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.
With so few juveniles actually winding up in danger, it is not uncommon for runaways to be assigned a low police priority. While police are very concerned with the safety of the juveniles, they also must consider competing demands and more acute threats to public safety.
Many runaways are borderline adults who will run away again after return by the police. As status offenders, juvenile runaways can be held in a secure facility only for a limited amount of time and under limited circumstances. It can be very frustrating for police to try to enforce positive family environments, often feeling that runaway incidents are family problems that have been foisted on law enforcement.
There are times when runaways graduate from status offenses to criminal offenders. These are the juveniles who wind up on the street and must struggle to survive. With limited job skills and employment opportunities, these juveniles often commit crimes such as panhandling, shoplifting, or strong-armed robbery to get by. Some juveniles engage in "survival sex," exchanging sex for basic needs like food or shelter. Any addiction or substance abuse will exacerbate the problem and make the juveniles more vulnerable to exploitation.
Assessing the Situation
The initial responding officer must have a candid conversation with the parent to ascertain if any personal or familial conflicts were present in the time just prior to the teen's departure. If you are the responding officer, you will also want to find out how many runaway episodes the child and the family experienced in the past year. Were they all reported to the police? If not, why? What was the outcome of the prior episodes? What strategy did the parent use last time to locate the child?
A key mission of the first responding officer is to ascertain whether the juvenile is likely to run away to a safe location (such as the home of a friend or family member) or a dangerous location (i.e., the streets). The first step is to conduct a complete search of the home and surrounding property to make sure the child is actually missing. If the juvenile has a cell phone, call the number. A check of the local emergency rooms may be in order to ascertain if any unidentified juveniles have been admitted.
The next step is to work with the child's parents, siblings, school administrators, and friends to see if anyone knows the his or her whereabouts. Advise them to immediately contact headquarters if the child is located. If the juvenile's parents are separated, check with the other parent. Compile a list of locations frequented by the juvenile and visit them. If necessary, leave a picture of the child with a proprietor so police can be notified if the child is spotted.
Check the juvenile's room for any clues of a planned departure. Check for any notes or letters. If a computer is accessible, check the recent history for maps, directions, or places of interest. Review the telephone calls made from the house telephone. Determine if any clothing is missing or if luggage has been taken. Collect pedigree information (name, height, weight, eye color, hair color, clothing description, etc.) and disseminate to as many surrounding agencies as quickly as possible. Make sure to also get the information to transportation terminals.
[PAGEBREAK]Addressing a Widespread Problem
If an agency is plagued with many runaways, it may have to formulate a more generalized strategy. A profile can be formed by comparing the number and nature of the runaways within the jurisdiction with the state or national norm. How far do the teens travel away from home? What mode of transportation do they use? Do the runaways usually return home or are they apprehended by the police? Are they involved in criminal behavior? Are businesses or the community negatively affected by the runaways?
The frustrating fact for police is that no matter what response you formulate, you are unlikely to impact the underlying causes of juvenile runaways. Establishing departmental criteria for assessing risk is one major step that police agencies can take to ensure the well-being of runaways. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has identified the following factors that put runaways at higher risk:
Anyone under 13 years old
Presence of a physical or mental condition that would put the juvenile at greater risk
Alcohol or drug dependency
Absence for more than 24 hours before being reported to the police
In the company of dangerous or exploitive adult companions
The quicker the level of risk can be determined, the better the police response. A department should have a list of factors that would trigger a vigorous response.
Using a Liaison
Recognizing that much of the relief for a runaway problem will come from outside of the criminal justice system, a department may choose to appoint a runaway liaison. This officer's mission is to coordinate with other agencies that have a stake in a runaway's well-being. The police liaison works with social service agencies to ensure the juvenile receives appropriate services upon return. The liaison should maintain a list of habitual runaways and places they prefer to go. Such a list will assist the police response and reduce the overall time spent investigating each runaway call.
The law enforcement liaison also prepares literature for at-risk families. After mitigating the scene, an officer responding to a call of a family in crisis can leave a pamphlet that outlines several positive steps the family can take to achieve a longterm solution and that lists social service agencies trained to help families resolve conflicts.
A separate pamphlet with conflict resolution strategies and service agencies can be given to the juvenile and the family after the child has returned from a runaway episode. At that time, the liaison should conduct a follow-up interview to identify triggers to the juvenile's runaway episodes. Questions include:
How often do you run away?
What factors in the home contribute to your running away?
Does anyone in the household drink or take drugs?
Is there violence in the household?
How safe is it for you to return home?
What would have to be different for you to want to stay home?
This brief survey will give you a good idea as to whether the child is running away from a family crisis or a criminal situation. Most communities have agencies in place to deal with families in crisis. Children who run away from criminal situations require a different type of response. No matter what the contributing factors are, your agency should be prepared with a plan to respond to juvenile runaways.
Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. You can comment on this article, suggest other topics, or reach the author by e-mailing the editor at David.Griffith@PoliceMag.com.