Runaways were once categorized as either adventurous juveniles or rebellious teens. The adventurous juveniles were romanticized by Hollywood as kids who ran off to join the circus before some sage person advised them, "There's no place like home." The rebellious teens were viewed as incorrigible juvenile delinquents and future hardened criminals who were to be dealt with harshly. Today's more evolved view holds that runaways are victims of dysfunctional family situations. This change in beliefs has forced a change in the police response to runaways.
There is no universal definition of "runaway," but most agree that the term refers to any juvenile who is absent from the home without permission and is not the victim of a crime. While only 20 percent of runaways are reported to the police, there were more than 1.6 million reported runaway episodes in 1999. About one-third of the time, the juveniles were actually "missing." That is to say, the parents did not know the children's whereabouts and were concerned for their safety.
Juvenile runaway rates are relatively consistent across racial and socio-economic lines and throughout urban, suburban, and rural settings. It may help investigators to know the common triggers for runaway episodes. Many juveniles run away when they are overwhelmed with a situation and cannot formulate any other response.
Common arguments between parents and teens—about bad grades, staying out late, unacceptable circles of friends, permission to attend a social event, autonomy, spending money, etc.—may lead to juveniles running away from home. More serious problems—such as pregnancy, tension about sexual orientation, physical or sexual abuse—may also cause children to run away.
Runaway episodes are generally impulsive and poorly planned. Most children run to the homes of friends or family members; very few wind up on the street. About 20 percent of juveniles return home within the first 24 hours and 75 percent are home within a week. More determined runaways may engage in "couch surfing," staying with a number of different acquaintances for short periods of time. When these resources are exhausted, they usually head home or have no alternative but to head to the streets. Less than one percent of juvenile runaways never return home.