A Better Approach to Runaways

The number of runaways in the United States has been widely debated, but a 10-year-old study by the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimated the number at 1.7 million. No matter the estimate, we know kids do run away, often due to violence in the home or family conflict. While on the streets, they are often prey to criminal activities, drug use, and sexual assault. So what can a police officer do when confronting a suspected underage runaway?

In San Jose, the police department will question the youth briefly to find out where they live and why they have run away. If the situation does not sound like an easy reunification, they either call Alum Rock Counseling Center (ARCC) to do immediate crisis intervention with the youth and family, or they will drop them off at Bill Wilson Center’s crisis residential program.

At ARCC or BWC, a counselor asks several questions about family life and the circumstances leading to the youth leaving home. Young people often feel comfortable talking to these trained professionals, but even then they are wary of sharing information like drug or alcohol use or other illegal activities, and they may be distressed about talking about sexual abuse. We often find out this information after a few days at the shelter or in subsequent counseling sessions when we have built trust.

In St. Paul, Minn., a new 10-question survey is being used by the police to assess a runaway’s situation. An article by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reports that the questionnaire was developed by medical and research professionals, along with law enforcement, and it follows questions asked in the Minnesota Student Survey. Law enforcement wanted a short survey because they did not have time to do more, so they came up with 10 questions.

I applaud law enforcement in Minnesota for wanting to help runaways receive needed services, but I am not sure asking these 10 questions is the right way. Will runaways actually tell a police officer that they’re using drugs? And, if they do, what is the response of the police officer? The model is to refer these youth to a school counselor, which doesn’t seem like an effective way of connecting runaways—who have often not been attending school—to services.

For over 35 years, Santa Clara County has had a 24-hour response to runaways needing help: the Status Offender Services Collaboration. Comprised of three nonprofit agencies, ARCC, Community Solutions and Bill Wilson Center, the agencies take calls from law enforcement, school personnel, parents and youth, and will respond within the hour to pick up a young person in trouble. Status offenses include truancy, running away and curfew violations—things that are illegal only because of the age of the offender.

More than 1,000 children and teens are served each year through this network, and over 85percent are returned home and stay home. The other 15 percent are placed in alternative safe housing such as with other family members or foster care. Runaway youth, along with their families, receive aftercare counseling for up to six months. Families are taught how to deal with their own problems and to prevent future crises. 

Seeking a screening tool for law enforcement to better understand the needs of runaways is a great idea. It teaches them to better understand the myriad of problems confronting these youth. However, I am doubtful that the police have time to ask these 10 questions and complete a written assessment. Plus, how truthful will kids be in responding to questions such as “do you use drugs?”

Instead, equipping police officers with referral cards for runaway services and training officers on how to connect youth to needed services seems like a better approach.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth. Under her leadership, Bill Wilson Center works to prevent poverty by connecting youth to employment, education, housing, and healthy relationships.

Sparky Harlan, Executive Director/CEO at Bill Wilson Center, is a nationally recognized advocate for youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system, as well as homeless and runaway youth.

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