Running away involves being voluntarily absent from home at least overnight without permission from a parent or caretaker.
Every year about 800,000 children in the United States are reported missing and another estimated 500,000 go missing without being reported. Not all of these children are runaways. This number also includes children abducted by family members, usually in custody disputes, and a very small number of stranger abductions. In addition, when children run away, each time it is reported as a separate event. Some children are repeat runaways, so it is difficult to know the exact number of runaway children. What is clear is that the number is large. Runaways include "throwaways," who leave with the overt or tacit approval of parents or caretakers, and "push-outs," who are turned out by parents who do not want them, as well as teens who leave because they are dissatisfied with their home life.
The 2002 White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children estimated that there were about 1.3 million American children living on the streets each day and that one in seven children between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away. Most runaways return voluntarily within a few days. Many go to homes of friends or relatives who encourage them to return. Some are aided by police and social agencies and eventually return home or are placed in alternative stable environments. Children who remain on the street are exposed to sexual exploitation, drug addiction , violent crime, and the other harmful mental and physical effects of homelessness.
Why children run away
Rather than seeking adventures, most runaways in the early 2000s are running from intolerable domestic situations. It has been estimated that at least 60 to 70 percent of these young people are fleeing from families in which they have been mentally, physically, or sexually abused. Historically, attention to the role played by a child's family environment in the treatment of a runaway is relatively new. In past eras, runaways themselves were uniformly blamed for their situation and seen as hostile and destructive lawbreakers who needed to be reformed. In the nineteenth century, they were generally sent to reform schools that were similar to prisons. Even after the establishment of the juvenile justice system toward the end of the nineteenth century, most runaways were regarded as delinquents, and the home situations from which they had fled received little scrutiny. In the early and mid-twentieth century, the prevailing view of runaways underwent a partial shift in emphasis from crime to pathology. Early versions of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual included "runaway reaction" as a mental disorder.
As of 2004, researchers had identified several common characteristics of the abusive family environments that prompt young people to run away. These include financial troubles, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, physical and verbal abuse, and intolerance of deviant behavior. Besides outright physical or sexual abuse, runaways may be reacting to persistent tension between family members, including parental fighting or competition among siblings (especially step-siblings), feelings of rejection by their families, or authoritarian parenting that allows too little room for normal self-expression or social life.
Other events may also prompt children to run away. They may have done something to get into trouble (for example, become pregnant or been arrested) and feel unable to face their families. Still other children flee out of romantic notions of being with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Cyber predators who meet young people in Internet chat rooms and convince them to leave home to meet or live with them constitutes a relatively new, but growing, problem. Some children leave with friends for adventure. These children are usually ones who have had difficulties with parents, school, and authority figures in the past. Running away is one component of conduct disorder , a diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
Legislation affecting the treatment of runaways
In the 1960s, with the growth of the hippie counter-culture and the associated "youth rebellion," the number of teen runaways increased dramatically, drawing attention to the risks these youths faced on the streets. Growing public concern over their fate was reflected in the 1974 passage of the Runaway Youth Act, which funded a program to establish a network of centers for runaways. Increased attention to the plight of these young people revealed the dangers of child prostitution and pornography, which they faced on the streets. It also began to change the public image of runaways from that of thrill-seekers to that of young people from families in crisis fleeing intolerable conditions with no place else to go. This perception of runaways has become influential in both public opinion and government policy.
The 1982 Missing Children's Act enabled the entry of missing child information into the FBI's national crime computer (NCIC). The 1984 Missing Children's Assistance Act mandated a national resource center to address child abduction and exploitation. The private, nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was established in cooperation with the United States Department of Justice, to find missing children and prevent child victimization. It created a 24-hour hotline (1–800–THE-LOST). In 1990, the National Child Search Assistance Act eliminated the waiting time for law enforcement action on missing children, mandating an immediate police report and NCIC entry for missing children cases.
What happens to runaway children?
Young people who run away and do not return home may remain on the street, go to a shelter, or be placed in foster homes by welfare agencies. Some eventually join the armed services or take jobs that keep them on the road, such as carnival or sales work. Others end up in jails or mental institutions. Those who remain on the streets have few options that would provide them with decent living conditions. Their age, lack of work experience, and uncompleted education make it difficult for them to find a job, especially one that pays more than minimum wage. It is common for both male and female runaways living on the streets to steal, panhandle, deal and abuse drugs, engage in prostitution, and pose for pornographic pictures. For shelter they may stay with strangers, spend nights in bus stations, all-night coffee shops, and other public places, or stow away in empty or abandoned buildings or even in stairwells. Many never get off the streets, becoming part of the adult homeless population.
There are an estimated 750 runaway shelters and youth crisis centers in the United States. These offer safe shelter, food, counseling, and advocacy services to help young people deal with parents, police, and the courts. Many also provide educational and vocational assistance. However, shelters do set certain conditions for accepting runaways, the most common being parental notification. This is an obstacle for some young people who do not want their parents contacted, even though the shelter does not press them to return home. One problem that has occurred at some shelters is sexual molestation by other runaways and staff members. Nevertheless, many young people have had positive experiences at shelters, which they either find on their own or are sent to by the legal or welfare systems.
Since the 1970s, hotlines have been available to help runaways and their families. The Runaway Hotline and the National Runaway Switchboard (1–800–621–4000) have become widely used 24-hour help lines that offer crisis counseling and referrals to service agencies that can provide food, shelter, medical aid, and other types of help. The National Runaway Switchboard will put runaways and their parents in touch without revealing the location from which the teenager is calling.
Parents are often emotionally devastated when their child runs away. Their fluctuating emotions may include anger, grief, guilt, and fear . Sometimes they are not sure if their child has run away or been abducted. A parent's first concern is to find his or her child and/or make sure he or she is in a safe environment. To help achieve this, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends these steps for parents.
- They should check with friends and relatives to try to locate the child and enlist their help in thinking about where the child might be.
- They should check diaries and e-mails for clues about the child's plans. They can ask the child's friends if they know the child's online passwords.
- They should report to local law enforcement immediately that the child has run away or is missing. There is no waiting period to report a missing or runaway minor or to enter their information into the FBI NCIC database.
- They should provide a description and photograph of the child to law officers.
- They should check local places where the child may be hanging out.
- They should check again with the child's friends. They may know something but initially be reluctant to tell the parents.
- They should call the National Runaway Switchboard (1–800–621–4000) and see if the child has left a message for them. They can leave a message for the child here in case the child calls the hotline.
If the child contacts the parents and refuses to return home, the parents should encourage him or her to contact the National Runaway Switchboard and ask for assistance or encourage the child to go to a friend or relative. Parents can ask their child to stay in touch and make a plan about when the child will call again. If the child returns home, parents need to try to respond with concern and love, rather than anger. Children who have been away for more than a few days should have a complete medical examination. They also can benefit from seeing a mental health practitioner for help dealing with the distress that drove them away from home. Family therapy to help resolve whatever family problems may have driven the child away from home initially can also be beneficial in preventing a repeat running away incident.
Cooper, Edith Fairman. Missing and Exploited Children: Overview and Policy Concerns. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishing, 2004.
Raphael, Maryanne, et al. Runaways: America's Lost Youth. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000.
Starks, Mary. Missing Children: Never Give Up Hope until You Know the Truth. Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2004.
Vaughan, Brian K., et al. Teenage Wasteland. New York: Marvel Enterprise, 2004.
Veladota, Christine. Teen Runaways. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2004.
Covenant House. Telephone: toll-free 800/999–9999 (Referrals and counseling for youth in need); Web site: <www.covenanthouse.org>.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Charles B. Wang International Children's Building, 699 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314–2175. Telephone: 24-hour toll-free hotline 800/THE-LOST [800/843–5678]; Web site: <www.missingkids.com>.
National Runaway Switchboard. Telephone: toll-free hotline 800/621–4000; Web site: <www.nrscrisisline.org>.
The Runaway Hotline. PO Box 12428, Austin, TX 78711. Telephone: toll-free hotline 800/231–6946; Web site: <www.nrscrisisline.org>.
Tish Davidson, A.M.