Part of Lt. Dan Franklin’s job is tracking down runaway teens and reuniting them with their families.
Franklin works in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office’s criminal investigations division and uses a plethora of tools and training to locate missing juveniles.
“Running away is common in Hall County, and it’s something we try to stay on top of,” Franklin said.
In 2019, the Sheriff’s Office had 67 missing juvenile reports filed.
A teen might be labeled as missing at first but then be classified as a runaway after further investigation.
Franklin said those who remain in the missing category have zero indication of problems that led to running away from home.
His missing persons or runaway investigations begin with a source, usually a parent, filing a report.
Once an investigator is assigned to the case, Franklin said the investigator contacts the person who reached out to gather as much information about the runaway as possible.
“One of the first things we do is get on social media and check activity,” Franklin said. “Then we try to get as much info as possible to determine where they’re going and who they may be with.”
Investigators will work with the teen’s school resource officers to see who the runaway typically spends time with.
In many cases, Franklin said the SRO might have more information about the child’s habits than the parents.
“A lot of them come back on their own fairly quickly,” he said.
Runaways that decide to return home but may have gotten stranded far away have options, thanks to program’s like Greyhound’s Home Free, which provided free bus tickets.
“Ones that stay gone, we put a lookout on them,” Franklin said.
A lookout includes getting information about the area the runaways may have traveled to, soliciting help from nearby agencies and making contact with those living in the area.
If the youth stays gone for more than a few days, Franklin said the department has a packet they take to the family to fill out. It includes any knowledge of scars, marks or injuries the juvenile might have.
Why teens run away from home
Franklin said runaway teens usually leave their homes in response to family issues, like not wanting to follow their parents’ rules.
Kathryne Lebell, the National Runaway Safeline’s development coordinator, said household trouble is the No. 1 reason teens decide to run away. Each day the safeline organization assists callers, whether to lend a non-judgmental ear or help them through a crisis.
In 2017, Lebell said the safeline received 1,908 calls from Georgia.
Some of the main scenarios she sees for runaways include emotional or physical abuse, divorce, a new spouse entering the home or any other challenge in the household.
Lebell said the safeline has found a high runaway incident rate among LGBTQ teens and foster youth.
Ari Mathe works as a child welfare law specialist in Hall County. As of Monday, Jan. 6, she said two teens out of the 350 children in Hall County foster care are on runaway status.
She said this number fluctuates from week to week. At one point in December 2019, the runaway numbers reached six.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of reasons teens run away, even beyond what they’d ever articulate or be able to identify,” she said.
Mathe said most of the reasons for running away revolve around trauma.
The trauma could arise from the events that led teens to foster care or the removal from their original environment into an unfamiliar space.
“They’re ripped away from everything they know, and that’s jarring,” Mathe said. “That’s a hard adjustment putting a kid from North Hall into urban Atlanta, going to school with tons of people they’ve never been exposed to. Layering that with the trauma they’ve already experienced, it’s a tough situation.”
Getting kids out of harm’s way
Greyhound Lines and the National Runaway Safeline have worked for over a decade to give free tickets to runaway, homeless and trafficked youth ages 12-21, who would like to be reunited with their families.
The Home Free program provided around 250 Greyhound bus tickets to youth in 2018.
In order to receive the free transportation, Crystal Booker, Greyhound’s communications specialist, said people must contact the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-786-2929. The runaway youth and their families or guardians must also agree on the reunification.
“I think the Greyhound program is great,” Mathe said. “I hope that foster teens will be more exposed to the message that they can use this resource to get back, especially teens in danger if out on their own who could be pulled into trafficking or drug culture.”
When teens leave their homes and stop listening to their parents, Franklin said they tend to turn to the streets for guidance. He said this new exposure for runaways increases their risk for getting drawn into human trafficking.
“The most common scenario is kids running away to be with people their parents don’t necessarily want them to hang out with,” he said. “ … When there’s a situation where a young female leaves to be in the company of significantly older males she doesn’t know, that dramatically increases (the risk of) being pulled into sex trafficking.”
It all comes down to the home
Although targeting the root of a teen’s household problems may prove challenging, Mathe believes there’s another way to decrease the numbers of kids in foster care running away.
Because of the shortage of foster homes in Hall, many of the county’s foster kids are placed in houses far away from where they grew up.
Mathe said she thinks having more placements in Hall would help alleviate some of the trauma-based responses, like running away, among the county’s foster teens.
“I have seen a much higher degree of success for teens in care when they were able to be maintained in a local placement,” Mathe said. “Such that they could continue attending their regular school and have more connectivity with as much of their family and friends, as is safe and possible.”
For more information about the National Runaway Safeline, visit 1800runaway.org.