Runaway Teenagers

Each year, many teenagers run away from home. Other teenagers are told to leave home by their parents.

A runaway is a minor (someone under the age of 18) who leaves home without a parent’s or guardian’s permission, and is gone from the home overnight. In most states, running away is not a crime; however, runaways and their parents or guardians can face legal consequences. Adults who encourage or hide runaways can be charged with a crime.

Parents are legally responsible for caring for their minor children, even when the child is not living at home. For example, parents can be responsible for their child’s truancy (unexcused absence from school) when the child has run away. Parents should call the runaway’s school daily to report the child’s absence and let the school know that the child is a reported runaway.

Is Running Away Illegal?

A minority of states classify running away from home as a status offense. A status offense is an act that is a violation of law only because of a youth’s status as a minor. (Additional status offenses include truancy; violating curfew; underage use of alcohol; and being “ungovernable,” or beyond the control of parents or guardians.) Consequences for status offenses include counseling and education, driver’s license suspensions, fines and restitution, and placement with someone other than a parent or guardian.

Getting Help Before Running Away

The National Runaway Safeline (NRS) serves as the communication system for runaway and homeless youth. NRS provides free, confidential advice and referrals to local services for runaways and their parents and guardians in all 50 states. Call 1-800-RUNAWAY for immediate assistance.

Risk Factors for Running Away

Minors run away for complex reasons. The National Center for Mission and Exploited Children and the National Runaway Safeline have identified factors that put youth at an increased risk of running away:

  • family dynamics (divorce, remarriage, problems with siblings, foster care)
  • abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, verbal) and neglect
  • alcohol and drug use
  • suicidal tendencies and self-harm
  • medical and mental health conditions, and
  • conflict about sexual orientation or identity.

Runaway or Throwaway?

Not all minors who leave home are runaways. The term throwaways (or thrownaways) refers to minors who have been forced by their parents or guardians to leave their homes without alternate care arranged. Because the distinction between runaways and throwaways is not always clear, this article uses the term runaway to refer to both situations.

Legal Consequences, Rights, and Options for Runaway Teens

Runaways are often in a difficult situation—it isn’t safe for them to sleep on the street, but it might not be safe for them to return home, either. They are living apart from their parents or guardians, but as minors they lack the legal status to easily live independently (for example, minors cannot enter into most contracts, such as a lease; nor can they be hired for many jobs). Here is a discussion of the legal predicaments, rights, and options for runaways.

Police Can Detain Runaways

Running away is generally not a crime, but as just described, it is a status offense in some states. Regardless of whether a particular state recognizes running away as a status offense, police can always take runaways into custody. The options available to police include:

  • returning them home
  • convincing their parents or guardians to temporarily let them stay with friends or family
  • taking them to a shelter for runaways, or
  • briefly holding them at a juvenile detention facility.

Parents or legal guardians can report a runaway to the police at any time. Federal Law prohibits any law enforcement agency from establishing a waiting period before accepting a runaway-child report. Police enter the runaway’s name and physical description into the National Crime Information Computer (NCIC).

Runaways who are fleeing an abusive situation and do not want to return home should tell police about the abuse. The police must report child abuse to a county child welfare agency for further investigation; emergency shelter might be available.

Transferring Legal Guardianship

A legal guardianship transfer might be an option for runaways who want to live with a willing and appropriate adult relative or friend. A legal guardian will have the same rights and responsibilities as the parent.

Minors who want to live with another adult must submit a written request for a guardianship transfer to a local court that hears family law matters. The court will schedule a hearing, which the minor’s parents and other relatives can attend. After hearing from the interested parties, the judge will decide whether the guardianship would be in the minor’s best interest. The judge can approve a guardianship even if a minor’s parents object.

Emancipation

Emancipation gives minors the same legal rights as adults and ends their parents' responsibilities to support and supervise them. Emancipation occurs automatically when a minor turns 18. In some states, emancipation also occurs automatically when a minor marries or enlists in the military with parental consent.

Another potential option for minors is to ask a judge for a declaration of emancipation. To obtain a court declaration of emancipation, minors must convince the judge that:

  • emancipation is in their best interests
  • they can live independently (apart from parents or guardians), and
  • they can financially support themselves by legal means.

Courts might also consider the minor’s level of maturity, whether the minor has earned a high school diploma, and the parents' behavior that led the minor to seek emancipation. For example, a judge is more likely to emancipate a minor who is trying to get away from an abusive parent than a minor who simply disagrees with a parent about a curfew.

Encouraging or Hiding a Runaway Is Against the Law

Most states have laws against “harboring” runaways. These laws make it a crime for adults to encourage minors to run away, or to hide runaways from their parents or legal guardians. For example, an adult cannot:

  • encourage a minor who is not being abused to run away or stay away from home
  • prevent a runaway from calling home or the authorities, or
  • lie to a runaway’s parents or the authorities about the runaway’s location.

Prosecutors can also charge irresponsible adults with contributing to the delinquency of a minor if the adult encourages or allows the minor to be involved in criminal behavior, including the use of alcohol or illegal drugs.

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

If you are a minor who is thinking about running away, you should call 1-800-RUNAWAY for free confidential advice and referrals to local services.

If you are the parent or guardian of a child who has run away, you should contact the local police. You should also speak to an attorney about your legal rights and responsibilities.

If you are an adult who would like to help a runaway, you should talk to an attorney about how you can best assist the minor and protect yourself from allegations of harboring a runaway or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Runaway Train 25

Twenty-five years ago, the video for Soul Asylum’s song “Runaway Train” featured real-life footage of missing children in the hopes that the video would lead to their discovery. The song became a hit and led to the location and recovery of 21 of the 36 missing children featured in the video.

For the 25th anniversary of the song, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) released "Runaway Train" with new artists and a music video. Using the geographic location of the user’s computer and the NCMEC database of missing children, the video features children who disappeared from the viewer’s area. To see missing children in your area, go to RunawayTrain.25.com.

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