Missing Persons Clearinghouse
1-800-FIND-KID (1-800-346-3543)

Runaway Children

Introduction

The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) estimated 1,682,900 youth had a runaway or throwaway episode during 1999. Fortunately, NISMART also found that 77% of all runaways return home within a week.

It is often assumed that runaways are not at significant risk away from home. To the contrary, NISMART found that many runaways engage in criminal activity; associate with a "violent" person; use hard drugs (or associate with someone known to be abusing drugs); or are sexually assaulted or engage in sexual activity (for money, drugs, food or shelter) during the course of the "episode".

The purpose of this segment is to acquaint you with signs that a child may be thinking about running away and to provide guidance if your child runs away.

Picture of numerous highway route signs

Signs that a child might be thinking about or preparing to runaway

Changes in behaviors or patterns

Children may suddenly:

  • Stop eating or begin to overeat;
  • Sleep all of the time or never sleep;
  • Spend all of their time with friends or become isolated from family members and friends;
  • Change friends;
  • Never want to leave their room; or
  • Become involved with untraditional religious groups or cults.

Rebellious behavior

Rebellious behavior may include dropping grades, truancy, breaking rules at home and/or school or being unusually argumentative.

Disclosure

Some teens will hint that they want to run away. Others will outright threaten their family with running. Sometimes a family will hear rumors through friends, school or other parents that their child is thinking about leaving home.

Accumulation of money and possessions

To survive, runaways need money and resources. Some runaways prepare by slowly withdrawing funds from a savings or checking account. Keeping a bag or backpack of clothes in a closet might also mean that they are preparing to run.

It is very important for you to confront suspicions immediately. Reveal your genuine concern, not anger or fear. Take time to discuss your child's viewpoint.

Initial action

If you are certain that the child ran away and was not abducted:

  • Check with your child's friends, neighbors, relatives, school staff, employer/co-workers (if applicable) and anyone else who may know his or her whereabouts. Ask them to notify you immediately if they hear from the child.
  • Check locations that your child tends to frequent.
  • If you are not living together, contact the child's other parent to determine if he or she has any information.
  • Check the child's room, child's school locker and desk for clues regarding where he or she may have gone and with whom (e.g., notes, letters, maps).
  • Determine if possessions are missing (e.g., clothing, pictures, money). If the child has access to checking or savings accounts, determine if, when and where withdrawals have been made.
  • Check past telephone bills for unusual long-distance calls.
  • Review information stored on computers and disks. Pay close attention to e-mail, chat and instant messaging activity.
  • Check area hospitals and transportation terminals.
  • Notify a law enforcement agency and provide them with available details, including:
    • Biographical information and photographs.
    • Names of friends, relatives and acquaintances.
    • Locations which your child tends to frequent.
    • Suspected destinations and accomplices.
    • Prior disappearances and outcomes.
  • Ensure that the law enforcement agency handling the case enters your child's name and biographical information into the DCJS and National Crime Information Center computer network. New York State and Federal Laws require law enforcement agencies to do this immediately.
  • Contact the NYS DCJS Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse for assistance.
  • Keep a detailed list of people and agencies that you have contacted and steps that you have taken. Logging these events lessens duplication of efforts.
  • If the child has run away before, contact the person that he or she was with during the previous episode. Also, check the location(s) where he or she stayed during that previous episode.

Follow-up action

National Runaway Switchboard Logo
  • Call local runaway hotlines and the National Runaway Safeline (1-800-runaway / 1-800-786-2929). Ask if you child has left any messages.
  • Contact runaway shelters in any areas where you suspect that your child may be.
  • Remain in contact with the law enforcement agency handling the case. Report any information to assigned officers as soon as possible.
  • Continue to contact neighbors and your child's friends to determine if they have any pertinent information.
  • Obtain "caller ID" to determine the origin of incoming telephone calls. If your child or anyone calls collect, ask the operator for "time and charges" before you accept the call. Stay on the line after conversation has concluded.
  • If your child does call, strive to keep lines of communication open with your child - avoid being judgmental. Provide your child with the National Runaway Switchboard telephone number if he or she is not ready to return home. They can also arrange for shelter and transportation home.

When your child returns home

  • Promptly notify all involved in the search that the child has returned home.
  • Show genuine love and concern for his or her safety - not anger or fear.
  • Take time to discuss your child's viewpoint.
  • Try to determine what, within or outside of the family caused the episode.
  • Make every effort to resolve the problems in or outside of your family that contributed to the child leaving in the first place.
  • If family problems persist, seek advice or assistance from a family counselor.
  • If circumstances warrant, take the child for a complete medical exam, including testing for sexually transmitted diseases.