Rethinking Runaways and Missing Children


It seems like almost daily we hear stories about teens who go missing, found as victims of trafficking and exploitation or assaulted and even murdered by a predator. While those cases may generate headlines or brief flurries of media interest, what is sometimes missed is how their cases began and how we as first responders, call takers and investigators approached their case from the onset.

All too often those cases began as a report of a missing child who was either characterized by the family from the start as voluntarily missing or whose case was approached as a probable runaway by law enforcement. Sadly, many of those we “thought” were runaways or were voluntarily missing were actually abducted, lured away or were not allowed to return by a predator. Regardless of how they went missing, the bottom line is that their cases did not receive the same degree of attention or investigative resources that a reported abduction or endangered missing classification might have prompted.


In order to properly address the issue of runaways and voluntary missing in terms of how we respond and investigate, we have to create a cultural change in law enforcement. It’s a fact that most officers respond to dozens or even hundreds of reports of runaways each year. In the vast majority of these cases the child is reunited with their family or comes home on his or her own. It is easy to see how we can become complacent to the fact that there are children in that group that will never come home without our help.

When I was a young police officer, I remember how we handled domestic disturbances. The police officer was called on to be both a protector and a counselor. I still remember my first “DV” call and watching my supervisor handle the situation by driving the husband (who was in my mind at least, clearly the aggressor) to a local motel and telling him that if he came back to the house that night, he was going to go to jail. Of course, he came back, of course he assaulted his wife and of course he went to jail. It took an outcry from the public and media, litigation in the courts and finally case law to make us rethink how we dealt with family violence.

Fortunately, it’s now second nature to young recruits to identify the primary aggressors, make arrests, seek protective orders and provide referrals to victim services. We had a cultural change and it was for the better. The same thing happened with seat belts, open containers and child safety seats.

It is time that we had the same cultural shift in regards to runaways. Instead of approaching the report of a voluntary missing young person as a delinquency matter, let’s teach recruits and veterans alike to approach these cases from the standpoint of protecting the child. The actions taken by first responders and call takers are the most important factors in protecting the missing child regardless of how they went missing. We know from over 100 case reviews conducted by the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program that in cases where first responders failed to properly assess the circumstances, secure crime scenes, missed evidence or suspect information; the success rate in terms of successfully recovering the missing child plummeted.

pull quoteAn estimated 71 percent of runaways are thought to have been endangered during their runaway episode. Factors such as substance dependency, use of hard drugs, sexual or physical abuse, presence in a place where criminal activity was occurring, or because of their extremely young age (13 years old or younger) place even the voluntary runaway at risk.1

Every runaway case should be considered in terms of potential threats facing the child, not the acts of the child. First responders and call takers need to determine if there are elements present that suggest the child is running from abuse in the home, or if they have been lured away by a predator through use of technology or grooming. Were they abducted or are they voluntarily missing but at risk to the many dangers that threaten the runaway child? If we looked at it from the perspective of threats to the child, rather than delinquency by the child, we would see an improvement in how we approach these cases from the onset.

Some key takeaways have come forth from more than 15 roundtables and listening sessions conducted by the AATTAP with surviving family members of missing, abducted and murdered children. These mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and others are sharing what they learned when their child went missing.

  • Listen to the parents. They know their child and if they tell you the child is not a runaway, is at risk, or that their missing episode is out of character; listen to them and investigate, analyze and assess as though a crime has occurred; or until you know for a fact the child is safe.
  • Always dispatch an officer. This is especially relevant to a first responder’s mindset in cases where the family or child are known to law enforcement. It may seem like the report from a family member or other party can be taken over the phone, but this is a dangerous practice because it prevents the officer from putting eyes on the location where the child lives or was last seen. It is impossible to conduct a true assessment of the risk to the child without knowing what clues or warning signs you are missing if not there in person.
  • Always ask to search the home. Even if the reporting party indicates the child went missing from another location or didn’t return home on time, we always ask permission to search the home for clues that might show how or when the child left the home and under what circumstances.
    • In one case, officers responding to a “routine” runaway report asked to search the missing teenager’s room and found information that showed she had left the home to meet an individual who was determined to be a registered sex offender. Officers were able to intercept the child and take the child predator into custody before she was harmed. Had they not searched her room, there is no telling what may have befallen that child.
  • Know how to access, analyze and utilize digital evidence and social networking. More and more we see cases where children are lured from home by an individual they meet on line. Often the true identity of this person is unknown by the child before they are in the grasp of a predator. Social networking, cell technology and other digital evidence techniques can often prove the difference between victimization and a safe recovery.
  • Err on the side of protecting the child. When in doubt about whether the child is endangered or is in the midst of a voluntary runaway episode, go with protecting the child first.

Yes, there will be cases where we put a lot of work into recovering a child who is simply angry with a parent, hanging with friends after hours or even engaged in delinquent behavior. All that extra work is nothing in comparison to the pain and trauma that comes with that one child we miss, that one time we don’t issue the alert, call out additional resources or put our best efforts into the investigation, only to find out later that we failed them by using old thinking and old approaches.