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When a child leaves home, many parents take a frantic approach. Either they get in the car and start driving around everywhere trying to find them, or they get angry at what a brat their child is being and lock all the doors or throw out some of their child’s stuff. Neither approach is helpful.

The first thing you need to do is take a deep breath and calm down. I understand: it’s hard to stay calm when your baby is missing. But all the worry in the world doesn’t bring them home any faster. It merely clouds your mind and makes you miserable. Take comfort in the fact that almost all runaways eventually return home safely, and the odds of anything disastrous happening are remote. The most likely negative outcome is that your child gets into trouble while gone, but even this can be recovered from.

Calling police on a runaway and what to expect when dealing with authorities If you needed one word to describe the process of dealing with authorities in regards to a runaway child, it would be this: frustration. Police are about as helpful as a hamster and an old shoe when it comes to runaways. Many of the parents we talk to report that authorities are of little help, or worse, are actually hostile. We say this not to be discouraging, but to prepare you for what you might encounter.

As one mother reports: “When my girls were missing and I’d gone to the police, the officer I spoke to sympathized with my plight but told me it’s not against the law in Oregon to run away. He said there was nothing law enforcement could do to get my daughters home. The girls’ high school informed me the only individual liable for punishment when a child is truant is the parent.” (Dellasega, 2001, p. 134) Anoth2r mother says that when her two emotionally disturbed girls started running away, “The authorities did their best to find me at fault as a parent, accusing me of not handling discipline when they were younger.” (ibid, p. 160)

What will police do to help find a runaway?

The answer is little to nothing. Police are not going to go out searching for your child, except in cases of a younger preteen who they classify as an “endangered runaway” and consider at special risk. In most cases the most they’ll do is place the child’s name on an all-points bulletin list, so that if your child is picked up or stopped for some other reason (and gives their truthful name) they’ll show up as a runaway, in which case the officer will either bring them to the station for you to pick up or escort them back home. However, some states won’t even do this much. If you happen to live in a quiet rural town where everyone knows each other and police have little else to do, you might receive a more robust response, but you shouldn’t count on this.

So the onus is on parents to resolve the situation on their own. It’s one of those blaring gaps in government mental health and family services you’ve heard about: Authorities only become interested when a serious crime has been committed. But when it comes to dealing with troubled youth or addressing the social situations that might lead to these unfortunate outcomes, parents are largely on their own.

Reporting a runaway

  • In almost all cases a child must be missing for more than 24 hours before police will even take your report. (The only exception is if you have reason to believe your child is in imminent danger.) So don’t waste your time calling sooner, unless it’s a young child who might be in danger.

  • The possible lack of assistance on the other end doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it. After the 24 hour grace period has elapsed, call to report your child as a runaway. If they are under 18, they are still your responsibility. Reporting protects you in the event that something happens or they get into trouble while away.

  • Know that if your child is over 18 they cannot be considered a runaway just because they still live at home.

Should you go out looking for a runaway teen?
This is a personal decision on your part. Some parents need something to do and need to be out looking for the sake of their own sanity. On the other hand, this usually isn’t a very productive endeavor, and seldom accomplishes much of anything. Even if you were to find them, the drag-them-home approach seldom goes over very well, and may only exasperate your problems in the long run. So whatever parents decide in this area as right is fine for them.

Dealing with a runaway child
Just because you don’t hop in your car and go out frantically searching does not mean you should do nothing. Regardless of why your teen ran away, acting as though you don’t care isn’t going to help the situation. And you should be trying to get your child back home.

  1. start calling around to whatever friends and associates you know your child to have. Briefly explain the situation and ask if they’ve seen your child or know where she is. Tell whoever you talk to that you just want to know that she’s safe, and you aren’t going to force her to come back home nor punish her further if she does.

  1. Call your child’s school the next morning and let them know what is going on. Ask for a courtesy call if your child shows up at school or is spotted on the school grounds. You might even be able to talk to a teacher or counselor to find out who her friends are and get insights on where she might be.

  1. If you have to work, consider leaving a door unlocked or another way to get in. Many teens will sneak back in while you’re away to take a shower or otherwise recoup. Not only does this help ensure their wellbeing but it keeps them close and grounded to your home.

  1. See the additional information in where runaways go and our e-book for further information on finding a runaway teen.

Things parents SHOULDN’T do if their child runs away

  1. DO NOT turn off your child’s phone. While it may be tempting to do so as a means of leverage or punishment, this also severs one of your child’s few lifelines, and one of your only means of communicating or monitoring them.

  1. Don’t lock the doors so that they can’t come home. Many parents do this in anger, but a number of youth end up outside on the streets. Depending on the conditions outside, some teens have died from exposure to the elements when they couldn’t get back in the house. You need to leave them a lifeline.

  1. Avoid the urge to punish a child for running away should they return. It really doesn’t accomplish anything, and has a high likelihood of keeping the mood sour and creating new conflicts going forward.

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