One weekend, my husband and I decided to take a rare trip out of town leaving our two youngest children with my mom and our 17 year old to stay alone for the first time.  My mom lived several miles from our home and told me not to worry as she would check on our 17 year old from time to time.  Instead of staying the whole weekend as we had planned, we decided to come home early to see our kids.  After picking up the little ones, we were excited to be back home.  Our daughter’s car was in the driveway; however, we surprised because she told us she had to work.  When we entered the house, it was unusually quiet.  After calling her name several times, there was no answer.  Immediately, I put my stuff down and went to her room.  To my surprise, her room was spotless and all her stuffed animals were gone.  As I turned to walk out, I noticed that her closet was cleaned out and her suitcase was missing.  At that point I knew I had faced every parents’ worst nightmare, my child had run away from home!

I knew at that point my daughter had runaway!

I won’t go into the details of why my daughter thought she needed to leave home, but I will say that we eventually worked out all our differences.  Personally, her leaving was one of the toughest moments I ever had to face.  I was worried about everything: her sleeping arrangements, her ability to get food, medical care, her college education, and her safety. Fortunately, the school she enrolled into, as an independent student, had some excellent school counselors.  Her counselor was willing to speak to me on the phone about my rights as a parent, her rights as a student, and protections for students considered as couch surfers (moving from house to house) or homeless.

My first decision, as a parent of a runaway teen, was to decide if I was going to make her come home.  Because I was clueless about runaway laws in my state, I had to speak to law enforcement about my rights as a parent.  In my state, the law states that students can be taken into custody without a warrant if the child who has run away from home or has been reported as a runaway. Within 12 hours of being taken into custody, the child must be returned to parents/guardians, brought before the court or an intake officer, or released. The counselor told me that I had every right to report her as unruly; however, I also risked the the possibility of negatively impacting our relationship further.  My husband and I discussed the pros and cons of reporting her and we decided that we would not have her arrested (this was a very difficult decision for our family).  It is important to note that not every state in the United States or Canada considers running away from home as a crime.  If you live in Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, Utah,  or West Virginia, a student can be arrested for running away from home.  In addition, here is a link to the federal law regarding unruly teens and runaways starting on page three of this document.

While I was trying to decide if I would have my daughter arrested, I had to make the choice to charge the adult, where she was living, as harboring a teen.  In many states, landlords, other minors, and other parents can be charged with a misdemeanor for knowingly

No personal connection…random picture

harboring a teen unless their is a reasonable fear that the youth is in danger.  For example, in Oklahoma, adults who allow teens to stay in their home have 12 hours to report that youth’s situation to the law or Child Protective Services. Again, due to the risk of alienating our relationship with our daughter, we chose to not press charges against the adults who were housing our teenager (again, another very hard decision as I wanted to go to that house and….well, let me stop here). 

And so, my daughter stayed at another family’s house while I tried to carry on. My mind was consistently thinking about her, I could not sleep at night, I was moody, and I had to fight the desire to go get her.  The person that really helped me to think logically was my daughter’s school counselor. She provided me with academic

Listening is very powerful!

updates, encouraged me to reach out to my daughter in positive ways, and let me vent my frustrations without judgment.  While days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, I carried on personally and professionally. Then one day I got a phone call from my daughter that she wanted to come and visit.  While it was not what I exactly hoped for, it was a step in the right direction.  As a family, we were able to sit down and actually hear her concerns for the first time.  It was a big step in the right direction!  Finally, after almost a year on working on our communication, conflict resolution skills, active listening, and empathy skills as a family, my daughter finally decided to come home.  Although it took us years to build trust with each other, I have learned a lot from my experience and finally feel comfortable to share with my experience other counselors. 

The Problem of Runaway Youth

How bad is the teen runaway issue?  Okay,  honestly it is really bad.  According to the Congressional Research Service, who provides statistics on runaway and homeless youth, between 1 million to 1.7 million youth between the ages of 12-17 leave home per year.  The National Congress of State Legislatures breaks down the statistics further:

  • One in seven youth between the ages of 10 and 18 leave home;
  • Students age 12 to 17 are more at risk for homelessness than adults;
  • Most runaways are females (75%); 
  • At least six 6 to 22 percent of homeless females are pregnant;
  • Between 20 to 40  percent of runaways are LGBTQ;
  • A large number of runaways are abused;
  • 75 percent of students who runaway will drop out of school.

Why do youth leave home?  There are many reasons why teens decide to run away from home.  In their report, the Congressional Research Service identified some of the main reasons why youth leave home.  The top reason teens report they leave home is due to conflict with their family (fights with a stepparent, sexual orientation issues, substance abuse, sexual activity, alcohol use, and school problems). Another factor for teens was family instability including abuse, lack of relationship with parent(s), and drug use.  A third reason given by teens for leaving home was environmental factors such as the lack of school engagement, influence of peers to leave home, neighborhood problems, and physical victimization.  According to social scientists, there are two types of youth who run away from home: the chronic runaway and the episodic runaway.  James Lehman says that chronic runaways use the threat of running away to control and manipulate others while episodic runaways lack the power to problem solve and see running away as a way to avoid punishment, embarrassment, or humiliation. No matter the reason for leaving home, the teen runaway faces many struggles that endanger his or her future.

Dangers for Teen Runaways

Once a teen leaves home, there are many issues and dangers he or she may face.  Some of these problems, according to the National Congress of State Legislatures, include:

  • Developing or continuing at risk behaviors like drug use, multiple sex partners, and unprotected sex. These behaviors can continue a teen’s descent into homelessness;
  • Poor physical and mental health like malnutrition, dental problems, mental health problems, and even suicide;
  • Becoming involved in the sex trafficking industry;
  • Engaging in “survival sex”. According to Newsweek Magazine, survival sex includes trading sex for items like food, clothing, and shelter.  In a study conducted among homeless teens in New York City, LGBQT teens engaged in survival sex seven times more likely than heterosexual teens;
  • Selling illegal drugs and substances to survive;
  • Failure to complete their high school education due to difficulties in attending school. Some of the greatest difficulties for students to attend school includes their inability to prove residency, provide immunization documents, or other needed documentation.

How Can School Counselors Help? 

 As school counselors, we are in an unique position to help students who are considering or may have decided to runaway from home.  Last year, I decided to put together a teen runaway kit and place it in our lobby area.  This year, I have decided to create more and put them in areas where teens hangout in our community. If you decide to create your own kit, here are some materials they may be useful.

    Teen Safety Kit

    • Create and provide a brochure about what unaccompanied youth need to know. Check out this brochure from Fairfax County Schools.
    • Provide them information about how they can receive SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program services as a homeless youth.  According to the National Association for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth,  unaccompanied youth can receive food stamps without a parent’s or guardian’s signature. However, in many SNAP offices are not aware of the law that allows youth under 18 to receive these benefits and may deny youth under 18. The support of a school counselor may be tremendously helpful!
    • Give them information about how to get home. Greyhound bus lines provides free bus passes for students who are trying to get home. Share the 1-800-RUNAWAY number with the teens.  
     Random fact…did you know the song Runaway was about Bon Jovi watching runaways getting off the Greyhound bus.
    • Share a text code for students who want to escape sex trafficking – text HELP or Info to Text: BeFree.
    • Include information about state laws and moving out at 17. 
    • Provide information about the McKinney-Vento Act so teens understand their rights under the law.

    In addition to providing information, there are other ways as school counselors can assist students: 

    Educating yourself and providing information for runaway and homeless.  One great resource is the NAEHCY Toolkit kit.

      NAEHCY Toolkit for High School Counselors 

      This is an amazing toolkit which includes information regarding enrolling homeless students, duties of schools in reporting runaways, McKinney-Vento checklist for school counselors, how to obtain college waivers for homeless students, how to get food stamps, medicaid, and much more.

        Help your school staff and colleagues understand the McKinney-Vento Act. See recommendations for middle and high school staff.

          Keep a supply of hygiene products available for teens like toothpaste and toothbrushes, deodorant, feminine products, and soap and wash cloths. Many organizations will send you trial samples if you write to them.

            Keep school supplies on hand for students. 

              Assist unaccompanied youth to apply and think about attending college. One way to do this is by participating in McKinney-Vento FAFSA week and displaying posters where homeless youth are located. You can order additional products free of charge

                Advertise and provide college waivers for unaccompanied youth.  

                  Provide information for students who are not interested or unable to stay in high school. Many programs specially target teens who are homeless, in foster care, or have run away from home. Homeless youth are a priority for programs like Job Corp.   

                  Assist in the college admission process. Check out the NAEHCY College Access and Success Toolkit. This toolkit includes information and resources for choosing a college, financial aid, college preparation programs (like TRIO and Upward Bound), checklists, and much more!

                      Bring attention to the issue of teen runaways during the month of November by downloading the National Runaway Prevention Month.  Sponsor a “Wear Green Day” on November 12th.

                        Although our main responsibility is to the students, we can offer assistance and a listening ear to parents like the school counselor did for me many years ago. One of the biggest factors in preventing teens from running away is their parents.  The National Runaway Safelines has a helpful handout of tips for parents who are struggling with their teen’s behavior. 

                        Finally if you need additional information about conferences, free materials, and other resources, I have provided a list for you below.  


                        National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness

                        National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Conference

                        Runaway and Homeless Youth 2015 Conference


                        Runaway Prevention Curriculum

                        LGBTQ Resources

                        Free LGBTQ Runaway Poster

                        Safe School Coalition – Information on LGBTQ Youth


                        NAEHCY Educational Podcasts about Homeless Youth

                        Suggested Media About Runaways


                         Free Downloaded Runaway Poster


                        Research on Homeless Youth


                        Resources by State for Homeless and Runaway Youth

                        Federal Resources for Feeding Homeless Students

                        Sex Trafficking

                        Sex Trafficking in Americas Schools: Information for Educators

                        Human Trafficking Fact Sheet for Schools

                        Sex Trafficking Assessment for Educators

                        Tool Kits

                        Runaway and Homeless Youth Domestic Violence Toolkit

                        Runaway Youth Toolkit for Schools


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