (driver’s license age),” Public Information Officer Chad Lewis of the Sacramento police said in an email.
Where policies are similar, the reason is often the proximity of communities rather than legislative changes or best practices, said Jim Bueermann, a retired Redlands, California, police chief and former president of the National Police Foundation.
“There’s a saying that at the end of the day, all policing is local,” he said. “The good is that local communities have a lot of say-so in the kind of policing they get. The downside is there’s almost no national coherence around how policing should be done.”
It’s up to each of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies to ensure their procedures reflect best practices – and to make sure officers follow them. But that doesn’t always happen.
In Cleveland, Jasmine Torres plans to file a complaint against the police department for how it handled the disappearance of her daughter, Jaiden Rose Rentas, in October.
Jaiden had never run away before.
Often, she would climb into bed with her mother at the end of the day, sharing the teenage drama of her life. They were close, and Jaiden always kept in touch. So, when the 15-year-old turned off location sharing on her phone and skipped school on Oct. 19, her mother called the police.
In Cleveland, children 14 and older aren’t treated as endangered unless they fall under one of nine exceptions, including: they are believed to be in a life-threatening situation; their “absence is inconsistent with their established patterns of behavior and cannot be easily explained;” or they are “involved in other circumstances that would lead to a belief that the juvenile is at risk.”
Jaiden was categorized as endangered right away, according to department spokeswoman Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia.
Under department rules, that meant her disappearance should have been treated as urgently as that of a younger child, triggering a neighborhood search. A supervisor also should have come out to the scene, the rules state, and the public information officer should have been notified.
Those things were not done in Jaiden’s case, according to records and interviews.
The day Jaiden disappeared, she called her mother several times from a friend’s number, saying she was safe and would come home when she was ready. Torres nonetheless called the Cleveland police about 10:30 that night, according to a police report.
Officers accompanied Torres to three homes where she believed her daughter might be, some of them more than once, Torres said, but did not conduct a full-scale search. The police report states that checks were made with a friend, a list of hospitals and the morgue. It makes no mention of a neighborhood search.
During a brief phone conversation, Ciaccia told USA TODAY she was not notified of Jaiden’s disappearance. That runs contrary to department rules, which state that if an endangered missing child has not been found within two hours, the public information officer should be contacted.
Such decisions can have a ripple effect. Because the department did not issue a news release about Jaiden’s disappearance, the media declined to cover it, Torres said.
The police did not issue any public alerts about Jaiden’s disappearance, either. Under federal guidelines, she did not qualify for an Amber Alert because she ran away. However, she could have received a secondary alert known as “A Child is Missing.” Only children who have run away repeatedly are disqualified from getting these alerts, which are coordinated via a national nonprofit organization.
According to a police report, the responding officers didn’t ask for a photo of Jaiden. Department rules state: “Officers shall obtain photographs from the reporting person for all missing person reports whenever possible.” Such photos can be used for news releases, posters and other publicity about missing people.
The police report in Jaiden’s case says, “Photograph: not indicated.” Torres said officers didn’t ask for a photo of Jaiden until after she had been missing for three days, once the family had already produced and distributed posters on their own.
Ciaccia did not answer numerous follow-up questions about Jaiden’s case, including why no alert was issued and why officers didn’t immediately ask for a photo.
Nine days after she disappeared, Jaiden’s body was found. She had been shot in the head.
In at least two jurisdictions whose handbooks were reviewed by USA TODAY, an officer’s belief that a missing child is mature beyond their years is reason enough to stop looking for them.
The Concord, California, police department allows officers to consider “the sophistication of the juvenile” when determining whether a follow-up investigation is warranted.
The police department in DeKalb County, Georgia, which has jurisdiction in part of Atlanta and several surrounding cities, must conduct “immediate and continuous” follow-up investigation for missing children ages 11 and younger. For children 12 to 14 who have disappeared, there’s no guarantee officers will make a concerted effort to find them.
“Investigation of these cases may depend upon the circumstances and maturity of the child,” the department manual states.
Those policies, along with police rules that treat adolescents differently from younger children, 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.
Young adults’ brains don’t fully develop until about their mid-20s, numerous studies have found. Teenagers tend to act on emotion rather than reason. Studies have shown that the amygdala, which is associated with feelings, develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex, which allows people to think rationally before they act.
As a result, teens find it harder to make good decisions than adults, no matter how mature they may appear, said Laurence Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University.
“There wouldn’t be an age at which I would say, ‘At this age, this person can probably handle themselves,’” he said. “In our research, even 21-year-olds are more reckless and more risk-taking than people who are older.”
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 affects how they are treated, according to a 2022 study in the journal Pediatrics. The changes in young girls’ bodies “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,” the study says.
White girls, meanwhile, are seen as damsels in distress, Borders said.
“Everybody, everything stops: ‘Let’s help them because they’re out here in this cruel world and they can’t handle it and they need help,’” she said. “But for children of color, it’s: ‘They’re OK. They’re out there on the streets. That’s what they do. They’ll be back.’”
The last time Jasmine Torres saw her daughter alive was six days after she went missing. Jaiden was in the back seat of a stolen Hyundai, with large guys on either side of her. Torres and her partner spotted the car on Oct. 25 after a relative helped them track a phone belonging to the cousin of Jaiden’s boyfriend to a parking lot on the west side of Cleveland.
As Torres ran toward the vehicle, the driver sped away.
Torres called the police as her partner raced after the Hyundai. By the time she connected him to the dispatcher on a three-way call, he had lost sight of the SUV.
According to a recording of the call, the dispatcher promised to put out a broadcast but said she couldn’t do more without a specific location. Torres got more information from the phone tracker and called police again a few minutes later.
“Hi, I just called in about my daughter being in a car and they took off on us, and they’re, like, zooming so fast,” she told a different dispatcher.
“I don’t see your call,” the woman said.
“Really?” Torres says, her voice catching. “Oh my God. I keep calling and trying to get help.”
The dispatcher promised to put out another broadcast, but the vehicle got away, and the phone Torres had been tracking soon went dead.
Two days later, Torres says, Jaiden’s friends confirmed her fears. They said Jaiden was being held against her will, forced to perform sex acts in exchange for food. Torres contacted the police department and was told to call the detective the next morning. She did, but he didn’t answer. When she called again that afternoon, he picked up.
“I don’t think it’s against her will,” Torres and her partner recall him saying. “Some girls fall in love with guys who rape them.”
In an email, the Cleveland police spokeswoman said the department is “conducting an internal review of this matter which will include review of any body worn camera footage of conversations had between the investigators and the victim’s family members.”
Two hours after Torres’ phone call with the detective, police were called about a car abandoned in a field, its engine running. Jaiden’s body was in the back seat.
Three teenage boys have been charged with felonies in connection with the case. Jaiden’s boyfriend, 16, faces 12 counts, including murder, evidence tampering and gross abuse of a corpse, according to Cuyahoga County juvenile court records. A 17-year-old faces five charges, including involuntary manslaughter and witness intimidation. A second 16-year-old has been charged with the single felony of witness intimidation. USA TODAY is not naming the boys because they are juveniles.
Torres believes her family’s ethnicity – Black and Puerto Rican – and low socio-economic status influenced the way Cleveland police handled her daughter’s case.
“They just saw her as this inner-city brown girl, but she was an amazing, beautiful, smart young lady,” Torres said. “I knew it wasn’t just her running away, and no one would listen to me.”
Contributing: Ashley Luthern, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Contact Gina Barton at (262) 757-8640 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @writerbarton.