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November 30, 2013
by Christie Hunter

The Epidemic of Runaway Children in The United States: How You Can Help

November 30, 2013 04:55 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

“Can you help me remember how to smile? Make it somehow all seem worthwhile. How on earth did I get so jaded? Life's mysteries seem so faded. I can go where no one else can go,

I know what no one else knows. Here I am just drownin' in the rain with a ticket for a runaway train…” -  From the song Runaway Train, by Soul Asylum

November was National Runaway Prevention Month. At any given time there are approximately between one and three million runaway children living on the streets in the United States. Children often run away to escape a troubled home environment only to find that life on the streets is far worse than they ever could have imagined. They are extremely vulnerable to gang recruitment, drug abuse and sexual exploitation. These children have nowhere to go and are desperately in need of help.

What is a runaway?

The definition of a runaway is quite complex and varies widely based on the amount of time the child has been away from home and the circumstances surrounding the departure, which are often grim. Technically and broadly, when a child under the age of 14 (or older than than the age of 14 and mentally incompetent) leaves home without permission and stays away for one night, they are considered a runaway. The same is true for a child over the age of 15 that leaves home for two nights without permission. Whether it be for a night or months, the time that a child is separated from the supervision of a guardian, state-run care center or parent is called an runaway episode. [1] [2]

Why children run

Some children may just need some time to cool off after a family argument and run away for a night or two while others leave home for good, lured by the false glamor of an independent life. Sadly, however, the most common reason children run away from home is due to abuse. 21% of children who ran away had experience an episode of abuse in the year prior to running away or were afraid of being abused upon returning home. The second most common reason why a child runs away from home is because they are abusing substances and drugs. [1]

Who runs away?

Runaways tend to be anywhere between the ages of 7 and 17, the the most common age  of a runaway child being between the ages of 15 and 17. Children who run away from home come from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, however they tend to be white, middle class and of both genders. Statistics suggest that girls are more likely to seek help, however, from hotlines and assistance centers. [1]

What are the warning signs that a child may run away?

If you are beginning to worry that your child is in trouble, be aware of the red flags signaling that they may be considering running away from home. (This is, of course, assuming that you are generally concerned for your child’s welfare and that they are not escaping an abusive home environment.) Hanging out with a new group of friends, religious groups or even cults, changes in sleeping and eating behavior, becoming isolated or staying in their room a lot may indicate that your child is in trouble. Rebellious behaviors including truancy, being argumentative and breaking rules at home and at school may be further warning signs. If you notice your child accumulating cash or if they are keeping a bag or backpack full of clothes ready, this may also be a sign that they are preparing to run. Threats of running away should be taken seriously. If you think your child is wanting to run, do not to judge them. Listen to their concerns. [3]

What to do if you meet a runaway

If you suspect that you have met a runaway child, there are some things you can do to help, however you should not assume the responsibility of helping them directly. Yes, it is kind to want to give them immediate support, but since so many of them are facing troubled circumstances that are unknown to you, it is not a good idea to try to intervene or house them yourself. It is best to leave it up to the professionals. (Plus you don’t want to be accused of something you are not doing, right?)

Check the database of missing children to see if you recognize the child. If you suspect the child is a runaway, call the police or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).In addition you can contact a welfare agency or scan the internet for places that offer safe, reliable, and valid housing for runaway teens in your area. If you meet the child because someone is harboring them, contact authorities. Although it may be well-intended, it is difficult to know if they are indeed helping or harming the child. [4]


[1] [Runaway/Thrownaway Children: National Estimates and Characteristics. Heather Hammer, David Finkelhor, Andrea J. Sedlak, Westat, Inc. 2002]

[2] [Runaway Kids and Teenage Prostitution: America's Lost, Abandoned, and Sexually Exploited Children. R. Barri Flowers p. 4]

[3] [Runaway Children]

[4] []

About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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