Runaway Juveniles

What To Do If Your Teen Runs Away

If you live in the Arcata city limits, call the Arcata Police Department (707-822-2424). If you live in the County, call Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office (707-445-7251). Don’t wait, there is no waiting period to report a missing or runaway child.

When you speak to law enforcement, be prepared with the following information: a description of your teen as you last saw him/her (height/weight, hair length, hair color, clothes, piercings, tattoos), anything that will help an officer identify your teen out of a group of teens. Have a current photograph available. Be able to estimate how long your teen has been gone, where you think they might have gone, who they may be with, and whether or not your teen has run away before. If your teen has a history of mental health problems, please share this with law enforcement, as it may place your teen at higher risk.

You will be connected with an officer who will take a full report, either by phone or in person. Ask for the officer’s name and the case number for future reference.

Make contact with your teen’s friends and their parents. Talk to your other children and family members.

Search your teen’s room for clues as to where they may be, how long they plan to be away, who they may have contacted before leaving, and even their state of mind when they left.

Check your teen’s social media, and those of your teen’s friends for more clues.

Call your teen’s cell phone service provider and request records of calls and text messages.

Many runaway teens continue to attend school while they are gone because that is where their friends are. Call the school to check attendance and request a phone call if your teen comes to class.

Why Teens Run Away

Teens leave home for a wide variety of reasons, including trouble in school, arguments with their family, family disruptions like divorce or a new marriage, problems that arise due to their sexual orientation, alcohol and other drug use (the teen’s or the parent’s) and the influence of predators. Runaways may leave on impulse, protesting a family quarrel over a rule or an isolated incident. The most concerning motivation for running away is due to neglect or abuse at home.

“Situational runaways” are the largest group of runaways, comprised of young people who leave home for a day or two after a disagreement with parents. Generally, these teens manage to stay with friends, “couch surf”, or spend a brief time on the street. They usually return home within a few days. A small percentage may repeat this behavior and remain away for longer periods. Some will “check in” with parents and even come home when parents are at work and leave again before parents return.

Runaways may leave for long periods of time, often progressing from “repeat runaway” to “chronic runaway” to “street youth.” The latter do not return home at all, but live in transitory housing, such as friends' apartments, shelters, cheap hotels, abandoned buildings ("squats"), or underneath high bridges. They tend to hang out at fast food restaurants, shopping malls and video arcades. These youth are usually totally on their own for their survival and are frequent victims of the violence and numerous dangers of the streets.

Teens who run away are not “bad.” They are caught up in pressures from which they feel a need to escape. The vast majority of teens running away are doing so because they do not have alternative skills to cope with pressure or solve a problem they see as insurmountable.

A parent’s role is to act first to establish their teen’s safety and second to help the teen develop the necessary skills to cope in their world. Helping your teen in this manner can take a number of forms, but almost certainly will result in some overall shift in how the family works together as a unit.

When Your Teen Comes Home

Take a Break from Each Other

Do not start talking about it right away. Your emotions are too high at this point to get anywhere in a conversation. Go two separate directions until you both have gotten some rest.

Ask and Listen.

What felt right about leaving to them? What is happening in your teen’s life that feels overwhelming. How can you (parent) make a difference for your teen? Does the teen feel heard and considered within the family? What brought them home (if they returned on their own)? The point is to begin a conversation that keeps doors open. Slow negotiation around the actual problems begins in this manner.


Tell them how you felt about them going, let them know you were hurt and afraid when they left. Let them know that there isn't a problem that you, together, can't solve. Develop alternatives should the teen ever feel running away is the only solution: offer a “delay-reduced consequence” conversation where the teen can tell you anything without fear of immediate consequences, as long as the truth is told. This does not allow the teen to act with full immunity, this is an opportunity for the teen to come to you with a problem or confession with the expectation you will work reasonably through the problem together (you as the parent do not get to overreact and clobber the teen with punishment). Other alternatives include identifying other adults the teen can speak to when things get overwhelming, writing letters describing the overwhelm, and (oh no!) addressing the specific problem face-on.

Although teens are resistant to believing parents were ever young, help your teen understand your own experiences in life, and what you were able to learn from those experiences. “Been there, done that” can be played in a variety of ways; using some non-condescending, limited self-disclosure can make the difference.

Get Some Help

If this isn't the first time or you have problems communicating when they get back, it's time to ask for help. Assistance for parents, teens, and families can be found at the Arcata Police Department’s Juvenile Diversion Department at (707) 825-2538.