Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Juvenile Runaways

Guide No.37 (2006)

by Kelly Dedel

The Problem of Juvenile Runaways

This guide begins by describing the problem of juvenile runaways and reviewing its risk factors. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local juvenile runaway problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Juveniles run away from home and from substitute care placements, such as foster care or group homes. Most juveniles decide to leave on their own or choose not to return when expected, but in some cases, their parents or guardians tell them to leave or do not allow them to return.†

The term “runaway” typically refers to juveniles who are absent from home or care without permission. The term “thrownaway” refers to juveniles who have been forced to leave their homes by a parent or guardian. Recognizing that the distinction between these statuses is blurred, this guide uses the term “runaway” to refer to both situations. The phrase “missing children” often includes runaway and thrownaway juveniles, along with juveniles who have been abducted by a non-custodial parent or stranger. This latter group of juveniles is not discussed in this guide.

A runaway episode refers to an overnight stay away from home, except in the case of young children who can be in danger after a much shorter time. Runaways were once believed to be juveniles seeking adventure or rebelling against mainstream values and the authority of their parents; more recently, runaways have been regarded as victims of dysfunctional families, schools, and social service institutions.

Estimating the number of juveniles who run away is difficult because

  • researchers do not agree on the definition of running away;
  • juveniles tend to hide their runaway status when talking to adult authority figures; and
  • many runaways do not access services and, therefore, are not included in service utilization data.

These difficulties notwithstanding, there were approximately 1.7 million juvenile runaway episodes in 1999.[1] Only about one-third of these juveniles were actually missing, meaning that their parents or caretakers did not know where they were and were concerned about their absence. Only about one-fifth of all runaway episodes were reported to police.[2] Some parents do not report runaway episodes to police because they know where their children are or because they do not think the police are needed to resolve the issue.[3] Others do not report runaway episodes because they want to avoid police involvement or because they had a negative experience when reporting a previous runaway episode to police.[4]

Most runaways are older teenagers, ages 15 to 17, with only about one-quarter ages 14 and younger.[5] Juveniles of different races run away at about the same rates and boys and girls run away in equal proportions. Although juveniles from all socioeconomic statuses run away, the majority are from working-class and lower-income homes, possibly because of the additional family stress created by a lack of income and resources.[6] Blended families also experience additional stress, which may explain why juveniles living in these settings are also more likely to run away.[7] Runaway rates are similar for juveniles in urban, suburban, and rural settings.[8]

Runaways have higher rates of depression, physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug problems, delinquency, school problems, and difficulties with peers than juveniles who do not run away.[9] Many runaways have been exposed to high levels of violence, either as victims or as witnesses.[10]

Juveniles in substitute care (e.g., foster care, group homes) are more likely to run away than juveniles who live at home with a parent or guardian. The chances of juveniles in care running away are highest in the first few months after placement, and older juveniles are more likely to run away than younger juveniles.[11] Juveniles who run away from substitute care are more likely to run away repeatedly than juveniles who run away from home.[12] Although they are only a small proportion of the total number of runaways, those who run away from care consume a disproportionate amount of police time and effort.[13] Those who run away from care also tend to stay away longer and travel farther away than those who run away from home.[14]

Police encounter runaways, whether reported missing or not, through a number of activities: while patrolling areas where runaways congregate, while investigating missing persons reports, or during criminal investigations in which juveniles were either perpetrators or victims. In 1999, 150,700 juveniles were arrested for running away, less than 10 percent of all runaways that year.[15] Runaways are also arrested and charged with prostitution, curfew violations, truancy, and drug and alcohol offenses. Police have wide discretion in handling runaway cases depending on whether the children were reported missing, the level of parental or caretaker concern, and the seriousness of the risks the juveniles are believed to face.

Very few runaways are homeless and living on the street. Most stay in relative safety at a friend or family members home. However, some runaways lack safe living arrangements and stay on the street, in the company of a predatory adult, or in another situation lacking responsible adult supervision. Police and policy makers are most concerned about this group of juveniles, commonly referred to as street kids, because of the potential for victimization and criminal activity.

The problem of juvenile runaways is particularly complex because it suggests other social problems, such as family dysfunction and child abuse. As a result, police will be able to affect only a segment of the problem directly. Although many things can be done to address the underlying causes of the problem, police are primarily concerned about reducing the harm that comes to or is caused by runaways when they are absent from home or care. For example, some runaways are

  • involved in criminal activity, either as victims or perpetrators;
  • exploited by predatory adults; and
  • engaged in risky behaviors such as drug use and unsafe sexual activity.
  • Despite their interest in protecting childrens safety, police often assign a low priority to runaway cases for a number of reasons:
  • Few jurisdictions have appropriate facilities for placement once runaways are taken into police custody. [16]
  • Processing paperwork and transporting juveniles consume significant amounts of time.[17]
  • Most police have competing demands from more serious public safety threats.[18]
  • Some police believe parents and substitute care providers want police to act as disciplinarians or security guards.[19]
  • Runaway cases can be frustrating when juveniles do not want to return or parents do not want the juveniles to return.[20]
  • Juveniles often run away again shortly after police return them home.[21]

Running away is a status offense; consequently, juveniles can be held in secure facilities only in limited situations.†

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 made it illegal to hold status offenders in secure facilities. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), reauthorized in 1992, created alternatives to the juvenile justice system by funding community-based organizations to provide services to runaways including outreach, counseling, shelters, aftercare, and referrals to social services. The RHYA also includes the Transitional Living Program, which provides services for homeless juveniles ages 16 to 21 to increase independent living skills.

Unfortunately, the resources available to this population generally amount to a collection of loosely affiliated services and shelters of varied quality and quantity. As a result, police often have limited options for responding to runaways and ensuring their safety.

Related Problems

Police encounter juveniles for many reasons related to their running away from home. Some of these issues are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed in the back of this guide. These related problems require their own analyses and responses:

Factors Contributing to Juvenile Runaways

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Why They Run: Reasons and Triggers

Runaways home and family situations suggest that the stereotype of juveniles running away to experience a carefree and rebellious lifestyle is misguided and potentially dangerous. Runaways are usually running away from a problem they do not know how to solve, rather than running to an environment they imagine to be more relaxed and exciting. Triggers for running away from home include:

  • recurrent arguments about typical parent-child issues such as autonomy, spending money, staying out late, permission to attend a party or concert, arguments with siblings, choice of friends, appearance, showing respect to parents, criminal behavior, alcohol or drug use, and school problems (truancy, suspension, grades); [22]
  • physical and sexual abuse; [23]
  • tension or rejection because of lifestyle or sexual orientation; [24]
  • efforts to avoid a difficult encounter with parents, e.g., revealing a pregnancy, reporting failing grades; [25]
  • rigid rules or expectations that do not account for normal developmental changes, punishments perceived as excessive, and authoritarian parenting styles; [26]
  • seeking fun or adventure, to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or to do something parents will not permit; [27]
  • parents inability to cope with stress, poor boundaries, failure to set limits, neglect, substance use, or depression; [28]
  • parents disharmony, arguing, and domestic violence; [29] and
  • tension with step-parent or problems adjusting to a split or blended family.[30]

In general, juveniles run away from families that tend to retreat from, rather than work through, difficult situations. Lacking other coping mechanisms or communication strategies to resolve problems, juveniles often run away when they feel they have no other option. In particular, juveniles run away when the pattern of conflict escalates, the risk of physical harm increases, or family life becomes intolerable.

The triggers underlying a runaway episode from foster care or a group home may be different from those underlying a runaway episode from home. When juveniles in care do not have strong emotional ties to their caretakers, they often find it easier to leave.[31] Juveniles run away from care to

  • return home or to their neighborhoods to spend time with friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, and family; [32]
  • get attention or provoke a reaction, to confirm that caretakers care about them and they are wanted; [33]
  • escape crowded facilities or to seek privacy; [34]
  • protest inadequate service or attention from social workers; [35]
  • protect themselves from bullying or sexual harassment by other residents; [36]
  • escape abuse by staff; and [37]
  • resist imposed limits, particularly given that many juveniles in care come from homes with few limits. [38]

Juveniles in the foster care system are often shuttled among multiple placements. These disruptions can cause juveniles to feel disempowered and detached and may lead to runaway episodes.[39] The substitute care placements culture or environment may also create an incentive to run away. Placements lacking structure and activities and those with overwhelmed staff who do not exercise their authority properly have higher rates of runaways than facilities with strong leadership, staff support, and juveniles involved in activities and setting rules.[40]

When They Run: Seasonal and Temporal Issues

Some evidence suggests that, in some communities, juveniles run away more often in the summer and during the afternoon or evening, while in other communities, there are no clear patterns with regard to season, day of the week, or time of day.[41] Local practices surrounding curfew and truancy enforcement may cause police to come into contact with runaways more often on particular days of the week or times of day.

How They Go: Methods of Departure

Most juveniles leave home or care spontaneously amid emotional or physical conflict. Their departure is generally poorly planned and impulsive, and they usually do not take any food, clothing, or money to sustain them while away. Other juveniles carefully calculate the timing of their exits, leave notes announcing their departures, and take money, food, clothing, and objects of sentimental value with them.[42] Juveniles use many modes of transportation: walking, taking the family car, organizing a ride with friends, using public transportation, or hitchhiking. Obviously, some of these involve serious risks to juveniles safety.

Discovering that a child has run away can be very emotional for parents. They may blame themselves and feel guilty, remorseful, or inadequate, or they may blame the juvenile, feel angry, and plan to punish the child.[43] Some parents are less affected by their childs departure, believing the juvenile went to a safe location and will return shortly.[44] Parents try to locate the juvenile by calling friends and relatives, searching places the juvenile frequents, or filing a missing persons report with the police.

Where They Go: Destination

Most runaways do not go far. Only about one-quarter leave the local area and few of these leave the state.[45] Juveniles who run away from care tend to travel farther and are more likely to leave the state.[46] The cities of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles attract large numbers of out-of-state runaways.[47]

Very few runaways identify the street as their initial destination when they run away from home or care. The most common intended destinations are the homes of friends or relatives. Often, parents or caretakers know where juveniles are staying.[48] Juveniles who stay away for longer periods of time tend to cycle through a series of temporary stays with friends and relatives, a practice called couch surfing. Only when these resources are exhausted do they move out to the street. Although the proportion of runaways who live outside, in a public place, or in an abandoned building is relatively small, these juveniles are often in great peril and at risk of falling prey to predatory adults, drugs, and violent crime.[49] Police are most likely to encounter these juveniles, and they are the ones who arouse the greatest concern.

Runaways image

Only about one quarter of runaways leave their
local area. Those who choose to leave tend to be
attracted to larger cities such as New York,
San Francisco and Los Angeles.

How Long They Stay: Duration

About one-fifth of runaways return within 24 hours, and, after one week, three-quarters of all runaways have returned home or to care.[50] Less than 1 percent of runaways never return. Although many absences are short, the juveniles involved are not immune to the risks faced by those who spend longer periods of time away from home, particularly if they are not staying in a safe location.

What Happens While They Are Gone: Consequences

Once juveniles have left home or care, the variety and seriousness of harms they face depend on several factors, including:

  • the juveniles level of maturity,
  • the availability of safe accommodations, and
  • the juveniles companions and associates.

Survival and safety issues are fairly minimal for the large majority of juveniles who stay with friends or relatives.[51] Over time, friends and relatives may become less willing to provide for the juveniles and the juveniles either return home or move to the street. Those living on the street face hazards that are self-imposed (substance use, consensual high-risk sexual activity), inflicted by others (victimization and exploitation), or driven by the need to obtain food, shelter, and money.

Juveniles living on the street develop survival strategies. Sometimes they access shelters or emergency care facilities; other times they are forced to settle for riskier arrangements such as staying with strangers who have apartments or living in abandoned buildings or on rooftops. Juveniles may shoplift, panhandle, steal, threaten, or use violence to get money from others.[52] Although there is no consensus on whether the practice is widespread, some juveniles also engage in survival sex, meaning they trade sex for food, shelter, drugs, or protection.[53] Sometimes, survival sex involves statutory rape, which has obvious implications for police.

Some acts of survival sex are consensual; however, some runaways living on the street are exploited by predatory adults and become involved in prostitution, pornography, and drug dealing.[54] In addition to being a precursor to running away, juveniles are often victims of physical and sexual assault while they are living on the street.[55]

Runaways living on the street jeopardize themselves by using drugs. Illegal drugs are very accessible to those on the street, who tend to use them both as social lubricants and to self-medicate.[56] Large numbers of juveniles on the street also engage in unprotected sexual activity.[57] These behaviors, coupled with the harms inflicted by others, create serious physical and mental health issues. Physical illnesses result from poor nutrition, poor hygiene, and exposure to the elements.[58] Given their high levels of intravenous drug use, shared drug paraphernalia, and high-risk sexual behaviors, juveniles on the street are vulnerable to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.[59] Finally, their stressful lives coupled with their troubled backgrounds make them susceptible to suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses.[60]

Many runaways living on the street constantly fear victimization and struggle to meet their basic survival needs. Very little is known about the experiences of runaways who do not spend time on the street. In general, runaway experiences are not all bad. Some juveniles feel independent, autonomous, and free and are relieved to escape the pressures of family conflict and school. Being away from home often provides time to think and is useful for sorting out problems. Unfortunately, running away does not improve juveniles emotional lives nor does it address the issues that made them want to leave home.[61]

How or If They Return

Most runaways eventually return to their homes, placements, or another safe alternative. Sometimes juveniles return on their own; sometimes they are located by a parent, guardian, friend, or relative and convinced to return; sometimes they are apprehended by police and brought home; and other times, their return is negotiated by runaway shelter or other social service working on their behalf. They may return with the hope of reconciling or because they are tired of their stressful life on the street.[62]

Although shelters and other social services may negotiate the juveniles return, families rarely receive the comprehensive services needed to resolve the issues causing the juveniles to flee in the first place.[63] Some juveniles do not want to return home and avoid contact with services and authority figures so they are not forced to do so. Similarly, some parents blame the juveniles for running away and do not recognize their own contributions to the problem.[64] In these situations, automatic or immediate reunification may place the juveniles at risk of continued harm.