Journalism

I Wish Police Whouldn’t Label Runaway Kids as Runaways

Blue lights activated on the top of a police carDepositPhotos

From time to time, newsrooms hear from law enforcement agencies about runaway kids. There’s a good reason to not mention that detail.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have runaway kids. There are many reasons a child might decide to leave home. Most people probably assume runaways just don’t like rules their parents establish. In some cases, that might be all it is.

But in some darker cases, neglect or abuse might make a child take off.

When a parent — a good one or a bad one — reports the child as missing to police, police investigate. Most of the time, they will notify media outlets of the child’s disappearance. Often, they will label the child in the report to media outlets as a “runaway.”

Sometimes, since most law enforcement agencies want to build up their own social media audiences, they’ll post about the missing kids on their social media profiles. A handful of agencies post on social instead of notifying media outlets. That’s a big mistake. Most media outlets have far larger audiences that could get the word out faster.

But law enforcement agencies make an even bigger mistake. They post graphics that look like “wanted” posters showing the child’s photo and description. Invariably, they label the child as a runaway.

They do so at the risk of people ignoring the disappearance

Part of my real job involves social media. A great deal of my real job involves monitoring web stats. I’ve noticed interesting — and disturbing — stats when it comes to missing children.

If the child is just listed as “missing,” more people will share that information on their own profiles. But if the child is listed as a “runaway,” fewer people tend to.

Obviously, I want people to share the information. It benefits the website and that social channel when they do. That’s the business side. No one would deny that.

But as a citizen, I want people to share information when a child goes missing. That’s true even if the child intentionally goes missing.

Yet, I’ve seen comments on such posts that show a lack of sympathy for runaways. People act like a runaway will “get what they get” in terms of consequences.

Do you think that’s a reasonable point of view? Not, I suspect, if you’re parent.

What people quickly forget about runaway kids

Children shouldn’t run away from home. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine reasons a child might run away.

Whether the child has what you consider to be a good reason, when the child leaves home, they leave the control and care of their parent or guardian.

The child might or might not be safe at home. But when the child is alone on the streets, that child isn’t safe. Even if the child feels safe, there are predators out there. Human trafficking is a major concern these days.

As long as a child is missing — whether a runaway or not — his or her parent or guardian doesn’t know where the child is. They can’t protect that child. That child is a potential target. The Polaris Project, one of the largest organizations serving trafficking victims, lists runaways and homeless youth as being “high risk” when it comes to targets.

If we as a society are going to put less emphasis on runaways because they decided to run away, we’re doing those children a major disservice. And if it were your child, you wouldn’t want anyone making assumptions like that.

The fact is police routinely withhold certain pieces of information when they send out news releases to media outlets. In many cases, they hold back details to protect their investigations. They will often redact personal information about victims.

Whether the child is a runaway should be one of those details police hold back.

The focus should always be on getting the child back home safely, not a debate about whether the child “deserves” a rough consequence because he or she chose to leave.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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