Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.
The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.
Although more likely to focus on minimizing the harms that come to or are caused by runaways while they are absent from home, police can also be effective advocates in efforts to address the reasons juveniles run away (e.g., physical and sexual abuse) and to improve the quality of services designed to respond to juveniles upon their return (e.g., family mediation and preservation). Most researchers and practitioners agree that social service providers, rather than police, are primarily responsible for addressing this issue. Therefore, part of the police response may be to shift responsibility to other agencies better equipped to render services to runaways and their families.†
Refer to Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems for more information.
That said, police have a legitimate role in locating juveniles reported missing and in ensuring runaways safety when they spend time on the street. Police receive missing persons reports from parents, foster care providers, and group home staff. Further, their 24-hour street presence means they are most likely to encounter runaways, whether reported missing or not. Police should partner with other agencies to address the issue effectively, and a variety of agency-level responses will be required.
The Phoenix Police Department and the Tumbleweed Center initiated an outreach program designed to reduce police time spent managing runaways and to provide immediate and long-term assistance to runaways. When police come in contact with runaways, they connect with Tumbleweed staff using a crisis line, pager, or special police radio call received by staff monitoring the radio channel. Tumbleweed staff meet juveniles at the precinct and provide emergency shelter, transportation home, and follow-up services with the family. See http://www.tumbleweed.org and Posner (1994) for more information.
A framework should be developed for each agencys response to reported runaway episodes, along with procedures for assisting runaways who are identified through other means. Such collaborations have helped jurisdictions comply with federal mandates prohibiting the secure detention of status offenders. Involving social service agencies in returning juveniles to their homes or placements can also defuse potentially volatile domestic situations. †
See Posner (1994) for a more complete discussion of the many forms, benefits, and considerations for police—social service collaborations.
These agreements should be formalized into memorandums of understanding between police and social service agencies. In addition to specific protocols for transporting youth and providing services, these agreements can also create specific protections for confidentiality and privacy, when appropriate. Formalizing these agreements will also promote sustainability so the interagency relationships and protocols are not dependent on the individuals who created them.
† Through an analysis of calls-for-service data, the Fresno Police Department found that 40 substitute care providers made a total of 1,024 calls in a single year. Five providers were responsible for 50 percent of the calls. Joint protocols and training from centers who manage juveniles’ absences without police contact were employed to reduce the high utilization rates of the five providers (Fresno Police Department 1996).
Many times, juveniles are simply late, rather than missing. Further, staff may not assess juveniles level of risk before identifying the event as an emergency. To avoid overwhelming police resources, some jurisdictions use protocols specifying a threshold for police contact when juveniles do not return to the facility as expected (e.g., call police only after midnight, only when juveniles have left the center without permission, or only after staff have failed to locate the juveniles). The protocol should categorize the various types of absences and state required procedures for each situation. The circumstances surrounding the absences should be monitored and re-categorized as necessary.
Linking foster care providers and group home staff with community police officers also has benefits: 
† Adapted from Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Florida Department of Children & Families (2002).
Parents are important partners in information sharing. They have the right to access information that agency staff may not be able to obtain. Some jurisdictions obtain parents written consent to access records from schools, social services, and other agencies.†
† Takas and Bass (1996) provide a sample parental consent form that features clear, simple language and specifies the types of records police may use. Police should work with local agencies to ensure the form meets their requirements for accessing information. Guidelines for approaching agency staff to request information are also provided.
Refer to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2005) for a sample policy incorporating these risk factors.
Classifying juveniles accordingly enables police to focus their resources on those juveniles at highest risk of being harmed and those most likely to commit crime while absent from home or care. Agreement from local partners about the types of cases to which police will dedicate resources also helps to promote a positive police image.
The specific responses to juvenile runaways are organized according to time sequencebefore the juveniles run away, when the juveniles depart home or care, while the juveniles are absent, and when or if the juveniles return. Many things can be done to address the reasons juveniles run away from home or care, such as offering support and guidance to parents and improving the quality of institutional care. A vast research base details the variety of family counseling, case management, and social work strategies that are effective in preventing runaway episodes, assisting juveniles and families with underlying dysfunction, and easing conflict upon return. These social service-based strategies are not reviewed at length here because police will have little direct involvement in such things.
Before They Run
† See National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2004), New York State, Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse (2001) for examples of brochures that police could offer when responding to calls for service or to a missing person report. See http://www.ontario.childfind.ca for an additional example. Click “Programs & Services” and then click the “Teen Runaway Prevention Program” link.
Referrals should include parent support services, advice and counseling programs and school-based support for juveniles, and family preservation and mediation services. The officer who responds to missing persons reports can provide similar information, along with guidance to help parents locate their children. Police efforts to generate awareness can be supplemented by school-based information campaigns designed to reach the larger audience of families whose children may run away but for whom police contact is not initiated.†
† The National Runaway Switchboard has developed a prevention curriculum for use in schools that covers coping strategies and a frank discussion of the risks juveniles commonly face when they run away.
When They Run
A variety of investigation techniques can be used to determine whether voluntary departures are consistent with childrens behavioral patterns.†
This classification allows police to respond to cases with an appropriate level of urgency.
Similarly, when runaways are apprehended, police can escort the juveniles to the program facility and notify the parents. Program staff receive the juveniles, await the parents arrival, and negotiate the return and follow-up care, allowing police to return to duty.
While They Are Absent From Home or Care
Juveniles who have run away from home or care often do not trust adults and authority figures and are easily deterred from seeking the services they need. Therefore, program credibility is essential and can be enhanced by: 
† The Port Authority Police’s Youth Services Unit patrols New York City’s bus terminal in search of runaways traveling by bus (Elique 1984). The team includes a plainclothes officer is supported by a uniformed officer and a social worker who connect juveniles with a variety of services operated by social services and community-based organizations. In 2004, the Youth Services Unit made over 4,500 contacts with juveniles found loitering in the bus terminal, 225 of whom were determined to be runaways (Port Authority Youth Services Unit 2004). Rather than tying up police time to transport the juvenile, the Youth Services Unit works in cooperation with Children’s Services staff who provide transportation as needed.
Specialized runaway units can also handle runaways contacted by other officers who lack the training or resources to intervene effectively. Further, specialized runaway officers can coordinate with other units investigating those who exploit runaways.
† The YMCA’s Project Safe Place is a national network of businesses and agencies committed to providing a comfortable and secure place for juveniles to make contact with runaway service providers. Juveniles walk into a location displaying the “ Safe Place” logo and are immediately put in contact with Safe Place volunteers who come to the location and help juveniles plan their next steps. Nearly 14,000 Safe Place locations nationwide have provided services to nearly 80,000 juveniles since 1983. See http://www.safeplaceservices.org/index.shtml for more information.
When or If They Return
A few national airlines and bus companies offer free tickets to runaways from out of state who want to return home but cannot afford to do so.†
Greyhound’s Home Free program operates in partnership with the National Runaway Switchboard. Juveniles access the services by calling the toll-free switchboard, where staff coordinate issuing the ticket.
When police transport juveniles home or back to care, active referrals for follow-up services can help to resolve family problems and prevent subsequent runaway episodes. Rather than depending on the families to initiate contact, police can submit families names to a local service provider who makes contact with families and offers services.
† The Alternative Solutions to Running Away (ASTRA) program operates in partnership with Gloucestershire, U.K. police, who refer families who made missing persons reports to the local program provider. The goal of the program is to reduce the incidence of repeat runaway episodes, which is accomplished by providing confidential, individual support to juveniles upon their return home and creating an action plan to help resolve the underlying problems (Great Britain , Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 2002).
Parents who receive such contacts often express relief and gratitude for the offer of help.
Does anyone drink or use drugs?
Does anyone fight?
What is a good day for the family? What is a bad day?
Does anyone ever hurt you? (carefully question about physical and sexual abuse)
Adapted from Janus et al. (1987)
† Connecticut state law requires police to confer with a juvenile before informing parents or guardians of the juvenile’s location. Police can transport a juvenile home only with his or her permission (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2003).
Their absence from home is not necessarily their most serious or important problem, and an exclusive focus on reunification may conceal their real needs.
You may order free bound copies in any of three ways:
Phone: 800-421-6770 or 202-307-1480
Allow several days for delivery.
Send an e-mail with a link to this guide.
Error sending email. Please review your enteries below.