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Results

The number of U.S. youth estimated to have had a runaway/thrownaway episode in 1999 is 1,682,900 (see table 1). Of these, an estimated 628,900, or 37 percent, were “caretaker missing” youth. Only an estimated 357,600 youth, or 21 percent of all runaways/ thrownaways, were reported missing to police or to a missing children’s agency for purposes of locating them. (See Runaway/Thrownaway Children.) Based on 17 indicators of harm or potential risk, 1,190,900 of the runaway/thrownaway youth (71 percent) were estimated to be endangered.

Table 1: Estimates of Runaway/Thrownaway Children

Category
Estimate
95% Confidence
Interval*
Percent
All runaway/thrownaway episodes
1,682,900
(1,425,400–1,940,500)
100
Caretaker missing§
628,900
(481,000–776,900)
37
Reported missing
357,600
(238,000–477,200)
21
Endangered youthß
1,190,900
(975,900–1,405,800)
71


Note: All estimates have been rounded to the nearest 100.

* The 95-percent confidence interval indicates that, if the study were repeated 100 times, 95 of the replications would produce estimates within the ranges noted.

§ Whereabouts unknown to caretaker, caretaker alarmed and tried to locate child.

Missing youth whose caretakers have reported them to authorities in order to help locate them.

ß Youth whose runaway or thrownaway episodes involved any one of a list of 17 factors that placed them at risk for harm (see table 4).

The NIS–3 data were used to get a sense of the number of permanently abandoned children, who probably were not well counted in the NISMART–2 surveys. An estimated 56,900 children were permanently abandoned in 1993, the last year that the NIS was conducted. These children are not included in subsequent tables and discussions in this Bulletin. Had the analyses included these children, the study findings would not have been substantively altered, since abandoned children would have comprised an extremely small portion (3 percent) of all runaways/thrownaways.6

Most runaway/thrownaway youth (68 percent) were older teens, ages 15–17 (table 2). At these ages, youth are often more independent, tend to resist parental authority, are more likely to become involved in activities that bring them into conflict with their caretakers, and are often viewed by their caretakers as being capable of living on their own. All these things may increase the likelihood of runaway/thrownaway episodes. Nonetheless, a small group of children younger than age 12 did experience such episodes. Runaway/thrownaway youth were equally divided between boys and girls and did not come disproportionately from any of the major racial and ethnic groups.

Table 2: Characteristics of Runaways/Thrownaways

Characteristic
Estimate
Percent
(
n = 1,682,900)
Percent of U.S.
Child Population

Ages 7–17*
(
N = 43,372,500)
Age (years)
7–11
70,100
4
46
12–14
463,200
28
27
15–17
1,149,400
68
27
No information
200
<1
Gender
Male
841,300
50
51
Female
841,600
50
49
Race/ethnicity
White, non-Hispanic
963,500
57
66
Black, non-Hispanic
283,300
17
15
Hispanic
244,300
15
14
Other
188,900
11
5
No information
3,000
<1


Note: Because all estimates have been rounded to the nearest 100, percentages may not sum to 100.

* Age, gender, and race for the U.S. population were based on the average monthly estimates of the population ages 7–17 years for 1999 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

A somewhat larger number of runaway/thrownaway episodes occurred during summer, a time when young people are more mobile and less constrained by weather and school activities (table 3). Approximately 23 percent of runaways/thrownaways traveled a distance of 50 miles or more from home, and 9 percent left the State in the course of an episode. Most runaway/ thrownaway youth were gone less than 1 week (77 percent), and only 7 percent were away more than 1 month.

Table 3: Characteristics of Runaway/Thrownaway Episodes

Characteristic of Episode
Estimated Number
of Children
Percent
(
n = 1,682,900)
Season
Winter
335,400
20
Spring
333,600
20
Summer
655,100
39
Fall
343,300
20
No information
15,600*
<1*
Number of miles traveled from home
1 or less
139,900
8
More than 1 but no more than 10
503,100
30
More than 10 but no more than 50
521,900
31
More than 50 but no more than 100
160,100
10
More than 100
210,600
13
No information
147,300
9
Child left the State
Yes
147,600
9
No
1,393,000
83
No information
142,300
8
Duration
6 to less than 7 hours
21,000*
1*
7 hours to less than 24 hours
307,400
18
24 hours to less than 1 week
975,700
58
1 week to less than 1 month
248,000
15
1 month to less than 6 months
123,000
7
Not returned, but located
2,200*
<1*
Not returned and not located
4,100*
<1*
No information
1,600*
<1*
Episode Outcome
Child returned
1,676,200
>99
Child not returned, but located
2,200*
<1*
Child not returned and not located
4,100*
<1*
No information
400*
<1*

Note: Because all estimates have been rounded to the nearest 100, percentages may not sum to 100.

* Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

Nearly all of the runaway/thrownaway children (1,676,200 or 99.6 percent) had returned home by the time the study data were collected. Only a fraction of a percent (6,300, or less than 0.4 percent) had not returned home.7

Table 4 lists the 17 features of runaway/ thrownaway episodes deemed to be indicators of endangerment. Any youth who qualified under any one of these conditions was classified as an endangered runaway/thrownaway. The most common endangerment component was physical or sexual abuse at home or fear of abuse upon return. The second most common endangerment component was substance dependency. Substantial numbers of children were also endangered by virtue of their young age (13 years old or younger), being in the company of someone known to be abusing drugs, or use of hard drugs by the children themselves. An estimated 38,600 runaways/ thrownaways8 were at risk of sexual endangerment or exploitation by one or more of the following characteristics or behaviors during the episode: the youth was sexually assaulted, there was an attempted sexual assault of the youth, the youth was in the company of someone known to be sexually abusive, or the youth engaged in sexual activity in exchange for money, drugs, food, or shelter during the episode.

Table 4: Estimates of Potentially Endangered Runaways/Thrownaways

Characteristic of Episode
Estimate
Percent
(
n = 1,682,900)
Child had been physically or sexually abused at home in the year prior to the episode or was afraid of abuse upon return
350,400
21
Child was substance dependent
317,800
19
Child was 13 years old or younger
305,300
18
Child was in the company of someone known to be abusing drugs
302,100
18
Child was using hard drugs
292,000
17
Child spent time in a place where criminal activity was known to occur
256,900
12
Child engaged in criminal activity during the course of the episode
197,400
11
Child was with a violent person
125,400
7
Child had previously attempted suicide
70,500
4
Child who was enrolled in school at the time of the episode missed at least 5 days of school
70,500
4
Child was physically assaulted or someone attempted to physically assault child during the course of the episode
69,100
4
Child was with a sexually exploitative person
27,300*
2*
Child had a serious mental illness or developmental disability at the time of the episode
24,300*
1*
Child was sexually assaulted or someone attempted to sexually assault child during the course of the episode
14,900*
1*
Child’s whereabouts were unknown to the caretaker for at least 30 days (and the episode was unresolved or no information was available)
7,300*
<1*
Child engaged in sexual activity in exchange for money, drugs, food, or shelter during the episode
1,700*
<1*
Child had or developed a serious or life-threatening medical condition during the course of the episode
0
0


Note: The total number of endangered runaway/thrownaway youth was 1,190,900. The individual estimates and percents do not sum to the total because the youth were counted in each category that applied. For this reason, the numbers and percentages cannot be combined to create aggregates.

* Estimate based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

No cases were identified.

Police were contacted in regard to a little less than one-third of the runaway/thrownaway youth (table 5). The most common reason for police contact was to help locate missing youth. However, police were also involved for other reasons, such as the youth being picked up for suspicious or criminal activity.9 When police were not contacted, two prominent reasons given were that the caretakers knew the child’s location or simply did not think the police were needed.

Table 5: Police Contact for Runaways/Thrownaways

Characteristic
Estimate
Percent
Police contact*
Yes
539,100
32
No
1,143,800
68
Total
1,682,900
100
Reason for police contact
Locate missing child
158,000
29
Recover child from known location
25,000*
5*
Other reason
49,100
9
No information
307,000
57
Total
539,100
100
Reason police were not contacted
Knew child’s location
243,900
21
Did not think police were needed
208,500
18
Child was not gone long enough
95,800
8
Expected child to return
80,500
7
Did not want to get child in trouble or arrested
41,300
4
Believed child was safe
17,000
1
Caretakers did not care that child was gone
14,800
1
Because of prior runaway experience
10,800
1
Other reason
110,700
10
No information
333,700
29
Total
1,143,800
100


* Unified estimate derived from responses to the National Household Survey of Adult Caretakers, the National Household Survey of Youth, and the Juvenile Facilities Study.

Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

To look for historical trends, a special analysis of NISMART–2 data was conducted using the closest possible approximation of NISMART–1 definitions and methodology.10 The estimates for the more serious category of runaways ( runaways, not thrownaways, who lacked a secure and familiar place to stay) were lower in 1999 than in 1988. The difference approached significance at p = .06 (two-tailed test), which is probably, but not conclusively, a large enough margin of error to believe that an actual decline had occurred.

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