Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of juvenile runaways and runaway episodes. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of juvenile runaways, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later. Most research on juvenile runaways is based on information reported by juveniles; very few studies examine parents' or caretakers' perspectives.[65] Both perspectives are needed to understand the local problem's dynamics, the available resources and barriers to using them, and the types of police responses most likely to impact the problem.

Many police contacts with runaways are not recorded systematically because they do not involve criminal behavior or are considered too minor. Unfortunately, information from these contacts is needed to craft effective responses. As a result, you should first determine what types of records are being kept and, if needed, develop additional procedures to capture the information needed to fully understand the interactions among police, runaways, and their parents or caretakers. Engaging social service partners in information gathering can help to mediate any negative reaction to police questioning. Further, many runaways never encounter police, so you will need to collaborate with local social service providers and schools to answer many of the analysis questions. Although police will be directly involved with only a segment of the runaway population, complete information is required to develop a comprehensive array of responses.

Juveniles Who Run Away

  • How many runaway episodes were reported to police in the past year? How many weren't? Why weren't they?
  • Aside from investigating missing persons reports, how do police come in contact with runaways? How many juveniles are contacted by each method?
  • What are the characteristics of juveniles who run away from home and care? How old are they? (There are important differences in maturity and independent living skills of juveniles ages 14 and younger, ages 15 and 16, and those ages 17 and older.) What race or ethnicity are the juveniles? What gender are they?
  • What reasons do juveniles offer for running away?
  • How many juveniles have run away multiple times?
  • What prior contacts have police had with runaways, either as crime victims or suspects?

Parents

  • What are the demographic and social characteristics of parents who report their child's runaway episode to police?
  • What types of assistance do they expect police to provide? What other types of assistance (e.g., social services) are requested?
  • What strategies do parents use to locate their children?
  • How many of the missing persons reports are for repeat runaway episodes?
  • What prior contacts have police had with parents of runaways?

Foster Parents/Facility Staff

  • What proportion of runaway episodes is reported by substitute caretakers (e.g., foster parents, group home staff, etc.)?
  • Are the reports evenly distributed across the various homes or facilities in the area, or do certain ones account for a larger share of missing persons reports?
  • What are the homes' and facilities' policies for reporting juveniles who go missing?
  • What prior contacts, related to runaways, have police had with foster parents or juvenile facility staff?

Runaway Episodes

  • How far do runaways travel from home or care?
  • Do they have an intended destination when they depart? What is it? Do they go there?
  • What modes of transportation do runaways use?
  • What proportion stays at the homes of friends or relatives?
  • What proportion stays on the street? In what locations do they congregate? Do they try to avoid contact with adults?
  • What times of the day, days of the week, or season are runaway episodes most likely to occur? Are there any peaks in police contacts?
  • What kinds of experiences do runaways have? What are the key sources of danger?
  • How do pimps or drug dealers approach juveniles living on the street? How can juveniles safely decline their offers to be involved?
  • What proportion of runaways use illicit drugs? Which drugs? What purpose does their substance use appear to serve?
  • Are runaways involved in selling drugs?
  • What proportion of runaways is sexually active? Do they practice safer sex? If not, why not?

Offending

  • What degree of involvement do runaways have in criminal behavior? What types of offenses do they commit?
  • How many runaways are arrested? For what types of offenses?
  • What reasons do juveniles give for their involvement in criminal behavior?
  • What time of the day or day of the week are runaways most likely to commit crime?
  • Are any businesses adversely affected by runaways?

Victimization

  • To what extent are runaways crime victims while absent from home or care? How many are victims of property crime? How many are victims of violent crime?
  • Who are the perpetrators?
  • When and where do these victimizations occur?
  • Are the runaways alone or in groups when victimized?
  • Are there any locations that juveniles consider to be particularly dangerous?

Return

  • What proportion of runaways is willing to return home or to care?
  • What needs to happen for them to agree to return home?
  • If they do not want to return home, what kinds of alternative arrangements do they prefer?
  • What proportion of parents is not willing to allow their children to return home?
  • For what proportion of juveniles is returning home a risk of harm?
  • Of the juveniles who return home, how long were they absent?
  • How did they return (e.g., returned on their own, escorted by police or other adults, etc.)? Was their return voluntary?
  • What proportion of runaways report being punished upon their return?

Current Responses

  • What is the police department's current policy for dealing with runaways? Are runaways ever held in secure detention facilities?
  • What are the procedures for taking reports, attempting to locate runaways, and following up upon return?
  • Once located by police, are juveniles permitted to refuse to return home?
  • Other than taking juveniles into custody, how do police respond to runaways? Are any of these responses particularly effective?
  • What social services are available to runaways? What role do police have in linking juveniles and families with these services?
  • How many runaways use services designed to protect them from harm while on the street (e.g., outreach, shelters, etc.)? Which services? What are the barriers to access? Do juveniles think the services are credible?
  • How many runaways use services designed to resolve the underlying family and personal conflicts that led to running away (e.g., counseling, family mediation or reunification services)? Which services? What are the barriers to access? Do juveniles think the services are credible?
  • How satisfied are juveniles with the police response? What would they like police to do differently?
  • How satisfied are parents with the police response? What would they like police to do differently?
  • How satisfied are social service providers with the police response? What would they like police to do differently?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The problem of juvenile runaways is unlike other problems confronting police because the behavior indicates complex family troubles. Making a measurable impact on these underlying causes will require interventions that go far beyond those implemented by police. Police responses are unlikely to impact the underlying causes and instead are likely to focus on mitigating the harm that comes to or is caused by runaways while they are absent from home or care. Police are also likely to seek to shift responsibility for addressing the problem to social service agencies that are better equipped to offer such assistance.

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to juveniles who have run away from home or substitute care. You can use the following "outcome" measures to determine the impact of the responses on the level of the problem:

  • reduced number of juveniles who run away from home or care;
  • reduced number of repeat runaway episodes reported by parents or caretakers;
  • increased number of runaways staying in safe locations (e.g., home of a friend or relative);
  • reduced number of runaways staying in dangerous locations (e.g., streets, abandoned buildings);
  • increased number of runaways accessing crisis services designed to reduce the harms associated with living on the street (e.g., shelters);
  • decreased number of runaways who report being victimized while absent from home;
  • decreased number of runaways involved in criminal activity while absent from home;
  • decreased number of runaways admitted to secure detention facilities; and
  • increased number of juveniles successfully reunited with parents or caretakers or increased number of juveniles placed in safe alternative living arrangements.

You can use the following “process” measures to identify the extent to which selected responses have been implemented as designed:

  • increased number of families who have participated in support or mediation to prevent runaway episodes;
  • increased number of juveniles using hotlines and other counseling resources instead of running away;
  • reduced number of runaway episodes reported to police by parents or caretakers (increased reports may be a positive indicator initially if you determine that parents have been reluctant to report episodes in which their children are at risk of harm);
  • decreased number of inappropriate missing persons reports from foster care homes or group homes;
  • reduced number of police hours spent processing or transporting runaways once they are located; and
  • increased number of juveniles who receive follow-up services after they return from a runaway episode.