Life on the Street Ain’t Easy: What Cities Need to Know to Provide Services to Runaway Youth

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By Isabella Jorgensen
National League of Cities

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. NLC’s upcoming a webinar is part of our growing collection of resources to support city leaders working to increase public safety and improve outcomes for youth through juvenile justice reforms.

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 community partners across the country have the opportunity to support runaways by diverting them from the juvenile justice system and providing services that meet their complex needs.  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative supports NLC’s juvenile justice reform project, as well as the Status Offense Reform Center.

Challenges Facing Runaway Youth

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.

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.

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 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 someone up for a status offense such as 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 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, join us on the Opportunities for City Leaders to Improve Outcomes for Runaway Youth Without Juvenile Justice System Involvement webinar at 3:00 PM Eastern on Wednesday, October 7, 2015. 

Police Chief Harry Earle from Gloucester Township, N.J. and The Honorable David Mayer, Mayor of Gloucester Township will join Lisa Pilnik, Deputy Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice to share local examples and promising practices for cities looking to address the needs of local runaway youth. Register for the webinar today!

This blog has been reprinted with the permission of the National League of Cities.