I figure this question belongs here though it definitely has a legal counterpart to it. But since it's fiction and supernatural no less, I didn't think it would make sense to put it in a more legal-specific exchange. I'm sure the mods will let me know if I'm wrong :)

Some backstory: I'm a private detective (USA) working on a series of inexplicable, supernatural murders. At some point in my investigation a minor with ties to the case (an individual under 18 years of age) runs away from home. I manage to gain contact with this runaway (aged 16) and determine that if I send him/her home the case's culprit will kill them as well. I have evidence supporting this and this minor is essential to solving the case.

Now, technically speaking, harboring a runaway is a crime: https://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/crime-penalties/juvenile/running-away.htm but once again, sending the kid home is a death sentence. Also, their parents have yet to file a report and the kid does not want to return home.

While, technically speaking, the witness protection program can force an unaccompanied minor (read: orphan) into the program, this kid has parents. Not to mention, I'm a PI, not a federal court so I can't exactly go forcing kids into the program anyways. On top of that, the nature of the killer is such that relocation would not actually help my client. They would still end up dead. (That said, if this was a normal killer the WPP would probably be the best place for this kid). CPS will run into the same thing.

So the question is how can I cover myself and still keep this kid out of harms way (preferably by moving them under my supervision)? Obviously, I'm more interested in keeping my young client alive and will cross some legal boundaries if needed, but I'd rather not lose my license (or end up in court) over it.


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    $\begingroup$ Is this happening in USA? Child Protective Services has the authority that you are seeking. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 14 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this would be in the USA. But CPS would also relocate the child, right? Which would run into the same problem as the witness protection agency. The goal here would be to keep the child under my supervision. I'll edit the question (if I have the karma) to make that more clear. Thank you for pointing that out. $\endgroup$ – Mackenzie Bodily Jan 14 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also, this kind of decision has to be authorized by a judge. So what you need is either to make this judge believe in supernatural, or cook up a convincing story so that protective custody will be assigned to your detective. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 14 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ This is quite plausible if this detective is part of a team like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but can not imagine judge will grant protective custody to a private detective. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jan 14 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ What kind of time frame does this situation span? A lot of child welfare law is time-sensitive, to say nothing of how long it can take to wind up in court. Are you actually in contact with the parents and if so, what's their reaction? Parents' ordinary rights are pretty broad in a situation like this. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Jan 14 at 23:15

It all depends on whether you have evidence a court would consider valid

1. All my evidence points to a supernatural being

All the evidence in the world that Casper the Friendly Ghost has given up his life of cheerful helpfulness for the adrenaline rush of helping the unwilling to cross over won't convince a court that you're doing the right thing. So, if this is the kind of evidence you have, you have nothing. A future in the big house being Darnell's "best friend" is what you can look forward to.

2. I have credible evidence that points to human actions

Whether the supernatural is involved or not, if you can point the finger at a human being, now we have something to work with.

  • Child Protective Services can help, but it's unlikely. CPS gets involved when the welfare of the child at home is in question. Their usual mandate with runaways is to send them home, then start performing welfare checks. To use them to protect the child, your evidence would need to point to one or both of the parents or an adult living in the home.

I've worked with CPS before. If you're a "trusted source" like a minister, a police officer, etc., then they tend to act quickly. If you're not a trusted source (like a neighbor) then they act very slowly or with practiced incredulity. I can understand, people call CPS as an act of vengeance against an unliked neighbor all the time.

  • Good Samaritan Laws exist in most states and, theoretically, protect you, the good Samaritan, if your actions can be considered a reasonable consequence of circumstances within the best of your understanding. This is likely your best defense against "harboring a runaway," but it would also require demonstrating your due diligence using appropriate services (like the police, CPS, etc.) to resolve the problem as most good Samaritan laws are meant to be used in the case of emergencies (immediate circumstances).

  • Ministerial Privilege is frequently used in supernatural (and other) stories for a reason: it's a big deal to pierce ministerial privilege. This includes the privilege of confession and the privilege of sanctuary. It's getting easier — my understanding is that most states allow piercing ministerial privilege when the welfare of a child is involved (i.e., ministers can no longer allow child abusers to hid behind ministerial privilege), but it's an option.

  • Child Advocacy Centers have some legal authority. Not a lot, but some. The opportunity here is that most CACs are operated by lawyers or legal firms, and as officers of the court they have the ability to bend some rules — including hiding a "client" while they investigate/prepare cases. Most states and large cities have CACs. Of course, any competent lawyer could do the same thing.


Obviously there are several complications here, including the jurisdiction in which your story takes place. In Australia for instance, your problem goes away as children who are 16 years old have a rather unique status insofar as they are treated as adults as far as their residential and intimate practices are concerned (age of consent in Australia is 16), but they're still not allowed to vote, enter a pub and drink, gamble, or get a credit card in their own name without parental approval.

What that means in effect is that if your minor doesn't want to go home in Australia, at the age of 16, they don't have to and the police can't force them to. Of course, that would raise other problems for you, like what your PI is doing harbouring a 16 year old in the first place, and why they're investigating a crime when it's the police's job. I'm pretty sure (being a federation all states have the right to take a different stance on this) that in Australia, private investigators can't investigate criminal acts directly; they're supposed to hand over any evidence they find on a crime to the police immediately and leave them to do their job. I suspect it's the same in many places, but then that doesn't make for a good story. :)

The key thing here is that you'll find that the age of majority is different in different places, but there is also a sliding scale of rights that minors start to get as they reach that age. Certainly, I'd investigate the jurisdiction in which you plan to base the story because I'm pretty sure most jurisdictions won't see a 16 year old who doesn't want to go home as an issue. Perhaps the best approach is to find one of these in or near your country, and use it as the location of your story.

Besides, the final word should be on priority. If you have a jurisdiction with a high crime rate, and many kids disappearing (and your story sounds like it might be set in one of these), the police are likely stretched to deliver law and order across the board. If it's a choice between finding and protecting a missing 4 year old lost somewhere in harm's way, and forcing the return of a 16 year old who doesn't want to go back, I know which I'd pick to follow up on. Sometimes, what's not important is the letter of the law, it's what parts of the law you're more ready to enforce, especially when resources are limited.


Note: Not a lawyer.

If you really want to take the minor under your wing, then apply for a Guardianship. Even if the parents did not give consent, the court can still grant you guardianship if they see that the parents are unfit for raising the child.


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