Thousands of children run away from home each year in the U.S. A child is considered a runaway if he is a minor that has left the care of his parents or guardians and is not considered capable of taking care of himself. Child runaway laws in the U.S. vary from state to state. Running away from home is considered a crime in some states but not in others.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 797,500 children younger than 18 were reported missing in a one-year period, resulting in an average of 2,185 children reported missing each day. And these numbers do not account for the many unreported runaway children whose families may not know or care what happens to them. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, between 1.6 and 2.8 million minors run away every year.
Children at risk for becoming child runaways experience physical, sexual or verbal abuse and those who come from unstable households and dysfunctional families. Dysfunctional families may have problems such as alcohol or drug abuse, divorce, violence, abuse or neglect. Once they run away, youth are at high risk for becoming involved with prostitution, drugs and alcohol abuse.
Child runaway laws vary by state but most states do not consider it illegal for minors to run away from home. Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming, consider running away from home a status offense. That means it is against the law when a youth under 18 years old runs away from home.
In most areas, child runaways can legally be returned to their homes by law enforcement at any time and against the child's wishes. In states where it is illegal to run away, children may be punished with probation or may just be returned home. Even in states where it is not illegal for minors to run away, a child who repeatedly attempts to run away may end up in court. That can result in punishment such as a fine, a mandatory drug screening, and suspended drivers license. In many states, adults who help a child run away by offering assistance or shelter can be convicted of harboring a runaway, which is a misdemeanor.
The National Runaway Switchboard is a national crisis line and website that offers support for runaway children and their families. The organization is the federally designated national communication system for runaway and homeless youth and helps children and their families in crisis who call for help.