From the Journals

Runaway youth: Knowing the risk factors and care needs



As many as 1 in 20 youth run away from home each year, and you can play a critical role in identifying adolescents at high risk through confidential social histories and discussions, according to a clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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The academy’s data-rich report, “Runaway Youth: Caring for the Nation’s Largest Segment of Missing Children,” details how unaccompanied youth who run away – either on their own or who are asked to leave home – have high rates of trauma and neglect, mental illness, substance abuse, family dysfunction, and disengagement from school.

Children who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning or queer (LGBTQ) and youth in protective custody also are at high risk of running away and of becoming homeless – and once away from home, they and other runaways are at high risk for additional trauma, victimization, and violence, including sexual exploitation, according to the report published in Pediatrics.

“There clearly are certain populations at higher risk, and we really need to be aware of and in tune with these risks, and ask about the home and the household in order to try to decrease the risk of these kids getting into dangerous situations,” Thresia B. Gambon, MD, said in an interview. She is coauthor of the report and a pediatrician with the Citrus Health Network in Miami.

Among the AAP’s recommendations for practice is the guidance to conduct a thorough and confidential psychosocial assessment such as the HEEADSSS assessment (home environment, education and employment, eating peer-related activities, drugs, sexuality, suicide/depression, and safety) and to use a validated depression screening tool for adolescents, such as the Patient Health Questionnaire for Adolescents (PHQ-A) and the primary care version of the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI).

Broadly speaking, pediatric practices should “consider assessing for previous runaway episodes and risk factors for running away using a trauma-informed approach, which involves being aware of trauma and adverse childhood experiences that can affect health,” according to the report. The AAP Trauma Toolbox for Primary Care is mentioned as a resource.

Most surprising to Dr. Gambon in the research and report-writing process were data showing that disengagement from school is a significant risk factor. “This stood out to me,” she said. “If there are school problems [of various types], kids might run away to avoid attending school.”

Tasked with updating the AAP’s 2004 clinical report, “The Pediatrician’s Role in the Prevention of Missing Children,” Dr. Gambon and coauthor, Janna R. Gewirtz O’Brien, MD, decided to look more closely at runaway youth after studying the numbers – some studies estimate that between 5% and 8% of adolescents run away every year. They saw that, “in general, the number of kids who just go missing has actually decreased [with the help of] cell phones,” Dr. Gambon said in an interview.

“The numbers of kids who are actually running away are high,” she said, “and probably we’re underidentifying these in our primary care clinics.”

Because a significant number of runaway youth become homeless, data on the homeless offers a valuable window not only into the health risks of homelessness for teens (substance abuse, pregnancy, STDs,) but also into risk factors for leaving home in the first place, she noted. Research shows, for instance, that about 20%-40% of teenagers who are homeless identify as LGBTQ, compared with 4%-10% of their nonhomeless peers.

When an adolescent at high risk for running away is identified, you should use practice- and community-based resources to address key issues, support psychological and behavioral health needs of the child and family, and ensure safety.

For youth who have run away, you can share information on local resources, as well as the national Runaway Safeline (1-800-RUNAWAY), which provides 24-hour referrals to community resources, including shelter, food banks, social services, and counseling. You also can ask adolescents whether they have sources of support and shelter (safe, supportive adults who might help in a crisis), and discuss safety plans for leaving home that include health care to mitigate risk, such as reliable contraception and access to mental health care.

“The goal with talking about a safety plan isn’t, of course, to encourage a child to run away, but if they feel as if they need to find somewhere else to live or stay, to discuss what resources are available to them to try to keep them as safe as possible when they’re out of their home,” Dr. Gambon said.

Dr. Gambon speaks partly from experience. She works routinely with youth who have run away from foster care homes, youth who have been trafficked, and other runaways. “I always try to talk with them about safety. I try not to put them down for their decisions but to work with them to make better decisions,” she said. “I work closely with a psychologist because a big part of this is getting them to have self-worth. They often feel as if no one cares, and some just want to be heard and to be able to talk about their situations.”

The AAP report notes that, of more than 70,000 contacts made to Runaway Safeline in 2017, 31% were about youth who were contemplating running away, 16% were about youth who had run away, 5% were about youth asked to leave home or prevented from returning, and 9% concerned youth experiencing homelessness. About three-quarters of the calls came from the youth themselves.

Dr. Gambon and Dr. Gewirtz O’Brien, of the department of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, worked with the AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health and the AAP Council on Community Pediatrics in producing the report. There was no external funding for this report and the authors said they had no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Gambon TB et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Jan 21. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-3752.

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