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Most runaways don't stay away long. Veltri explained that she closes most missing juvenile cases in the first week. By the time she calls the parent or caregiver, usually a few days after the initial report, most missing juveniles have returned. According to the October U.S. DOJ report, 77 percent of runaway teens return home in less than a week and 93 percent return within a month. But just because a child has returned doesn't mean family problems end. Veltri said many runaways soon run again. "It's a revolving door," she said.
As soon as she talked to a few of Elrinda's friends, Veltri began to doubt foul play in the teen's disappearance. Several said Elrinda talked frequently of conflicts at home, mostly over boys. The 15-year-old also told friends she pondered running. And if Elrinda ran, the girls said, it was probably to be with a boy. Veltri also heard that someone at the library had seen Elrinda leaving with a guy.
Then on August 26, when Nova High School students returned for the fall term, Nova administrators told Linda and Prince that the 15-year-old appeared briefly on campus. She spoke to a favorite teacher, the couple was told. Although Nyaisha didn't see her that day, she said she heard from other teens that Elrinda got into a car driven by a man when she left.
"There's not much of a story there," Veltri said dismissively during the October interview.
At that point, it had been almost three months since Elrinda left home. Linda said several times she thought the case should be reclassified as a kidnapping. Her daughter left home with $20 in her wallet and the clothes on her back. Because Elrinda was too young to work legally, Linda and Prince didn't see how she could survive. Also, they just didn't believe that their daughter would go for three months without contacting them, unless someone prevented her from doing so.
Veltri, however, viewed Elrinda's case with a more jaundiced eye. Although the case was still open, Veltri considered it essentially solved. "She's with her boyfriend, and she doesn't want to go home," Veltri said. "She's not being held against her will. She's on the loose and doing her thing. We have hundreds of girls like this at any one time."
When Fort Lauderdale police reclassified Elrinda as a runaway, their efforts to find the girl virtually ceased. If the cops located Elrinda, Prince and Linda were told, she would not be taken into custody. It's not a crime in Florida to run away from home.
Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. Rich Herbert said that the department takes into custody a child who is in danger but that most runaways older than 12 aren't regarded that way. The policy is to allow runaways older than 12 to decide whether to return home or go to a shelter. They don't use force to bring teens into custody or place them in locked facilities, unless ordered by a judge. "Most parents want their kid to return home," Herbert explained, "but they don't want them to come home with a broken collarbone."
Moreover, back in 1974, the legislature passed a law that ended the practice of housing runaway teens in juvenile detention facilities. Child-welfare workers had complained that runaways shouldn't be kept with criminals.
These intricacies meant nothing to Linda. "If that's the state law," she said in early October, "I think state law needs to be changed." At 15, Elrinda was not of an age to make a decision to live on her own, her parents said. Besides, Elrinda didn't have a boyfriend, Linda added. The teen's male friends at school didn't know where she was and hadn't heard from her. Linda questioned them.
Prince speculated that someone older must be providing for Elrinda and preventing her from telephoning. "I'm trying to stay open about this," he said. "You just don't know what a person is thinking. I'm not going to say she is being held against her will, but I believe she is being coerced."
The attitude of Veltri and the Fort Lauderdale cops toward Elrinda's disappearance angered Linda. She believed race factored into it. "They don't care," she said. "Had it been a rich white girl who had run, they would be out there looking for her... Because it's not, they have no feelings toward her... She's just another nigger to them."
As the weeks and then months piled up, the Joneses felt helpless.
Linda paced the house. She prayed. She burned the family's dinners. She neglected the housework. Laundered clothes heaped up on one of the sofas. She couldn't sleep. When sleep finally overcame her, she often just crashed onto the second sofa in the living room. Two-year-old Carina had trouble falling asleep too. She was used to her older sister singing to her at night, Linda said.
As Linda spoke to New Times and sifted through her oldest daughter's school papers, Carina interrupted, "When 'Rinda coming home?" It was a question the child asked often.
"She'll be back soon," Linda said, trying to comfort the child.
"You said that yesterday," observed the precocious toddler.