Just A Runaway

By Karla Vanatta

runaway

Just a Runaway

Story by Karla Vanatta

The other day I was discussing a missing persons case with a lady and we got on the subject of runaways. Often missing teenagers are perceived as runaways, whether that be from past behavior, clues that they willingly left, or just due to the fact that they are a teenager. The truth is, most missing children are runaways.

MISSING STATS

In 2016 NCMEC assisted law enforcement and families with more than 20,500 cases of missing children.
Case type:
90 percent endangered runaways.
6 percent family abductions.
1 percent lost, injured or otherwise missing children.
1 percent nonfamily abductions.
2 percent critically missing young adults, ages 18 to 20.
Stats from NCM&EC 

There are some clues that can point to someone being a runaway. Some of those might include the fact that they told someone they were going to runaway, they are still getting on various social media sites, they took items with them such as their phone, purse or wallet, tablet, clothes, make-up and other items they may use on a daily basis. Other indicators could be that they left a note saying they were running away. Then of course, you have the one that most people use, which is their past behavior.
If a child ran away in the past and made it home safely, it is almost an automatic, across the board assumption that they ran away again if they go missing an additional time. Even present behavior such as mood swings, fighting with parents, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or getting into some sort of trouble, can lead people to assume the child is a runaway. In reality they are still a missing child but people often view them in a “kid who cried wolf” scenario. Should we just not look for them because they brought this on themselves due to past behavior? Should we just assume they will eventually come home and wait them out?

I have heard people say that they do not bother looking for runaways because those kids don’t deserve to have people waste their time on them. People get angry because they say that runaways waste law enforcement time and money, valuable resources in their eyes. But what about the value of the child’s life? You know who sees the value in a runaways life? Pimps and sex traffickers do. Child molesters, rapist and kidnappers do. They know they can use the child anyway they want and even sell them to others to use for their own dark and twisted desires.

Founder and president of Grey Castle Haven, Shanna Poteet said, “Most runaways are stigmatized and called brats when the fact is they need help. When you ignore a runaway, you are gambling with their lives because the longer they stay gone, the more likely they are to fall victim to a predator.”

Often times when people assume the child ran away, they have this fairy-tale view in their mind that the child has a warm, safe place to go to. Somewhere with friends that open their homes to them and welcome them in with loving arms. A place to get a nice warm meal and just escape from whatever stress they may have been dealing with at the time. Some people may even understand that most runaways will end up hungry, dirty and afraid, sleeping in a dark alley somewhere next to drug dealers, rapist, and sometimes even murderers.

According to Trent Steele, who is the President and Chairman of Anti-Predator Project , “On average a child will be approached by sex traffickers or solicited for sex within about 72 hours of being on the street.”

Does the child deserve any consequence they get because of the bad choice they made? The answer is no, but if you thought, “yes” as you read that question, please consider the following: The National Runaway Safeline states that 1.6-2.8 million youth runaway each year in the United States, including children as young as 10 years old.  In addition, according to the National Runaway Safeline, children runaway because:

47% of runaway youth report conflict between them and a parent/guardian in the home.
Over 50% of youth in shelters or on the streets reported that their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving but did not care
80% of runaway & homeless girls reported having been sexually or physically abused.
34% of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported sexual abuse before leaving home.
43% of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported physical abuse before leaving home.
Stats from PollyKlaas.org

When a child does runaway, they find it hard to get their basic needs met, such as food, shelter, hygiene and safety. They have no advocate for them. These circumstances lead them to become very vulnerable to predators. According to Trent Steele, “Traffickers look for people who are easy to manipulate and control so kids on the street that need food and shelter, that come from broken homes, are perfect targets. Because they need a way to get food and shelter, they are more vulnerable and easier to manipulate. Often times by the time they realize the consequences of their decisions, it is too late to get out. ”

Predators come in many forms. The child may be forced into free labor, often involving criminal activity. The child may be given drugs and tricked into selling them. In addition, the child may become a victim of physical and sexual abuse. Of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2016, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking.

Hopefully by now you can see why we should not ignore missing persons cases just because the child may have willingly left on their own. Even in the cases of the children leaving due to physical or sexual abuse, or neglect, it is still of the utmost importance to find them and get them to safety. Once the child is found, law enforcement can investigate the reasons behind them leaving and get them help so that those reasons do not arise again in the future.

Again, what if they were abducted? As stated earlier, only about one percent of missing children were abducted by a non family member. That one percent is generally considered the most urgent, at-risk cases. Sometimes it is not immediately clear if the child ran away or was abducted. When people assume they ran away and do not immediately consider the fact they may have been abducted, they do not usually feel an urgency to find them. Valuable time can slip by before it ever occurs to anyone that they may actually be being held against their will. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the first 48 hours are the most critical.

Parents need to understand that it is extremely important to contact law enforcement as soon as they realize their child is missing. There is no time limit in the United States that a person has to wait to file a missing persons report whether it be for a minor or adult. The longer a person waits to file the report, the more chance of the missing person getting further away and becoming harder to find.

I would also like to challenge law enforcement agencies to stop viewing these kids with the stigma of, “just a runaway”, and instead view them as, “just a kid.”

Bottom line is that whether a child left willingly or were taken against their will, they are at a very high risk for being in a dangerous, life-threatening situation. Instead of judging these kids for poor decisions you feel they made, let’s get out there and do what we can to try to bring them home where they can be safe.

Karla VanattaStory by Karla Vanatta

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Jerrie Dean, who is retired from Federal Law Enforcement, is the Founder of Missing Persons of America.