WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – A News 3 investigation has revealed most children reported missing will not receive an AMBER Alert and may not receive heightened attention or resources from law enforcement if they are considered runaways.
“We all know that runaways are not receiving the AMBER Alert and, quite frankly, there's really no sense of urgency,” said Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation.
Thirteen-year-old Angelo Graham’s been missing from Williamsburg since September 13. News 3 learned about the boy’s disappearance when his father called the newsroom, worried James City County police weren’t exhausting every effort to find him because he has a history of running away.
“Every day that passes, I get worried. More worried every day,” said Derrick Graham, Angelo’s father. “Abductions. Runaways. [They] all should be treated the same.
“He’s only 13,” the father continued.
Graham didn’t receive an AMBER alert. A News 3 investigation revealed neither did most of the more than 5,000 children reported missingacross the country database because they don’t fit the following criteria for an AMBER alert:
- The abducted child must be 17 years of age or younger or is currently enrolled in a secondary school in the Commonwealth, regardless of age, and the law enforcement agency believes the child has been abducted (unwillingly taken from their environment without permission from the child’s parent or legal guardian).
- The law enforcement agency believes the missing child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death.
- A law enforcement investigation has taken place that verified the abduction or eliminated alternative explanations.
- Sufficient information is available to disseminate to the public that could assist in locating the child, suspect, and/or the suspect’s vehicle.
- The Child must be entered into the Virginia Criminal Information Network (VCIN) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) missing person files as soon as practical.
“[Runaways] are still considered missing,” said Leemie Kahng-Sofer, the director of case management within the Missing Children Division of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “They are vulnerable when they're out there.”
Kahgn-Sofer said more than 90% of the missing children reflected on their database ran away from home. However, she said that does not mean those children aren’t in danger and could become victims of violence, including sex trafficking and abuse.
“It's just a big spectrum of vulnerabilities for our children and youth who are out there on the streets,” Kahng-Sofer said.
According to Virginia law, a missing child is anyone under 21 reported missing. There is no waiting period to report a child missing, even if they ran away. Local law enforcement agencies have two hours to forward those reports to state and national databases. After that, it is up to each police department to decide how far they go to find missing children if they do not meet the criteria of an AMBER alert, especially if they are runaways.
The News 3 Investigative Team analyzed several local police department investigative protocols for missing children. Many specifically call for a search of the area when a child is reported missing, but Portsmouth’s policy draws a line when it comes to runaways. Their policy reads, in part, for children 13 and older who are chronic runaways “a supervisor will determine the extent of the search required."
News 3 also learned several of the police departments in Hampton Roads have an age they deem a missing child at risk.
The policy in Norfolk, the local city with the highest number of missing children listed on the NCMEC’s database at 60 open cases, reads, “If a missing child is under the age of nine, or is incapacitated, e.g. mentally or physically handicapped, or involved in a serious child abduction case, immediate action is required and the following additional steps will be taken…”
In Virginia Beach, the policy reads, “If the missing child is under twelve years of age or is at risk, the supervisor shall contact the Runaway/Missing Persons Unit supervisor and jointly reach a decision on the appropriate action to be taken to ensure that a maximum effort is made to locate the child…”
News 3 also obtained policies from Suffolk, Hampton and Chesapeake about their missing child protocols. Newport News police have not responded to our request for their missing children investigative protocols.
“They're out there […] on their own accord, but that doesn't mean that there aren't serious incidents of violence against these children,” Kahng-Sofer said.
When it comes to the policy for James City County police, where Angelo Graham was reported missing, the policy reiterate state code for missing cases, reading, “…upon receiving a report of a missing child the investigating officer, in addition to initiating an investigation and completing an offense report, shall immediately enter identifying and descriptive data about the child into VCIN / NCIC and forward the Missing Children Information Clearinghouse form to the Department of State Police. The investigating officer shall also notify all other law-enforcement agencies in the area.”
James City County police tell News 3 they are deploying their resources to find Angelo, but it is not enough to satisfy a worried father until his son is found safe and sound.
“It’s stressful,” said Graham. “A lot of sleepless nights.”
You can report information about a missing or exploited child to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-Hour Call Center: 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).