There are two sides to every runaway: The home that they leave from and the place they end up.’ This means that for every parent looking for a lost child there’s usually another family wondering how to best handle this transient youth that has shown up at their house. Many professionals neglect this other half of the equation, but a tactful response on the part of these other adults is every bit as important as how parents themselves respond. So if you find yourself in such a position, this information is meant for you.
Harboring a runaway
If you know a child has run away from home and is hiding at your house, you should not try to conceal the fact that they are staying with you. Doing so could potentially get you in trouble with the police; everything from custody interference to potential kidnapping charges. If your child was missing, you’d want to know where they were and that they were safe. So you owe it to this kids parents to get the word out that you have their son or daughter.
Letting a runaway stay at your house
Although you shouldn’t conceal a runaway, typically the best outcome in the near term is to allow them to stay in a safe home until the conflict blows over and you can work towards a family reconciliation. Many runaways have few options, and if you try to force them back home, the child may just bolt again and end up in a much more dangerous and vulnerable position than they are right now. So it’s in the child’s best interests if you can open your home and offer them a place to stay. Obviously, it’s fully within your rights to turn them out, but we would urge you not to do so.
This child is either angry at his or her parents or wanting to punish them (in which case they’ll tire of this charade and return home within a few days), or they are legitimately at risk and could use your help. Everyone is always lamenting the social problems in our society, but few people are willing to lift a finger to actually help those who need it. Here’s your chance. Through either family ties or your child’s circle of friends, this troubled youth has landed on your doorstep. Respond in a caring way and it may help her get her life under control. Reject her and it may be the point at which her life spirals out of control, and we’ll all be paying for it indirectly later on if this teen heads down the wrong path. This is a perfect example of how it really does take a village to raise a child.
If you are unwilling to let this teen stay at your home, you should call the police to come pick her up. If you’re willing to open up your home and let them stay, you should do the following:
Talking to the runaway teen
Sit down and talk with this teen about why they ran away and a little bit about what their plans are. Keep in mind that you’re going to get a heavily biased, heavily edited version of what is going on at home. So if a teen tells you her mother is a horrible and cruel witch who abuses them every night, listen and empathize, but don’t take their report at face value. It may very well be that a teen is being mistreated or has addicted parents, but stories of maltreatment also come from teens who are mad at their parents for taking away their phone or not letting them throw a party. You need to reserve judgment, and even if a runaway’s parents are abusive or neglectful, finger pointing or condemning the parents only makes a bad situation much worse. Your job is to help the family reunite if at all possible, not create further division.
Second, let them know that they are welcome to stay, and that you’d prefer they stay here rather than be out on the street. But also let them know that you’re not comfortable hiding them. So explain that you need to get in touch with their parents and let them know you’re safe. Tell them the same thing you plan on telling their parents: That you’re not going to force them back home, but that you’re not going to harbor a fugitive, either.
You should also lay out a few ground rules; such as no drugs in the home, you expect them to attend school (if they’re enrolled), and any other house rules you want them to follow. Most runaway youth are typical teens struggling with family issues, not druggies, psychopaths, or budding delinquents. So you don’t need to approach them as such. But make it clear that you expect them to conduct themselves responsibly.
Contacting the parent
After touching bases with the teen, call the parent and….
Let them know where their child is and that they’re safe.
Explain that you’re not going to interfere and will work to reconcile things and get the teen home again, but that it might be best for them to stay there for as long as is needed for things to settle down.
That it’s better for them to be in a safe home where everybody knows where they’re at than to force them home only to have them run away again and end up on the street.
Let the other parent know you’re fine with the teen staying there until this conflict blows over.
Ask if there’s anything the youth needs (School supplies, change of clothes, etc.), and offer to either pick it up or have them drop it off.
Exchange contact numbers and promise to keep them informed.
Assuming this all goes well; continue to monitor the situation while gently pushing the teen to return home. Of course, there’s the chance the parent will react in a hostile manner and get in their car to drive over to your house to pick up their teen. If this happens, or if the teen decides to bolt in the meantime, don’t interfere. You should be a neutral facilitator, not trying to police teh teen and not interfering with the parent.
Contacting the police about a runaway
If for any reason you aren’t able to reach the parent, you should call the police. Let them know that this friend of your child showed up at your home, and that you suspect they might be a runaway. Explain that you’re perfectly happy letting them stay, but that you wanted to make sure someone knew where they are in case someone was looking for them. The police mayor may not send somebody over, and they mayor may not have social services drop by with a temporary custody agreement for you to sign.
What to do if a parent doesn’t want their kid back
What if you call a parent and encounter a mother or father who has no interest in seeing their child return home? Sadly, it happens, and more often than you might think. This puts you in a tough position and leaves you with two choices: You can either accept this new charge as one of your own or turn them over to the authorities.
I’ll be blunt: Turning them over to the authorities is going to be rough on this youth. CPS is nothing more than government sponsored child abuse, and foster care a horrible and traumatic experience for any child. Especially if a youth is already on the edge, CPS intervention and pal cement into foster care or, more likely for teens, some sort of youth facility or group home, is often the knock-out blow that turns an at-risk youth into a permanently damaged and irretrievable one. There’s a good chance they’ll run away from such an arrangement and end up right back on the streets again.
It’s not fair that the other parent(s) put you in this position, but that’s how the cookies sometimes crumble. If you don’t want the burden of looking after this teen, that’s certainly understandable. But if you have the capacity to act as their savior and give them a home, that’s certainly less traumatic for them than the alternative.
My advice would be to wait a few weeks and see what happens. Parents often say things in the heat of the moment that they really don’t mean, and because I’ve learned over the years how horrifically damaging and utterly incompetent state interventions actually are, I see them as something to be avoided at all costs. So long as you’ve contacted the parent, you should have your legal bases covered; no different than having a child on a weekend sleepover. After several weeks give the parent another call and touch bases again. If they still express no interest, you’ve got a decision to make.
Many families choose to let the runaway stay in an informal capacity and simply informally adopt them without telling anyone about it. This way you don’t have to deal with any authorities, but you may run into snags later on with the school or if the child gets sick. The proper option is to call the police again and explain the situation. They will send over a social services worker. In almost every case the social worker will take the easiest option, which is to have you fill out paperwork to accept legal custody and become the child’s foster parent (assuming you’re willing). So long as there are no axe murderers in your household, it’s easier just to make you the foster parent than to try and find other placement for a teenager. This keeps them out of the system, and they are likely to remain under your care until they “age out” at 18. And in case you are wondering, you are not locked into this commitment if for some reason things turn sour. A call to social services could get the teen moved to another foster home; a process that is unfortunately all too common. (Some kids are shuffled off to a new foster home every few weeks because of behavioral issues, which of course, only worsens their behavioral issues.) So it’s not as though you’re taking on a responsibility that you can’t back out of later.