TAMPA BAY, Fla. - Runaway children make up 80% of missing child cases, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. While authorities insist most runaways return or are found within just a few days, some are never found. Their parents may never learn what happened to them.
Runaway children don’t always get the same attention that abducted children cases are given. There are rarely massive police searches, communities posting up fliers, or neighborhood canvassed for clues. But runaways can be just as vulnerable once they are out on the streets and alone.
“They’re being exploited. They’re getting into prostitution, gangs, drugs,” said Robert Lowery, executive director of the missing children division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The I-Team is tracking down missing children in Florida as part of an investigation airing Wednesday at 11pm. Many were willing to speak to investigator Michael George.
Teen runaways, in particular, present some big challenges for authorities. They’re often in hiding, trying at all costs to avoid being returned to their parents, group homes, or foster homes.
In an online chat, one missing 15-year old told the I-Team, “I’m missing right now. Cops might get involved and I don’t want to get arrested.” She wasn’t willing to tell us her exact location.
Authorities say they aren’t looking to arrest missing children. Their goal is to make sure the child is safe and return them to their caregiver. But it can be a very difficult task when the child doesn’t want to be found.
Lowery says overworked police departments often don’t put as much effort into locating repeat runaway teens as they do for more serious crimes.
“Some of these kids run anywhere from 8, 10, 15 times. We’ll locate them, we’ll return them to a safe place, only the child will go in the front door and come out the back door,” Lowery said.
There are plenty of reasons why teens run. Many told I-Team investigator Michael George they were running from abuse, either at home or at a foster or group home. Others leave to be with boyfriends or girlfriends, or after conflicts with parents.
“Often times the rules at home are too strict. They’ve had limitations taken away from them: their iPods, their video games,” said Sgt. Chris Powell of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
But the most common missing child cases might be solved sooner if parents are more aware, according to law enforcement. The Clearwater Police Department says runaways often leave home for just a few days at a time, staying at friends’ homes.
“If you have a child who brings home a friend and gives you a sad story about why they want to stay with you for a couple of days, we’re asking those parents to ask a few questions,” said spokesperson Elizabeth Watts.
Another problem with locating runaways occurs after a child turns 18. Many local police departments told us they no longer search for runaways once they turn 18. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it continues to follow leads on runaways, even after the age of 18.
“We never close a case of a missing child until we know positively what happened to that child,” Lowery said.
On Wednesday at 11pm on ABC Action News, you will hear from missing runaways located by the I-Team. They raise some important questions about how hard they are being looked for and how we were able to track them down when no one else could.
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