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Missing Children: Incidences and Characteristics of Runaway Children and Resources Available to Them

By — University of Florida IFAS Extension
Updated on May 2, 2014

Introduction

The personal, emotional, and human impacts associated with runaway children are vast. While experts do not agree on exactly how many runaways there are, they do agree that the problem is a big one. According to the National Runaway Switchboard (2006), there are between 1.3 and 2.8 million runaway and homeless youths in America at any point in time. Other studies show that one out of every seven children will run away before the age of eighteen (NRS, 2006). The U.S. Department of Justice gives slightly lower numbers, indicating that close to 1.7 million children run away from home each year or are cast out. However, such numbers only hint at the seriousness of this issue.

Characteristics

Little information exists about runaways, mostly because they are a very hard group to reach. Most runaway episodes last only a few days, which does not give researchers enough time to locate and interview these youths. Also, many runaways do not wish to talk about their experiences, even years after the fact. Finally, most runaway cases are never recorded. It is believed that only 21% of all caregivers report their missing child. This means that police records and other figures, while they may give researchers a baseline number to work with, are incomplete and misleadingly low.

The most reliable and complete data we have on the issue comes from the Second National Incidence Studies of Missing Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-2), funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and completed in 2002. This study found that in 1999 an estimated 1,682,900 children ran away or were forced out of their homes.

Runaway children are those who leave their homes without permission and choose not to return for at least for one night. Children who have been "thrown out," however, are those who have been asked or told to leave home, who have a parent or other household adult preventing their return, or who have been left behind. The literature calls these youth "thrownaway" children (or "throwaways") because they have been tossed out of their homes.

Throwaway children are grouped with runaways because these groups often overlap. A runaway child might be told not to come back, which would then make him or her a throwaway. Sometimes children leave on their own after parents threaten to throw them out.

Of the estimated 1.7 million runaway/throwaway children in 1999, most (68%) were in their late teens (fifteen to seventeen years old). About 28% were between the ages of twelve and fourteen. 4% were between the ages of seven and eleven. There were equal numbers of males and females, and no ethnic group or race was overly represented. An estimated 35% had run away before. Data from the National Runaway Switchboard (2006) indicates that most children who left home stayed with a friend or relative. NISMART-2 (2002) found that 99.6% of all the youth studied returned home by the end of the year and about half returned within a week. Most did not travel far (fifty miles or less) and only a few ever left their state.

More children run away during the summer when the weather is good and school is out of session. Oddly enough, though, the number of runaways does not go down very much during the winter. This shows that factors other than warm weather and lack of school supervision must shape a childs decision to run away. Some states attract more runaways than others. California, in particular, seems to be a popular choice for children who have left home, judging by the high numbers of emergency calls received by the National Runaway Switchboard from the state, and by the many homeless youth and child prostitutes police find there.

Some children leave home because of a conflict at school. Others run from institutions and foster care. However, most are trying to escape family problems, especially abuse. In fact, there has long been a known link between abuse and runaways. Previous research shows that in 1999, over 70% of runaways, or approximately 1,190,900 children, were in very real danger of physical or sexual abuse (NISMART-2, 2002). Approximately 21% were being abused at home, and over three thousand were dependent on alcohol or drugs.

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