What Cities Need to Know to Provide Services to Runaway Youth

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NLC’s Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform project is increasing the capacity of city officials to address the needs of runaway youth and keep them out of the juvenile justice system. Join us for our upcoming webinar, Opportunities for City Leaders to Improve Outcomes for Runaway Youth Without Juvenile Justice System Involvement.

Runaway Life on the streets ain’t easy. (nathan4847/Getty Images)

The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that on any given night, there are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth in America. Thousands of these youth are runaways, minors who left home without permission and stayed away for at least one night. Youth run away from home for many reasons, but often they choose to leave because home is not a safe place — over 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth are victims of abuse or neglect.

Local governments and their community partners have the opportunity to support runaways by diverting them from the juvenile justice system and providing services that meet their complex needs.

Challenges Facing Runaway Youth
After leaving home, a runaway may end up living on the street or staying with people who do not have her best interests in mind. Because runaways are often too young to sign a lease, get a hotel room or hold a job, many survive by selling drugs, panhandling or engaging in prostitution.

Thirty-nine states designate running away as a status offense, the common term for several non-criminal behaviors prohibited by law because of a young person’s age. Even where running away is not a status offense, most states authorize police to take runaways into custody without a court order. Consequently, although runaways may need support services, many do not seek help for fear of getting into trouble with the law or being forced to return home.

What Local Governments Can Do
In states where running away is considered a status offense, such as New Jersey and Georgia, runaways are at risk of being referred to the juvenile court system or sent to a detention center. Local governments can support runaways by diverting them from the juvenile justice system and connecting them to service providers that address their social, physical and mental health needs.

Local Examples

  • Gloucester Township, N.J., recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interacting with runaway youth, created Project MARRS. Project MARRS is a set of strategies for law enforcement to use when working with runaways. One strategy involves the Juvenile Return Questionnaire. Police use the questionnaire responses to assess whether the youth is at risk of running away again or if abuse or neglect at home factored into her decision to leave. The Juvenile Investigation Unit, which includes a licensed clinical social worker, analyzes the runaway’s responses and any case history the runaway or her family may have in order to decide whether to refer the runaway to support services or return her home.
  • Clayton County, Ga., decreased the number of runaways entering the courts through a multi-system integration approach. When police pick a young person up for running away, the Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team coordinates a response with local service providers before a petition can be filed in juvenile court. This allows a runaway’s needs to be addressed before legal action is taken, reducing her likelihood of getting involved with the justice system or running away again.
  • The Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), which already has a drop-in center, an outreach program and a confidentially-located emergency shelter to connect runaway youth to community service providers, is now part of the stakeholder group establishing a juvenile assessment and service center in Las Vegas. When it is the best option, NPHY will also support runaways through the process of reuniting them with their families. Nevada’s Homeless Youth Right to Shelter Law gives runaway youth 12 years and older who don’t have a stable residence the legal right to a number of services, such as food and overnight shelter, counseling and access to medical care.

Participate in our Webinar to Learn More
To learn more about local government action being taken to help runaway youth, join us for Opportunities for City Leaders to Improve Outcomes for Runaway Youth Without Juvenile Justice System Involvement, on Wednesday, October 7, 2015 at 3:00 pm Eastern.

Register today!

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative supports NLC’s juvenile justice reform project.

Izzy Jorgensen

About the Author: Izzy Jorgensen was a 2015 summer intern with NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.