The estimated number of runaway/thrownaway children in NISMART–2, nearly 1.7 million, is large both in absolute terms and in relation to previous estimates of the size of the problem, including those from NISMART–1. The large number in the present study is a result of a methodology not previously used in research on this problem: NISMART–2 interviewed a national sample of caretakers and a national sample of youth and combined both to arrive at a unified estimate.

Because the NISMART–2 estimates are larger than the NISMART–1 estimates and those produced by other previous studies, it is possible to conclude, mistakenly, that the size of the problem has increased over time. In fact, an explicit comparison between NISMART–1 and NISMART–2 suggests that the problem may have declined. The bigger estimates from NISMART–2 are primarily the result of interviewing, for the first time, youth themselves about their own experiences. These results clearly indicate that future efforts to count and characterize the nature of runaway/ thrownaway episodes should include a youth interview component.

The inclusion of the youth sample dramatically increased the estimate arrived at by simply relying on information obtained from caretakers. This is probably because youth were willing to disclose episodes, particularly thrownaway episodes, that caretakers may have been reluctant to report. Moreover, the runaway/thrownaway episodes are more salient for the youth, thereby making it more likely that they remember and report such episodes. However, the possibility cannot be excluded that youth, whether seeking to appear adventuresome or nurturing grievances against their caretakers, may have exaggerated the characteristics of episodes that may not have qualified as full-blown runaway/thrownaway incidents from an independent perspective.

The new information on endangered runaways/ thrownaways provides a picture of a large number of youth suffering from drug problems and physical or sexual abuse in addition to their episodes. Alarming numbers of runaways/thrownaways are in the company of violent, sexually exploiting, or drug-abusing companions or suffer an actual or attempted assault while away from home. These are clearly among the subgroups of runaways/thrownaways in greatest need of assistance—assistance that goes far beyond simply locating their whereabouts and returning them to their homes. In fact, for some youth, such as the physically and sexually abused, being returned to their homes may increase rather than alleviate their danger. For this reason, any law enforcement response to runaway/thrownaway youth should be accompanied by a strong social service and mental health component that can attend to the child maltreatment, family conflict, substance abuse, and traumatic stress that precipitate and complicate these episodes.

At the same time, the findings from NISMART–2 confirm and emphasize the diversity of runaway/ thrownaway experiences. Many of the episodes were very brief. Most of the youth remained close to their homes. In a substantial number of episodes, the caretakers knew the child’s location, and most of the caretakers did not see the episode as serious enough to warrant police contact.

The relatively low number of runaway/thrownaway youth for whom there was police contact may prompt some policymakers and practitioners to urge more police reporting. However, no conclusion can be drawn from the NISMART–2 data about whether families and children would benefit from greater, or even possibly less, police involvement in runaway/ thrownaway episodes. Caretakers may, in fact, be making appropriate judgments about when to turn to the authorities. Separate studies that evaluate the costs and benefits of police involvement are needed to answer this public policy question.

Runaways/thrownaways constitute the largest component of children reported missing to authorities. They make up almost half (45 percent) of all children reported missing and greatly dwarf the numbers who are reported missing because of family or nonfamily abduction or who are lost or injured. (The other large segment of children reported missing—sometimes confused with runaways/thrownaways—are the 43 percent who are reported missing for benign reasons, such as miscommunications between family members about who was to be where at what time.) Moreover, NISMART–2 demonstrates that there are hundreds of thousands more runaways/thrownaways who have not been, but potentially could be, reported to the police. Any thorough reconsideration of societal responses to the problem of missing children needs to give central attention to the law enforcement response to runaways/thrownaways.

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