The definition of a “missing child” in Missouri law would include 17 year-olds under a proposal heard by a House committee this week.
Republic representative Bishop Davidson (R) said he heard from a constituent about a 17 year-old who ran away from home and police could not act to retrieve her. He said her family felt she was in an unsafe and abusive situation, and noted that they still have responsibility for her care until she turns 18.
“It’s really a question about at what point are you considered a child and at what point are you considered an adult. I think if we want to allow for a 9 year-old or a 10 year-old or an 11 year-old, at some point in time that line has to be drawn. In all of the law we draw that line at 18. Here we draw it, curiously, at 17,” said Davidson. “In terms of whether or not a child is considered a child or an adult, I think that there should be consistency across the law.”
Davidson presented the proposal to the House Committee on Children and Families, the members of which raised some concerns.
“If you’re 17 and living in a bad environment at your home … if you leave this would actually give law enforcement people the authority to retrieve you and force you to go back home?” asked Republican Randy Pietzman (Troy). “I’m just thinking of scenarios growing up, people I know that have left home at 16. They dropped out of school, they left home because it was a bad environment, and 90 percent of those people are pretty well off and doing very well, and I’m just thinking if they’d have been forced to stay there for another year they might not be doing as well as they are.”
Davidson said it would, but noted there are other systems in place to help a young person in such a situation.
“Now would I want an officer or someone close to the family, I mean if the child is running away at 17 could that be a pause for concern? Could that stir up some questions that go, ‘Hey, did they run away for any particular reason that maybe we should look into?’ Sure, that’s a whole other conversation,” said Davidson, who added that he appreciated Pietzman’s reservation.
Several committee members thanked Davidson for opening the discussion. Shrewsbury Democrat Sarah Unsicker recently read about a 17 year-old who was dropped from the foster care system but was not emancipated, so among other things she could not enter into a contract such as a lease to find housing.
“The report I got from the government says law enforcement refused to file a missing persons report or issue a pickup order due to the child’s age … so I think it’s really important that law enforcement know that they need to look for missing kids when they’re 17 years old,” said Unsicker.
Representative Marlene Terry (D-St. Louis) asked Davidson about expanding his bill to specify that law enforcement search for such individuals, and what must be done in that search.
“What I’m finding is that there are not procedures in place that make it manadatory to actually search for individuals that are missing. A lot of times they’ll put up pictures and it’s a blank picture and not a photo. All those things are important. Even with the age, makes a difference, there’s other things that make a difference that might be helpful to make the search more valuable,” said Terry.
Mountain Grove Republican Hannah Kelly said in her experience, much frustration for caseworkers comes from directives being handed down without understanding of what would be necessary for them to be met.
His bill, House Bill 1559, is scheduled for a second hearing by the committee on Wednesday, and it could be voted on and/or amended at that time.