Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that legislators are moving to improve the way social workers and police deal with youth runaways. New laws would change the way police track runaways and increase spending on social services and outreach. Another recognizes the importance of programs for at-risk youth.
The move comes partly in response to a Times series in October that included the revelation that police departments nationwide fail to enter missing-persons reports into a national database about 16 percent of the time. The New York Police Department's rate of failure to do so was about 40 percent, according to the Times. That was highlighted in November when a 13-year-old with autism rode the subway system for 11 days despite his parents efforts to report him missing.
But the problem, as the Times' original series pointed out, is that parents only file reports in a minority of cases. (A quick aside about a problem with the series, it profiled white teenagers while its reporter, Ian Urbina, acknowledged afterward on WNYC's Leonard Lopate show that the majority of runaway youths are not white.)
Federal statistics indicate that in more than three-quarters of runaway cases, parents or caretakers have not reported the child missing, often because they are angry about a fight or would simply prefer to see a problem child leave the house. Experts say some parents fear that involving the police will get them or their children into trouble or put their custody at risk.
All the laws seem like back-end fixes to problems that start at home. In a 2008 report, the National Runaway Switchboard says that 29 percent of runaways left home because of problems there, another 15 percent because of abuse, and 4 percent for economic reasons. That means almost half of runaways left home because it was so bad they would rather not have one. Another 9 percent left because of problems at school, where children spend most of their time.
We could decide to address the problems of racism, housing, poverty and abuse that help create problems at home. We could also invest in schools so that they can be outlets for children with troubled home lives rather than just another problem. But those are probably harder to address, and it's easier for a flurry of activity that will make police do what they're already supposed to be doing.