The image of a doe-eyed young blonde girl is splashed across the news. She is the latest victim of abduction or runaway -- but she is just one. For every child that is missing from their home due to abduction (stranger or family), hundreds of children go missing from their homes for entirely different reasons. Estimates on the exact number of runaways each year vary widely, anywhere from 800,000 to 2.3 million. Counting displaced children is challenging -- some families don't report, or report late. But even taking the most conservative numbers, hundreds of thousands of children are on the streets of our communities each day.
These children don't have exciting or scandalous stories to plaster across the headlines. Not everyone has grid-searches and search-and-rescue dogs or thousands of followers on a Facebook page. These runaway children represent the silent crises that go on every day in our neighborhoods.
Recently, I spoke with Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Safeline. The National Runaway Safeline helps hundreds of thousands of runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth children and their families as they deal with these crises. Maureen is on the front lines of what should be a national crisis, and she as she tells it, there is no one demographic for a runaway -- and at the end of the day they are quite simply from everyone's community: children in desperate need of our help.
"Kids that run from home aren't bad kids. Often they're running from what they think are bad situations. For a child, 'bad' is relative," Maureen said. "The situation could be a too-strict parent or could require protective services. But regardless, runaways are kids who are having trouble coping."
She went on, "We can't put them in the bucket of the bad kids hanging out on the corner. They're not bad kids -- they need our help."
For the National Runaway Safeline, one of the biggest challenges she faces is that most parents believe that something like this could never happen to them. So I asked her about how her organization handles that.
"I tell parents that I believe that they are probably right -- their child probably won't run away," Maureen said. "But you never know what kind of circumstances that your child or your family may be facing in the future. It is something to be aware of in terms of the numbers of kids that do run away in this country."
Because Maureen runs one of the best organizations for reuniting families, she also has a message of hope. There are things that you as a parent can do to continue to do to reduce the chances that your child will run away.
The National Runaway Safeline recommends you try the following:
1. Create responsibility
Parents should try to give teens choices instead of dictating specific decisions. It makes them understand that actions carry responsibility.
2. Discuss feelings
It is really important for parents to acknowledge that they were a teen and they remember going through some growing pains. The information you're willing to share as a parent will foster communication. Ask your children to tell you how they feel about certain situations. Acknowledge their feelings and offer an example of how you've felt similarly.
3. Administer praise - and be specific
Tell your children how you really liked the way they handled a particular conflict with a friend. A simple comment like this can have deep and lasting value for a child -- and can reinforce positive behaviors.
4. Don't always give the answers
If a child asks a question, play a what-if game to help that child develop problem-solving skills. Help them learn to process and cope with challenges on their own.
5. Talk to your child about the National Runaway Safeline
Even if your child may never face a situation where they need our help, and I hope they don't, their friends might turn to them for support. Providing them with experts who can help them and their peers is an important step.
We will follow up with Maureen in a couple of weeks to discuss warning signs.