The case of a teenager leaving home without informing anyone is not something to be taken lightly.
That's what area law enforcement officials and a Paducah-based psychologist say. Multiple reports of missing teenagers have surfaced in the region this summer, many resolved in less than 24 hours. Police say the public may be noticing more reports about teens going missing due to an initiative by police to get the word out as soon as possible.
If a teenager has been missing for even less than an hour, police are obligated to take the case as seriously as any other case.
That means missing teen cases, similar to any other missing person cases, cost time and money. Sgt. Michael Webb with the Kentucky State Police said generally, when an individual is reported missing, troopers on duty will communicate where the person may be. Then, if no one is found immediately, one trooper is usually assigned to search and is "actively engaged in looking for that person."
"If they have not found that person's whereabouts and found that person is safe, then we would open a missing persons case," he said.
While television shows may present the idea that police utilize a lot of technology to find missing people, Webb said in the majority of cases when a teenager is found, police gather most of their information from speaking with the missing person's family and friends and physically searching for the teen.
"It's old-fashioned police work," he said.
For cases involving children who have run away, Webb said, it can sometimes be easy to learn whom they're with.
"A common factor is, in juvenile cases, who they've been hanging around, and a lot of those are romantic relationships," he said.
If the individual they're found with is over the age of 18, that person can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
For some teens, the act of running away may not seem as serious as it is, Webb said.
"When a child runs away from his or her natural home and the environment they've been raised in, they may think they are prepared for the dangers of the world when in reality they are not," Webb said.
"Oftentimes they are placed in situations that put their lives in jeopardy ... there are a lot of people who are looking to exploit these children for a lot of reasons, and they are not old enough to recognize these things."
Webb said when police return youth home, they often advise them of such concerns.
Captain Brian Laird with the Paducah Police Department explained that local law enforcement's procedure for finding missing or runaway teens is similar to KSP's process. He cited three recent cases:
On June 25, a 15-year-old was reported missing after leaving home on Lovelaceville Road. She was found at home a few days later.
On June 26, a 17-year-old Marshall County girl was reported missing in Paducah and was found the next day at an ex-boyfriend's home in Benton.
On June 13, a 16-year-old was reported to have left his home on Ohio Street in Paducah but returned home later that day.
Laird said issuing more missing person reports has brought police more feedback from the public. Not only can individuals call police directly, but they can also call Crimestoppers at 270-443-8355 if they want to remain anonymous.
On the other end of the spectrum, Laird said it's just as important to call police when the person has returned home. In one recent case of a missing teenager, police were not notified by family that the teen had been found until three days after the child had returned home safely.
A serious issue
Dr. Sarah Shelton, licensed clinical psychologist, said one in seven youths between ages 10 and 18 in the U.S. will run away from home at some point.
Shelton said cases of runaway teenagers are often attributed to behavioral issues, and the departures often are followed by further problems. She said at least 25 percent of runaways will be victimized by violence or sex crimes after they flee home.
"Historically, society has viewed the runaway as a juvenile delinquent with behavioral problems," she said. "This may partially stem from the fact that running away is criminalized by the justice system. However, the reality is that running away actually places these youth at increased risk for exposure to drug abuse, sexual exploitation like prostitution, and engaging in criminal acts such as theft or drug trafficking as a means of survival after they end up on the streets."
In most cases, teens return home shortly, Shelton said.
"While the media highlights cases of youth who seemingly disappear into thin air, the vast majority run away for a brief period of time, do not travel a great distance from home, and make contact with a family member or trusted adult while away."
Although many young runaways end up having problems with the legal system, Shelton said it's still important to think of them as victims whose runaway incidents led to their legal problems.
The most common reason a youth leaves home is an ongoing family conflict. Shelton said 75 percent of runaways have dropped out of school, and about 50 percent have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused.
Due to the many causes and effects of running away, Shelton said people should stop blaming the youth or the family for the incidents.
"Rarely are these cases as simple as an unruly child or ineffective parent," she said. "Instead, we need to focus on identifying the individualized reason for the problem behavior."
She said seeking the help of a mental health professional, as well as providing alternative options to running and creating a safety plan should a youth flee, can be critical options to lessen the danger.
"This will reduce the risk of the youth being without shelter or food or becoming the victim of violence, gang affiliation, drug trafficking and sexual exploitation," she said.
She said finding options for a young person to return to another safe haven when leaving home or even foster care can be a resource in helping children who have run away from their families.
Both Webb and Laird emphasized that police can take a missing person report after any amount of time when an individual suspects someone is missing. Webb said some television shows present the illusion that people must be missing for 24 hours before a report can be made to police.
"There are a lot of public misconceptions," Webb said. "When someone is missing, they're missing as far as we're concerned ... if it's a justifiable report, we are going to take it seriously."
Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.