Understanding the complexities behind each endangered runaway case is critical when working a missing youth case. Endangered runaways are defined as a child or teenager who is away from home without the permission of his or her parent(s) or legal guardian(s). Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away each year in the United States. A staggering 91 percent of these runaways were endangered runaways. Nearly half of all these endangered runaways were 16-17 years old. There are 4 major factors which can compound and force children and teenagers to the extreme.
Verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in the household is the number one factor that leads to endangered runaway situations. Ongoing abuse by a parent or guardian leaves the victim with few options other than running away from the abuse. These types of runaway cases are often spontaneous and poorly planned. The lack of planning puts the endangered runaway in even more danger, often leading to homelessness. Due to the fear of retaliation by the parent or guardian, there is an increased fear of returning home. These combined factors make these types of cases very dangerous for the child/teenager.
Minors who are dependent on drugs are often forced out of the home, either by their guardian or on their own. Addiction to drugs leads these endangered runaways into even more dangerous environments. Predators often lure in these vulnerable minors with the promise of drugs. This creates an increased dependence on the predator, decreasing the victim’s desire and need to return home.
Although most endangered runaway youth fall between the age of 16-17, they are not the most at risk. The most at-risk age group are those 13 years of age and younger. 13-year-olds and younger lack the resources, planning, and mental capacity to thrive on their own.
Runaways with diagnosed mental or developmental disabilities are one of the most endangered classification due to the lack of needed care. Mentally disabled children require increased supervision and are often dependent on medication. A specific and separate mental health classification of endangerment is a prior episode of a suicide attempt. Youth with an attempted suicide in the last year are at a much higher risk of becoming an endangered runaway in the future.