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Responses to the Problem of Juvenile Runaways

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.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

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 Response Guide No. 3, 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.[66] 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.

Agency-Level Responses

1. Appointing a local runaway coordinator. Given the overlap in responsibility between the police department and social service providers, some state and local jurisdictions have found it helpful to appoint a runaway coordinator. The coordinator convenes interagency meetings, plans and coordinates services, manages service delivery contracts, and monitors outcomes. Although they may or may not craft formal interagency protocols, the coordinators build bridges for these agreements to evolve.
2. Collaborating with social service agencies. Although police may locate and secure the return of juveniles who have run away, collaborating with other agencies can reduce the amount of police time spent on runaways and can ensure juveniles receive appropriate services.§ A framework should be developed for each agency's 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.§§

§ 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. 

§§ 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.

3. Developing joint protocols with foster care providers and group homes. Those providing substitute care are sometimes quick to contact police when juveniles have not returned to the facility by a specified time.§§§ 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.[67] The circumstances surrounding the absences should be monitored and re-categorized as necessary.

§§§ 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). 

Linking foster care providers and group home staff with community police officers also has benefits: [68]

  • Police get to know the juveniles informally and may have more leverage in discouraging them from running away.
  • Police develop a greater appreciation for the types of problems juveniles and staff face.
  • Police respond to requests for assistance more consistently and follow up more meaningfully.
4. Cross-training staff from multiple agencies. Impacting the trajectory of runaway episodes—the triggers, the departure, the potential risks, and the return—will involve coordinated interaction between police and social service providers. This interaction should rest on mutual understanding and respect for each agency's objectives and core philosophy. Multidisciplinary training sessions help staff understand the complexity of the issue and the need for a partnership to address it. Training topics should include:§
  • Reasons why juveniles run away from home and substitute care
  • Police investigative techniques and available tools
  • Child abuse reporting laws
  • Policies surrounding confidentiality
  • Situations when secure detention may be required to protect the juveniles from harm
  • Juvenile-centered treatment philosophy and advocacy
  • Locally available resources and services
  • Procedures for interagency communication.

§ Adapted from Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Florida Department of Children & Families (2002).

5. Sharing information. Agencies must share relevant information about the juveniles, precipitating factors, associates, and companions for an effective response. Interagency agreements should specify the types of information needed to ensure the safety of juveniles who have run away and should develop procedures for efficient interagency communication.These interagency agreements can be difficult to negotiate when agency partners have different confidentiality standards.

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.

6. Assessing risk. If the primary role of police is to reduce the harm that comes to or is caused by runaways, they need a reliable way to assess the risks facing juveniles who are absent from home or substitute care. Cases should not be classified based solely on age or where the juvenile stays, but rather using a set of locally defined conditions that, when met, will trigger a priority police response. Common risk factors include:§§

§§ Refer to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2005) for a sample policy incorporating these risk factors.

  • Ages 13 and younger. Children ages 13 and younger have less sophisticated decision-making skills and cannot protect themselves from exploitation and older juveniles.[69]
  • Out of safety zone for age, physical, or mental condition. This zone will vary depending on the juveniles' characteristics. Juveniles with cognitive impairments may have difficulty communicating their needs and providing information required to access help. They are particularly at risk of exploitation.
  • Alcohol or drug dependent. Substance use compromises judgment and the ability to protect oneself from harm.
  • At risk of foul play or sexual exploitation. The risk level will depend on the types of illegal activity occurring in the community, where the juveniles are believed to be staying, and the juveniles' past experiences and maturity level.
  • Believed to be in life-threatening situation. This assessment will vary depending on the places the juveniles frequent and their experiences during past runaway episodes.
  • Absent more than 24 hours before reported to police. A delay in reporting may indicate parental neglect, but could simply be a misunderstanding of the law. Many parents believe missing persons reports require a waiting period.
  • In the company of dangerous companions. Some juveniles stay with older adults who may exploit their vulnerability; others associate with peers who use drugs or are involved in criminal activity.
  • Inconsistent with normal behavior patterns. An out-of-character departure may signal acute distress or the possibility of foul play.

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.

Specific Responses to Reduce Juvenile Runaways

The specific responses to juvenile runaways are organized according to time sequence—before 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

7. Providing prevention materials when responding to calls for service. Analyzing local call-for-service data may reveal that certain families have high levels of parent-child conflict. Responding officers can provide these families with information on conflict resolution strategies and resources for additional parent and juvenile support.§ 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.§§

§ 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.

§§ 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. See www.nrscrisisline.org and click the “Training & Prevention” link. Then click the “Runaway Prevention Curriculum” link to download the full curriculum.

Runaways image

Hotlines refer juveniles to social services to
shield them from the harms involved in living on
the street. If desired, they also help runaways
to contact their parents.

8. Using respite care. Runaway episodes are often triggered by escalating conflict at home that could be soothed if the family members were temporarily separated. Rather than using expensive detention facilities, police may transport juveniles to a respite care facility (e.g., a host home or small respite center). [70] During a short stay (a few days to a few weeks), juveniles and their parents participate in counseling to begin to resolve the source of conflict and prevent future crises. Because of the short length of stay, respite care is considerably more cost-effective than placement in other juvenile institutions.[71]

When They Run

9. Using "Missing From Care" forms. When local protocols dictate that juveniles' absences from care should be reported to police (see response No. 3 above), substitute care staff can provide police with information designed to help locate the juveniles and to highlight relevant risk factors. Relevant information includes: [72]
  • physical description
  • recent photograph
  • distinguishing marks, tattoos, or piercings
  • date and time last seen
  • suspected destination and companions
  • address of family and other known contacts
  • pertinent details from previous runaway episodes
  • other relevant risk factors.
Runaways image

Missing persons posters can help to locate juveniles.

10. Determining whether absences are voluntary or involuntary. Sometimes it is not clear whether juveniles' departures from home or care were voluntary, whether juveniles were abducted, or whether an injury prevented juveniles from returning home when expected. Some departments require police to assume juveniles are in jeopardy until they can confirm significant facts to the contrary.[73] A variety of investigation techniques can be used to determine whether voluntary departures are consistent with children's behavioral patterns.§ This classification allows police to respond to cases with an appropriate level of urgency.

§ See Simons and Willie (2000) and Steidel (2000) for detailed discussions of investigation techniques useful for making this determination. 

11. Diverting cases to a community-based organization. Following a missing persons report, police can refer parents to a program that provides support during runaway episodes and that negotiates the juveniles' return when appropriate. Using contact information provided by police, program staff initiate contact with parents. Twenty-four hour availability and free services may encourage parents to use the resource.[74] 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

12. Referring juveniles to appropriate social service providers. Police encounter juveniles who have run away from home or care under many conditions. Those living on the street are at particular risk of harm and should be encouraged to access a variety of services to address their immediate and long-term needs. Outreach efforts should inform juveniles about the range of available services, which should include:
  • Short-term shelter programs that provide safe overnight accommodations
  • Drop-in services that provide food, clothing, crisis counseling, and medical attention
  • Services that help juveniles contact their parents, if desired
  • Counseling services for special issues such as sexual orientation, pregnancy, substance abuse, and mental illness
  • Long-term counseling for family mediation and reunification
  • Independent living programs for juveniles who cannot return home.

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: [75]

  • Involving juveniles in the design and operation of programs
  • Ensuring staff honor their commitments to juveniles
  • Confronting juveniles with the consequences of running away and challenging them to take responsibility
  • Ensuring confidentiality
  • Avoiding labeling and blaming juveniles.
13. Implementing specialized patrol. Runaways who spend time on the streets are generally at higher risk of victimization and criminal involvement. Increasing the visibility of patrol in locations where juveniles congregate may deter criminal activity and also create an opportunity for police to contact and refer juveniles to services as needed.§ Specialized runaway units can also handle runaways contacted by other officers who lack the training or resources to intervene effectively.[76] Further, specialized runaway officers can coordinate with other units investigating those who exploit runaways.

§ 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 Childrens Services staff who provide transportation as needed. 

14. Providing safe locations for juveniles. Local agencies and businesses (such as fire departments, libraries, community centers, convenience stores, and restaurants) can provide a temporary safe location for runaways who want to escape the street and other dangerous situations. A quiet and secure place to make contact with local services can mitigate the harms juveniles face while on their own.§§

§§ 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.

15. Using secure placement when appropriate. In a limited number of circumstances, secure placement may be needed to protect juveniles at immediate risk of serious harm. Suicidal juveniles or those engaging in high-risk behaviors (e.g., prostitution, reckless drug use, etc.) may benefit from short-term secure placements until appropriate long-term services can be mobilized. Secure placements can be found in the juvenile justice (e.g., juvenile detention center) and mental health (e.g., hospital) systems and should be extremely time limited.

When or If They Return

16. Using transportation aides and free transportation services. Police can conserve valuable time and resources by using civilian volunteers to transport juveniles to runaway shelters and other services. These resources are most useful when volunteers are on call 24 hours a day and when multiple volunteers located throughout the jurisdiction are on call at any given time.[77] 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.

17. Referring to aftercare services as needed. Despite the likelihood that family problems triggered the runaway episode, most juveniles and families do not use any services when the juveniles return home.[78] 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.§§ Parents who receive such contacts often express relief and gratitude for the offer of help.[79]
§§ 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).
18. Interviewing juveniles upon return. Interviews with juveniles upon their return can reveal important information for addressing family problems and preventing subsequent runaway episodes. Providing juveniles opportunities to talk and to have their feelings taken seriously sets an important example for parents about including juveniles in making decisions. Most practitioners agree that police should not conduct these interviews.[80] Juveniles often do not trust authority figures, may be reluctant to disclose important facts, and are unlikely to feel that police can be impartial. Staff from local runaway programs are ideally suited to fill this role.
Sample Questions for Follow-Up Interviews with Runaways
  1. How many times have you run away? (ask for details of events, experiences, interactions, and relationships while absent from home or care)
  2. What has gone on at home that contributed to your running away?
  3. Does anyone drink or use drugs?
  4. Does anyone fight?
  5. What is a good day for the family? What is a bad day?
  6. Does anyone ever hurt you? (carefully question about physical and sexual abuse)
  7. How much control do you or other people have over the things that made you run away? (ask how predictable this type of behavior is, who is responsible for the situation, how changeable those behaviors or events are)
  8. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how safe is it for you to return home?
  9. What would have to be different for you to want to stay home? (ask if things have always been this way at home and if not, when they changed and what made them change)
  10. What would you need to do to make this change happen?
  11. What would other people have to do to make this change happen?
  12. How possible are these changes?
  13. What do you want most for yourself?
  14. What do you think you need first to get what you want?
  15. If you were in my place, what is the most important thing to say or do for a juvenile like you?

Adapted from Janus et al. (1987)

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

19. Handling cases over the telephone. An accurate assessment of the risks involved in juveniles' absences is required for a sound response. This assessment is best made in person, where access to juveniles' parents, siblings, and personal effects can help police discover the nuances of each situation.
20. Confining juveniles in secure detention facilities. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 prohibits the secure confinement of status offenders, except in extreme circumstances to ensure their safety. Not only is the routine confinement of runaways illegal, it also does not address the underlying issues and can inflame tensions between the juveniles and their families.[81] Secure detention is expensive and bed space is limited; therefore, it should be used only in response to a legitimate public or individual safety concern.
21. Forcing juveniles to return home. Given the serious family dysfunction underlying many runaway episodes, forcing juveniles to return home may place them at further risk of harm and subsequent runaway episodes. Professionals agree that reunification is realistic for only a portion of runaways.[82] Blanket policies requiring juveniles to be returned to their homes can be dangerous.§ Their absence from home is not necessarily their most serious or important problem, and an exclusive focus on reunification may conceal their real needs.[83]
§ 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). 
22. Restricting privileges upon return. Responding to a runaway episode with harsh restrictions and punishment is likely to exacerbate the problem, particularly among those who run away from substitute care placements.[84] Instead, foster care parents and group home staff should negotiate new boundaries and privileges (e.g., additional weekend home passes) that address the issues underlying the runaway episode (e.g., desire to maintain ties with biological parents).
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