By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
June 05, 2005
"I had an abusive father, very abusive. We had moved to California from Iowa. So I took a Greyhound bus back to Iowa," White said. "There weren't a lot of programs to help me back then. So my only option was to run away. Arresting me would only have made things worse."
Geography, more than anything else, determines how America's runaway children will be treated. America lacks a coordinated - or even consistent - policy to deal with its runaways, who number an estimated 1.3 million each year. Teenagers face an erratic patchwork of state laws and police policies. Sometimes, runaways will be aggressively pursued as criminals. Other times, they will be ignored.
Police sometimes use formal charges as a means to force runaways to see social workers and court-appointed counselors. But many parents complain their children are getting juvenile delinquency records without any real attempt to solve the root problems that caused them to runaway.
Regina White's story had a happy ending. She grew up and returned to the state she once fled to become executive director of the California Coalition for Youth, an advocacy group. Today she defends her state's policy that decriminalizes juvenile flight.
"It is not illegal to be a runaway in California. Kids can be arrested for being delinquent or for violating a court order, but not for running away," she said. "After all, arresting me would not have solved anything."
Despite California's relaxed policies, police in 2002 detained 6,845 children on warrants related to their runaway status, an arrest rate that is half the national average, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of FBI arrest reports. Several states reported making no runaway arrests whatsoever that year.
At the other end of the spectrum is Texas, where police arrested at least 17,355 runaways three years ago. Authorities in Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii and Idaho had even higher rates of juvenile arrests per capita, according to the study.
"The runaway laws are not uniform," said Mitch Oldham of the National Runaway Switchboard in Chicago, a telephone hotline offering advice to teenagers who have fled their families. "It is not uncommon for youths to call and ask if it is illegal to run away. And we have to tell them that it depends upon the state they are calling from."
The federal government has been steadily increasing its impact on runaway policy, although it does not recommend any standards for how children should be treated by police or the courts. The Justice Department last month issued guidelines instructing local police "to immediately enter ... every reported case involving a missing child" into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.
"We will not forget the suffering and struggles of America's runaway children," President Bush promised at the White House's first Conference on Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children three years ago. Bush said the federal government is supporting "hundreds of emergency shelters and programs that reach out to young people living on the street, offering them food and comfort and counseling."
But parents of runaways often rage against local and statewide policies that either disregard their missing children or too quickly put them into detention and the juvenile court system.
"It's horrible. The kids are punished for running away," said Cheryl Carson, head of the Indiana Safe at Home advocacy group for missing children. "There is no attempt to offer counseling or to find out why they run away."
Carson's son, Jacob, was placed on six-month probation last year and ordered to pay $850 in fines and court costs following his first-time arrest for running away from his Greenwood, Ind., home briefly to go to a friend's house when he was 15. "It was all a misunderstanding. He was doing what he thought he had permission to do," she said.
Police refused to drop the charge once it had been filed.
The Honolulu Police Department leads the nation in the largest number of runaway arrests, according to the Scripps Howard study. It arrested 3,464 runaway children in 2002.
"The unusually high number of runaway arrests is due to the department's practice of not canceling a runaway report even after a minor has returned home," said Honolulu Police Chief Boisse Correa. "This procedure is followed so that the runaways and their parents or guardians can receive family counseling and other services."
Correa said that while police rarely take the runaways into custody, the Honolulu Police Department "has chosen to review its reporting procedures for missing children and runaways" following questions raised by Scripps Howard reporters.
Also reporting unusually large numbers of runaway arrests were Tucson, Ariz., police with 1,943 three years ago, and El Paso, Texas, with 1,679 arrests.
Several states reported making no runaway arrests.
"If you are a runaway in Delaware, you are considered to be a victim instead of a suspect in a crime," said Rod Hegman, manager of the Delaware Missing Children Information Clearinghouse. "Although police are allowed to detain children until they are retrieved by their parents or guardians, it is not under a criminal warrant."
Many police departments rarely pursue runaway children unless there is a court order for their detention.
"Some agencies have a policy of not taking runaways into custody," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "They may not feel they have the resources to deal with the issue. They encounter a runaway youth, file a report, but decide they cannot take further action."
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, police do not have explicit authority to arrest runaways without a warrant in six states: Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, New York and South Carolina.
Only nine states have made running away a so-called "status offense," which means it is a clear violations of criminal juvenile law. Those states are Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
It is not uncommon for police officials to be at odds with their state's policies for runaways. Paul Walters, police chief in Santa Ana, Calif., said many are unhappy with California's decriminalization of runaways.
"Some of the chiefs have tried to get the California Legislature to go back (to criminal status) but they haven't gotten anywhere. I'm sure we'd prefer it the other way around," Walters said. "Honestly, the system is so overburdened with criminals that I don't think runaways are getting the attention they deserve."
There are other worrisome aspects to the decriminalized runaway laws. Many runaways themselves say that states like California are attractive locations for young, vulnerable and easily victimized teenagers.
While California reported making only 7 percent of the nation's 96,790 runaway arrests in 2002 it made 35 percent of the nation's reported 1,245 child prostitution arrests.
"My story wasn't that horrible. I was just angry. I didn't want to go back home, although I could," said former San Francisco prostitute Robyn Few, who ran away from her Paducah, Ky., home when she was 13.
"Why? My house was clean. But my parents were kind of freaks. There were lots of groups available to help children and prostitutes. But I didn't go to them because I was afraid they'd send me back home. So I started bartering sex for what I wanted. For a child, it was very easy money."
By far the most common complaint made by parents of runaways is that local police fail to take runaway child cases seriously.
"We had a horrid experience," said Eva Newsome, whose 13-year-old sister, Debora Sue Lowe, disappeared while walking to school in Pompano Beach, Fla., in 1972.
"The police actually encouraged my parents to tell them that my sister was a runaway. They didn't want to be bothered; she was a teenager, and we had just moved into the neighborhood from West Virginia. So they tried to convince my parents that she ran away," Newsome said.
The family eventually got a copy of the Pompano Beach Police's complaint form, which said that Debora's father "stated that the victim might be headed for Palestine, W.Va., (their former home) and that his daughter doesn't have any friends in the area and is not allowed to date."
Newsome said the police report was ludicrous since Debora was an obedient child who had never run away before. "My sister left home with nothing but the clothes on her back. To think she'd get safely to Palestine, W.Va., from Florida was crazy."
Newsome said her family believes Debora was the victim of a local serial killer, former Broward County Deputy Sheriff John Gerard Schaefer, who was arrested the following year and convicted of multiple murders of teenage girls.
Laura Hood said police in Fort Smith, Ark., used similar tactics when her parents frantically called to report that her 16-year-old brother, Tony Allen, had disappeared after visiting friends in Oklahoma in 1978.
"Basically, the police simply said he was a runaway - as if that was an excuse not to look for him - and would not file a missing persons report," Hood said. "Any time my mother would go to the police department, they would say things like, 'You mean he's not back yet?' "
Both Hood and Newsome said they've had better luck recently convincing local police to try to take up their cases, even though the trail of evidence is quite cold. Detectives are making fresh inquiries and have agreed to report their siblings to the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.
"But it's sad people have to stand up and scream to get the help they need," Hood said. "I just know that more can be done for all of the missing people in this country."
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