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Conceptualizing the Problem

In the literature on missing children, runaways have sometimes been referred to as the “voluntary missing,” to distinguish them from abducted and lost children. However, this term misstates the nature and complexity of the problem. It is generally recognized that children who leave home prematurely often do so as a result of intense family conflict or even physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. Children may leave to protect themselves or because they are no longer wanted in the home. The term “voluntary” does not properly apply to such situations.

To represent this complexity, NISMART–1, following the practice of many youth services agencies, employed the concept of thrownaway youth to characterize young people who were forced out of their homes or were refused permission to return (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990). NISMART–1 presented separate estimates for the incidence of runaways and thrownaways. However, further analysis of NISMART–1 findings suggested that the distinction between runaways and thrownaways was less than clear cut. Many youth had both kinds of episodes, and many individual episodes had both runaway and thrownaway elements. Moreover, the categorization of an episode frequently depended entirely on whether information was gathered from the youth, who tended to emphasize the thrownaway aspects of the episode, or the caretakers, who emphasized the runaway aspects.

In consideration of these findings, NISMART–2 was structured to deemphasize the distinction between runaways and thrownaways and to count both as part of one larger group called runaway/thrownaway. The emphasis in NISMART–2 was to focus on the characteristics of episodes, whether runaway or thrownaway, that put youth at risk of harm.

Runaway/thrownaway episodes can vary a great deal in their seriousness and dangerousness. The stereotype of the runaway is often of youth roaming and sleeping on the streets of a large city such as New York or San Francisco, prey to pimps, drug dealers, and violent crime. However, not all runaway/thrownaway youth are at such peril. At the other end of the continuum, some youth leave and go to the homes of friends and relatives, where they may be well cared for.

NISMART–1 characterized the seriousness of runaway/ thrownaway episodes according to whether the youth had a secure and familiar place to stay during the episode. However, the practice among those concerned about the well-being of runaways and thrownaways increasingly has moved to identify a longer and more specific list of factors that signify harm or risk for harm during such episodes. These factors include whether the youth were in the company of dangerous or predatory companions, whether they had serious mental health or substance abuse problems, whether they had been abused or had engaged in criminal activity during the episode, and whether they were extremely young (13 years old or younger). To identify these youth, NISMART–2 added a category, endangered children, whose runaway or thrownaway episodes involved any one of a list of 17 factors that placed them at risk for harm (see table 4).

A third complexity surrounding runaway/thrownaway youth is that, although they are gone from their households, not all of them are literally missing. Being missing implies that a youth’s whereabouts are not known to his or her caretakers, who, as a result, are alarmed and try to locate the youth. However, sometimes when youth leave in runaway/thrownaway episodes, they go to the homes of friends or relatives or to shelters or social service agencies whose locations are well known to the caretakers. In other episodes, especially thrownaway episodes, children are not literally missing because their caretakers are not concerned about their whereabouts. Although these caretakers may not know where the youth are, they are not looking for them, are not alarmed, and might well be able to locate the youth easily if they decided to look for them.

Therefore, NISMART–2 distinguishes and presents separate counts of runaways/thrownaways in general and runaways/thrownaways who are missing. Moreover, two uses of the term “missing” are also differentiated:

  • Caretaker missing: NISMART–2 counts a child as missing from the caretaker’s perspective when the child experienced a qualifying episode during which the child’s whereabouts were unknown to the primary caretaker, with the result that the caretaker was alarmed for at least 1 hour and tried to locate the child.

  • Reported missing: A subset of caretaker missing, this category refers to youth whose caretakers have reported them to authorities in order to help locate them. Youth in this category are the missing youth for whom authorities, such as law enforcement agencies, are searching.

The diagram below illustrates the proportional relationships between all runaway/thrownaway children and the subsets who were caretaker missing and reported missing. It also shows that children who were reported missing are a subset of those who were caretaker missing. (Note that this Bulletin presents data on the characteristics of all runaway/thrownaway children, not just those who were caretaker missing or reported missing.)

Runaway/Thrownaway Children

The diagram illustrates the proportions of children who were caretaker missing and reported missing in relation to all runaway/thrownaway children.

The diagram illustrates the proportions of children who were caretaker missing and reported missing in relation to all runaway/thrownaway children.


Defining Runaways/Thrownaways

A runaway episode is one that meets any one of the following criteria:

  • A child leaves home without permission and stays away overnight.

  • A child 14 years old or younger (or older and mentally incompetent) who is away from home chooses not to come home when expected to and stays away overnight.

  • A child 15 years old or older who is away from home chooses not to come home and stays away two nights.

A thrownaway episode is one that meets either of the following criteria:

  • A child is asked or told to leave home by a parent or other household adult, no adequate alternative care is arranged for the child by a household adult, and the child is out of the household overnight.

  • A child who is away from home is prevented from returning home by a parent or other household adult, no adequate alternative care is arranged for the child by a household adult, and the child is out of the household overnight.

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Runaway/Thrownaway Children: National Estimates and Characteristics
NISMART Bulletin
October 2002