Often children leave to escape a volatile and/or abusive home life. Once on the streets, they often face a myriad of other serious circumstances. As time passes, they may resort to prostitution or drug dealing to get by. Drug abuse is common among runaway children.
Common Characteristics of Runaways
For all children, adolescence is a stressful time of dramatic physical changes, peer pressure and an emerging identity. Those with parental support are usually able to successfully navigate this period, but without it, emotions can overwhelm a child to the point that he or she believes that leaving will bring relief.
Some feel that leaving home is the only way to escape a situation in which there is frequent fighting or where they feel unwanted. A great many are fleeing situations that are physically, sexually and/or emotionally abusive. Some children run away because they’re in trouble with the law and afraid their parents will find out.
Runaway children may be gone for one or two nights or an indefinite period. Children most often leave home during the summer months. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, most runaways stay with a friend or relative.
Repeat Runaway Children
The frequency with which a child runs away from home is significant. Those who take flight one or two times are more likely to leave in search of adventure or for reasons other than severe mistreatment.
Repeat runaways are more apt to have been abused at home, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Four out of every 10 runaway children leave home at least three times.
Autistic Runaway Children
Some profoundly autistic children may run away from home, whether it's an abusive or loving environment. To prevent these children from leaving the house by themselves, parents should first install difficult-to-reach locks and deadbolts. Other ideas include putting a temporary tattoo on the child that lists the parents’ contact information.
Steps for Locating Runaway Children
Federal law requires police to immediately take a report on any missing person under the age of 18, rather than wait 24 hours. If the child is under 13 or mentally or physically disabled, he or she is classified as a “critical missing person” and location efforts begin right away.
The Amber Alert, a nationwide emergency system, is only used for children who’ve been abducted or who are in life-threatening situations.
Parents may not initially know if a child has run away or been abducted. Regardless, they should take the following actions at once:
- Call 9-1-1 right away and get the name and badge number of the officer on the phone.
- Alert everyone the child knows, ask them to help, and find out if any friends are also missing.
- Call the Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY.
Support for Runaway Children
There are emergency shelters for runaways, like the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. The FYSB’s basic center programs, located in every state, can house 20 children for up to 15 days. The primary goal is to reunite the child with the family, when advisable.
Transitional Living, also offered by the FYSB, can house and support young people ages 16-21 for as long as 18 months while helping them become independent.
Runaways who end up on the street can get help from the Street Outreach Program, which provides crisis intervention, counseling and other services.
Reunions with Runaway Children
When parents find their runaway child or when the child returns on his or her own, it’s important not to overreact. Experts say expressing love and gratitude is much better than berating a child for running away.
The child should be given some time to rest and relax before being grilled about the details of his or her absence. Parents should listen to the child and let him or her do the talking. Professional counseling is advised for families whose child has run away and returned.
Parents should also notify all law enforcement agencies that the child is no longer missing.
Related Runaway Children Resources
About.com Alcoholism: Drug Abuse Information  About.com Autism: Safety and the Autistic Runaway  About.com Health Topics A-Z: Stress in Childhood  About.com Pediatrics: Child Abuse Facts for Parents  About.com Pediatrics: Counseling - Child and Family Counseling  About.com Pediatrics: Important Phone Numbers and Hotlines  About.com Special Needs Children: Runaway Boy with Asperger's Drives Dad to Airport  About.com Teens: An Overview of the Lifestage Called Adolescence  About.com Teens: Tips on Teaching Your Teen How to Deal with Stress  About.com Teen Advice: Resources for Runaways  About.com U.S. Government Info: AMBER Alert Act Passes U.S. Senate  About.com Women’s Issues: Prostitution, Pornography and the Sex Trade  At-Risk.org: Running Away  Autism Risk Management: Runaways  Crisis Counseling: Statistics  Family Lobby: When Children Run Away  Focus Adolescent Services: Runaways and Missing Children  KidsPeace (The National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis: Official Website  National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Official Website  National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: What To Do If Your Child Is Missing  National Runaway Switchboard: Official Website  New York State: Runaways  Runaway Teens.org: Overall Runaway Statistics  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Fact Sheet: Basic Center Program  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Fact Sheet: Street Outreach Program  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Fact Sheet: Transitional Living Program for Older Homeless Youth  University of Florida IFSA Extension: Missing Children: Incidences and Characteristics of Runaway Children and Resources Available to Them  Youth Crisis Hotline: Contact Information