May 8, 2011
LIMA — They are almost routine, but each one has to be given due attention. In Lima alone there were 284 runaway reports in the past year. That's more than one per workday.Most runaways return home within a few days, if not hours.But some, like 14-year-old Nicholle Coppler who disappeared 12 years ago this month, never come home. Handling many cases while keeping an eye out for the ones with signs of bigger trouble, is the challenge juvenile investigators face.Why They RunThere are three basic types of runaway cases according to Cathy Follett, director of intervention services for Allen County Juvenile Court.“We have the kids who truly are missing. We have the kids who are constant curiosity seekers. Then we have the kid who is running away from an abusive situation.” The majority are one of the last two, a child has left home willingly.“A runaway is a very hard case to work,” Allen County Sheriff's Juvenile Investigator Brett Rider said. “The kids have run away for a reason and they're hard to find.”Fortunately, most of those children return in 12 to 24 hours, Rider said.“Sometimes they come back later that night,” Najmulski said. “Sometimes they're gone about a week.”Those hours can be long for parents waiting for news of their child.Treating the CauseOnce the child is found, the next step is to figure out why he or she left and address that. “After we interview the child that's when we know what kind of runaway we have,” Follett said. The hard part is addressing the issues at the root of the problem. Otherwise the child may simply run away again.Many runaways are repeat offenders. “I would say at least 80 percent,” Najmulski said. Many of those repeat offenders come from foster care situations, she said.Runaway situations that are triggered by possible abuse at home can be difficult to unravel and usually involve multiple agencies, including Children Services.The children who run away out of unbounded curiosity may be simpler to identify, but just as hard to deal with.“They are the hardest kids to work with, they have no fear,” Follett said.State and federal laws won't permit runaways to be confined in any jail-like setting. Lacking that, it can be difficult to make a strong-willed child see the error of his ways, she said. Deeper ProblemsThat lack of options for placing a child outside the home can be difficult when abuse is suspected or just a dysfunctional home.“This is difficult for us,” Najmulski said. “When we locate these runaways, we have to turn around and give them right back to the parent. Sometimes you feel like you're starting the process all over.”When the process does repeat, it becomes more worrisome.“The habitual ones are concerning me,” she said. “Because there's red flags there. Sometimes it will lead to something else.”Sometimes it's a case of wanting to run off with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but usually there's some driving desire to escape issues at home.Follett said that often the child says he or she ran away because of abuse.“When we hear that, we immediately call Children Services.”Allen County Children Services Investigation Supervisor Staci Nichols said the agency gets involved with meetings as part of a group effort. “It's basically a team meeting, Safe Harbor, Juvenile Court, counseling agencies and us,” she said.She said all allegations are taken seriously, but legitimate cases of abuse or neglect are rare.“Most of them are just teenagers not wanting to follow rules, parents not knowing how to handle teenage behavior,” she said. “Sometimes romantic situations are involved. Sometimes drugs are involved. Most of them do not end up stemming from any kind of serious abuse and neglect.Children Services will work with the family to provide parenting classes, training and advice to improve the situation. Runaway or Missing?While few runaway cases turn into missing child cases, officials are always looking out for signs of that.“We take each case seriously as a potential missing child,” Rider said. “But there's normally something leading up to the child leaving.” “Our road deputies do an excellent job of screening that. When it comes to me, I know what's going on.” Najmulski said the history leading up to the disappearance is key. “A child who hasn't come home from school yet, that's something different,” she said. In a runaway situation the child has usually shown some discontentment or past behavior that indicates frustration.“There's some kind of history there,” she said.Another clue to a larger problem is silence, Follett said. “In today's world, usually somebody on Facebook knows somebody, or on Twitter.“If we haven't heard from anybody and that child has been silent, that's when we know we have something more serious.”In Coppler's case she ran away, but then apparently fell into the wrong crowd and was prevented from returning home, then most likely killed. In a diary found after her disappearance, she apparently wrote of wanting to return home but not being able to.Prepare for WorstWhile hoping for the best, law enforcement agencies also prepare for the worst. Najmulski and Rider both said steps are taken immediately to obtain dental and medical records, in case a body needs to be identified later. That can be even more nerve-racking for parents.“Nobody wants something like that to happen to them,” Najmulski said.Advice to ParentsAfter more than 13 years working at Children Services, Nichols sees some common parental mistakes that lead to runaway situations. The biggest is a lack of structure as a young child. She sees many parents who didn't provide rules to their children wondering why they can't follow rules now. “The rules were never there when they were young,” she said. “Structure and boundaries and rules begin very early in life. If you let children get away with things when they are toddlers, it's going to continue when they are a teenager and begin to show their independence.”She said parenting should begin as soon as kids are able to walk on their own.Even something as simple as regular bedtimes is important, she said. If your child does run away, report it.“Even though it might be a pain we recommend they report each incident,” LPD's Najmulski said. “They are responsible for their children. What's equally important, a lot of parents forget to call us when they come back and they remain listed as runaways.”Local agencies share runaway information nationwide. A child still listed as missing could cause quite a snafu if a child is identified while on a vacation or school trip.“If the kids are home I want to get them out of the computer,” she said.