Runaways: The Kids Everyone Ignores

Illustration for article titled Runaways: The Kids Everyone Ignores

The teenager found in New York two weeks ago with no memory of her identity is lucky in one way — her family is coming to get her. Many young runaways have no one looking for them at all.

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Ian Urbina writes a poignant story in today's Times about teen and child runaways, whose numbers are apparently swelling in the recession. Homelessness may rise 10 to 20 percent across the board this year, but last year the number of kids living on their own increased by 40 percent — and Mary Ferrell, director of a resource center for the homeless, says, "several times a month we're seeing kids being left by parents who say they can't afford them anymore." But that statement isn't the most heart-wrenching in the story. That would be this graf:

The runaways spend much of their time avoiding the authorities because they assume the officials are trying to send them home. But most often the police are not looking for them as missing-person cases at all, just responding to complaints about loitering or menacing. In fact, federal data indicate that usually no one is looking for the runaways, either because parents have not reported them missing or the police have mishandled the reports.

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Or maybe this one:

Federal statistics indicate that in more than three-quarters of runaway cases, parents or caretakers have not reported the child missing, often because they are angry about a fight or would simply prefer to see a problem child leave the house. Experts say some parents fear that involving the police will get them or their children into trouble or put their custody at risk.

And in 16 percent of cases, the local police failed to enter the information into the federal database, as required under federal law, according to a review of federal data by The New York Times.

The reasons police give for not entering runaways in the database include software difficulties, time constraints, and a desire not to "make a city's situation appear to be more of a problem than it is" — though it's not clear how accurately reporting statistics would overstate the problem. Urbina also writes that police "do not take runaway reports as seriously as abductions, in part because runaways are often fleeing family problems." It's true that many of the kids he spoke with had left abusive homes, and that returning them to their parents doesn't seem to be the solution. However, there's a deeply sad contrast between abduction victims, whose stories often become big news, and runaways, the children no one wants to find.

It's not that we should be doing less to find abducted kids, or to prevent tragedies like the murder of Chicago eight-year-old Melissa Ackerman. Rather, we hould be expending as much energy on kids whose parents don't want or "can't afford" them as we do on kids whose parents desperately want them back. The fact that police don't take runaways seriously because these kids are "fleeing family problems" is especially chilling — do we really think the solution to abuse is to let kids live on the streets?

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Image via NYT.

Recession Drives Surge In Youth Runaways [NYT]
Child Abduction Survivor Lives With Fear And Guilt [LAT]
'Jane Doe' Found In N.Y. Identified [CNN]

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DISCUSSION

In defense of the cops, if there's nothing they can legally do for the kids, I can see why they opt to not do much at all. If taking them home or putting them in foster care aren't positive options, arresting them would make their situation worse, and the kid seems poor but otherwise OK, what can they do?

Of course that means there ought to be better solutions that the cops, social workers et al can use. But what, I wonder?

Loosening up emancipated minor laws so these kids can legally separate from abusive parents earlier? Free boarding schools in cities? Free live-in rehab centers for addicts? The orphanages and work houses that existed in the early 20th century were pretty grim, but they addressed the needs that modern runaways have. Is there a way to do that without a return to poor, exploitative conditions?