A Runaway Problem

At least one in every eight adults in America ran away from home for more than a day as children, making juvenile flight a far more widespread problem than is commonly realized.

A study by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that slightly more than 12 percent of the 1,016 adults interviewed last month reported they fled home at least once during childhood. That would translate to at least 27 million Americans.

“I find these statistics unbelievable,” said survey respondent Michael Napoletano, 50, of West Haven, Conn., even though he ran away several times as a teenager to escape a physically abusive mother. “What has caused this? Is it just the times we grew up in?”

Experts on missing children said the study probably understates the problem.

“People who are the most serious of runaway cases would not show up in this survey because they are dead or in prison,” said sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “There is no question that we have a serious runaway problem that is not being sufficiently addressed.”

The U.S. Justice Department has never reported how many missing- and runaway-children cases have been received at the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, even though Congress ordered an annual accounting in the National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990. The FBI maintains that these records are the property of local police departments and must remain confidential.

“What we don’t have are annual reports from the NCIC with some detail that really reflects the number of kids reported to law enforcement and the resolution of those cases,” said Finkelhor.

Mitch Oldham, of the Chicago-based National Runaway Switchboard, said his agency receives at least 150,000 telephone calls each year from runaways or from juveniles contemplating leaving home.

“Most people are very surprised by these numbers,” Oldham said. “The most common reason that we hear (for running away) comes under the umbrella of family dynamics. Something has triggered a conflict: difficulties in school, pressures to perform better, a breakdown in communication.”

Adults contacted in the Ohio University study gave a variety of reasons for fleeing home in their youth.

“My mother was on crack cocaine and very abusive. I was getting beaten for nothing,” said Casey Flowers, 24, of Kansas City, Mo. “I was 14 the first time I ran away. I went to live with my friends for about two weeks. But when I was 16, I ran away for good. I still don’t talk to my mother.”

Others had less dark reasons for leaving.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t love my parents. I just wanted to get away for a while,” said Anna Sprain, 51, of Knoxville, Tenn., who ran away four times. “I grew up in the latter part of the hippie years. Rebellion was the big thing then, so I ran away multiple times.”

Participants in the study were asked of their childhood: “Did you ever run away from home for at least 24 hours?” One hundred and twenty-three of the 1,016 people interviewed answered yes.

Adults in their late 20s and 30s were about as likely to have been runaways as people in their 40s and 50s. Only those 65 or older had a significantly lower rate of running away.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they “personally know” someone else who has run away from home. The poll found that 72 percent believes police “generally do a good job when it comes to looking for missing children,” and 60 percent believes the news media “generally is responsible in the way it reports stories about missing-children cases.”

Experts agree that the limited information available on missing-children cases suggests that there has been a slight decline in the number of runaways in recent years. But the survey found that 78 percent believes “children are more likely to be kidnapped, to run away or to get lost today” than when they were children.

“These perceptions are usually driven by the media,” said Oldham. “The frequency of these kinds of stories has been fairly high lately.”

Finkelhor agreed, but suggested the trend is positive.

“The media often get blamed for this,” he said. “But the media also has done a lot to focus the public on child-welfare issues. You can’t pay attention to a problem without creating the perception that the problem is getting worse.”

The survey questionnaire was designed by Scripps Howard News Service and conducted by telephone from July 5-19. It has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points. It was funded through a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter at Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.)