This article was printed in the Missing Children’s Bulletin in 1987. Missing Children's Bulletin was a small-print publication of a Missing Child Organization called I-Search. It was written by Jan Stanton, and many of the issues it raises are still going on today. Of course, in this day and age, we have learned more about the role that mental health, learning disabilities, and bullying (especially of LGBT youth) have on runaway behavior. Still, the problem space – and the shortfalls of the solution space seem to have moved little.
We still struggle with stereotyping of runaway youth and their families, which gets in the way of the individual solution needed to effectively address the problem. We still struggle with a lack of coordination of services that allows children and families to fall through the cracks.
We still have a problem with the needs of runaway youth not being enough of a social, justice system, and funding priority. We still have elements of the youth culture that encourage and glorify running away as a means to independence and self-determination.
Pass it On: Safety Tips for Professionals
by Jan Stanton
“Chronic or habitual runaways many times are children who are searching for solutions to their problems. They are knowledgeable about the system and they realize that it hasn’t worked for them. We must address the problems of the runaway, as well as those of the professionals who work with them, and the problems within the system itself.
This “system” may include law enforcement, youth service agencies, mental health agencies, rape crisis centers and criminal justice professionals. These agencies, within the overall system, must work together to provide intervention, referral and resources for the chronic runner.
Since law enforcement officers are not generally councilors, they must refer the youth to an appropriate agency during initial intervention. For follow-up and/or return of the youth, law enforcement’s role needs to include an in-depth interview with the youth concerning causation and details surrounding their runaway experiences.
Professionals working with runaways need to understand the dynamics and characteristics of these youths. This understanding may enable them to assist the youth in breaking their cycle of running and perhaps their cycle of victimization. For some chronic runners, reasons for running are extremely complex, and depend on how youth perceive themselves and the world around them. Some perceive their runaway episode as a step toward independence. They feel that others, especially parents, control what is happening to them. They believe parents should change, and if such changes do not take place, they are disappointed. Chronic runaways will continue to hope that their lives will improve. When they don’t, they will run again.
Runaway skills are learned, and most youths do not automatically know how to run away from home or where to go. This learning may take place through a series of social encounters which may be positive or negative. Running away demands a great deal of experimentation, taking chances and involvement on the part of the youth. Peers are often a part of those experiments as well as a critical support network for approval or discouragement of continual absences. After repeated episodes, youths may be influenced by those who may become their exploiters, thus adding to their already troubled environment.
When examining the chronic runner, parents, case workers, law enforcement officials and youth advocates must draw careful distinctions between those young people who are totally assertive and committed to a new way of living, and young people who are delinquent, troubled, or are seeking help. Young people who are testing the social boundaries on behalf of growing independence are distinctly different from young people who are bored, deprived, abused, or emotionally confused.
Given the expanded focus on runaways in today’s society, helping professionals must take a closer look at the growing problem of the chronic runner. Upon returning home or to shelters, it is essential that a broader range of services be made available for children and parents. Young people and their parents must be given the opportunity to examine the problems that have led to the runaway episodes and explore other choices.
“To remain optimistic about the future of our nation’s youth, we just confront the many reasons underlying runaway behavior. The answer seems straightforward: there are often inadequacies in the home, the school, and the community. The youth must still be held accountable, however. But the difficult question remains: How do we develop reasonable accountability in both?” (Robbie Callaway, Director of Governmental/United Way Relations, Boy’s Clubs of America).These system-kids who are lost in bureaucratic mazes, underfunded services and unheeding communities need our attention. Professionals who spend time working with these youth have felt our adult failures, have watched the youths struggle and have seen many succeed. The Potential is there – both for youth and for the professional. Won’t you use your skills and PASS IT ON.”