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Runaway cases on rise this year in Gainesville, Hall
Reasons for increase vary, hard for investigators to pin down
Gainesville Police Investigator Stephen Johnson looks over reports at his desks. Johnson has been assigned as the juvenile investigator for the department for roughly two years.

Child runaway cases

As recorded by Hall County Sheriff’s Office

• 2010: 81
• 2011: 75
• 2012: 82
• 2013: 104
• 2014: 102

National Runaway Safeline

What: Hotline for runaway youth
Contact: 1-800-786-2929

The number of child runaways reported this year to the Gainesville Police Department has outnumbered all missing person reports made the previous two years.

“Mondays and Tuesdays are kind of the days that my runaway reports tend to come in,” said Gainesville Police Investigator Stephen Johnson, who has been the juvenile investigator for the department for roughly two years.

The number, Johnson and Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said, has partly to do with the number of repeat offenders.

“We’ve got kids that continue to run away,” Johnson said.

The number of reports to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office also has increased in the past two years. In 2010, runaway reports to the Sheriff’s Office resulted in 81 cases. In 2014, there were 102.

November is National Runaway Prevention Month, where agencies hope to spread the word on youth homelessness across the country.

Calls from Georgia to the National Runaway Safeline last year totalled 2,321 cases, with more than 96,000 nationwide, according to the hotline group.

Finding one reason for this surge in cases is hard, Johnson said.

“I’m not going to say we’re going to always know what’s going through the kid’s heads, but it’s not the norm for us to find one specific reason why they’re running away,” he said. “It’s just they’ve got this group of friends that they want to be with, so they go away for the weekend and come back by Monday or Tuesday.”

The first person Johnson and other investigators often turn to are school resource officers placed in schools to assist students.

“They are somewhat counselors and all too often assist in these types of cases in locating the individuals and taking it one step further to do some follow up,” Holbrook said.

In other cases, Johnson’s work is done before he can pick up the report. A supplemental report will land on his desk saying a patrol officer spotted the missing person at a mall or another place where kids hang out.

“Patrol gets to the point where they know certain ones by name, too, and when they see them out, they’re going to check them out to make sure they’re not away from home,” Johnson said.

Though every case is different, following up on causes for a runaway leads law enforcement to potential wrongdoing.

“Many times you see these younger juveniles, especially females, that are in romantic relationships with older individuals,” Holbrook said, adding the boom of social media and the Internet has contributed to the issue.

Paperwork for children in transition, partially in the foster care system, has come across Johnson’s desk multiple times from kids who want to get away from a difficult situation.

“I’ve had a few that actually fled the (Division of Family and Children Services’) office,” Johnson said. “I’ve had one that fled their placement, so it’s a little bit of everything.”

DFCS spokeswoman Susan Boatwright said the department was unable to locate data regarding runaways and homeless youth related to child placement services. Citing Hall County DFCS Director Holly Campolong, Boatwright said the problem is not too prevalent other than “one or two children who run away from time to time.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the DFCS spokeswoman said a real concern is for children who “age out” of foster care when they turn 21 and don’t have a family supporting them.

“Kids that age out of foster care face the risk of becoming homeless, because they don’t have that support system in place anymore and they’re not connected to a family,” Boatwright said.