Runaway Teenagers

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

Each year, many teenagers run away from home. Other teenagers are told to leave home by their parents. While many children return home within a short period of time, having a teenager who runs away can raise a variety of legal problems for the child, the child’s parents, and any other adult who might become involved with the child by, for example, allowing the child to stay in their home.

You will find answers to some common questions about runaway teenagers below.

Is Running Away Illegal?

In most states (but not all), it is not a crime to run away from home. In many states, running away repeatedly may cause a child to come under the control of juvenile or family court. The court can then provide services to the child and the family, such as counseling. Courts can also place restrictions on the child, including curfews and drug testing.

Can a Police Officer Take a Runaway Teenager Into Custody?

In almost every state, a police officer may detain (hold) any child under the age of 18 whom the officer suspects has run away from home. Depending on the state, the officer may take the child to a homeless shelter, try to return the child to the child’s parents, or, in some states, even take the child to a secure facility, such as a juvenile detention facility. A police officer may also detain a child suspected of committing a crimes like loitering or violating a city’s curfew law.

Have You Run Away?

If you are a runaway and are stopped by a police officer, do not physically resist. Physical resistance can lead to charges being filed against you, as well as injury. If you ran away from home to avoid abuse or neglect, tell the police officer about the abuse or neglect. Police officers have to report allegations of child abuse to child protective services, and child protective services must investigate allegations of abuse. Visit the National Runaway Safeline site for more resources for teens.

What Legal Options Do Runaway Teenagers Have?

Living on the street is not a good idea. Few teenagers who live on the street continue school or find legal and safe employment. Many homeless teenagers abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from psychiatric and medical problems, are victims of violent crime, have legal problems, and attempt suicide.

Returning Home. Many runaway teenagers return home within a few weeks. If you have run away and need help returning home, you may want to contact the local police or a shelter.

Guardianship. In guardianship proceedings, another adult (who is not the child’s parent) asks the court to become responsible for the child until the child is 18 years old. If the court grants the guardianship, the adult will have many of the same responsibilities that parents normally have, such as providing the child with shelter, food, clothes, and making sure the child attends school. The child’s parents may still be financially responsible for the child.

Emancipation. In emancipation proceedings, children ask the court to make them adults, legally speaking, which means that they will be responsible for themselves. Children who seek emancipation must show that emancipation is in their best interests, that they can support themselves by legal means, and that they will stay in school or obtain a GED. In some states, the child’s parents must agree to emancipation.

Dependency. In dependency proceedings, the court becomes a child’s guardian, and makes decisions about where the child lives. Often the court or the state’s child protective services department can provide family reunification services, such as counseling, or can place the child in foster care.

Can You Report a Child to the Police for Running Away?

In most states, you can report a runaway teenager as a missing person and ask the police to help look for the child.

If you are the child’s parent, depending on what state you live in, you may or may not have the right to force your child to return home with you.

What Are a Parent’s Responsibilities If a Child Runs Away?

In most cases, parents are responsible for caring for their child under the child turns 18 years old or is emancipated, even if the child is not living at home.

Can a Person Get in Trouble for Helping a Runaway?

Many states have laws against “harboring” runaway children. Although these laws are not often enforced, assisting a runaway teenager may result in criminal charges for harboring a runaway or contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In other states, the runaway child’s parents can sue another person in civil court for harboring a runaway.

In some states, the following may be illegal or may result in civil liability:

  • encouraging a minor to run away from home
  • providing shelter or transportation to a minor you know has run away
  • allowing a minor who is staying with you to engage in criminal behavior (such as drug use), or
  • lying to a parent or police officer about a child’s whereabouts.

If you are allowing a runaway child to stay with you, you may or may not be able to enroll the child in school or authorize medical treatment on the child’s behalf. If you plan to allow a child to live with you on a long-term basis, you may want to consider a guardianship, explained above.

Getting Legal Advice and Representation

If you are the parent of a child who has run away, you should contact the local police. You may also want to contact a local attorney to determine your legal rights and responsibilities and how to best proceed.

If you are allowing a runaway child to stay in your home or considering doing so, you should contact a local attorney who can tell you about the laws in your state and help you determine the best course of conduct so that you can avoid breaking the law.

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