When Shawna Kemppainen started working with homeless kids a few years ago, she was met with this statistic: Five thousand homeless young people die on American streets each year from illness, suicide or assault.
"This is one of those pieces of data that when I started this job, stopped me in my tracks," she says.
So when you consider that Colorado Springs Police and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office work a combined total of some 900 runaway-teen cases each year, it brings home the possibility of a tragic end to a life that's just getting started.
Local law enforcement says very few kids run away for long periods of time. But one girl from the region was killed years ago after being reported as a runaway, and another reports having been sexually assaulted just within the last three months.
Police and sheriff's personnel say they prioritize runaways as much as they can, given that running away from home isn't a crime, but they can't call out the cavalry every time teenagers decide they'll take their chances on the streets. Springs Police added a part-time investigator last year to focus exclusively on runaways, but he can do only so much.
So in some ways, parents are on their own if their teen runs away, and a search can turn into an agonizing ordeal of waiting and wondering.
Some parents turn to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is willing to post information for runaway teens, as well as children who go missing under suspicious circumstances, such as abductions.
The organization, which works with the Department of Justice to help law enforcement find missing kids and prevent child victimization, logged 10,094 reports of missing children in 2013, the most recent data available. That number includes family and non-family abductions, those who were lost, injured or otherwise missing, and runaways.
Another organization, the National Runaway Safeline, fields about 100,000 calls from youths and parents annually and reports that 1 out of every 7 children will run away before age 18. The Safeline also estimates that 1.3 million runaway and homeless youths live on the streets in the United States on any given day, and are at risk for physical abuse, sexual exploitation, substance abuse and death. The Safeline also cited that death statistic noted by Kemppainen.
And the problem could be much greater than those data suggest. The Center for Problem Oriented Policing reports that only about one-fifth of runaways are reported to authorities, because parents think they know where their children are or don't think police are needed to resolve the issue. Others have had a negative encounter when reporting a previous runaway episode.
Those most at risk, studies show, are those who stay gone six months or longer from their families. Most in that group fell into risky behaviors including committing crimes, dealing drugs or survival sex.
Locally, Springs Police received 820 runaway reports in 2013, of which 99 percent were cleared, meaning the youths were found. Last year, the department took 862 reports and cleared 96 percent.
As of mid-March, 168 runaways had been reported to police in 2015, and already nearly three-quarters have been found or returned home on their own. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office receives roughly 40 reports per year, with nearly all returning home within a day or two, says sheriff's Lt. Robert Jaworski.
That isn't to say, however, that children aren't harmed between the time they run away and the time they're located.
The Sheriff's Office sends deputies to take runaway reports in person, and if the child isn't found within 45 days, dental records and DNA samples are obtained, Jaworski says — a step in preparation for the most devastating outcome.
Police, too, have that outcome in the back of their minds while working runaway cases, and it's one reason they've beefed up their approach by hiring a part-time civilian investigator, Ken Larsen, who focuses on runaways. By gathering as much information as possible ahead of time, if a youth winds up dead, "We've already started the investigation," Larsen says.
"It's that fear that any missing person, or even a runaway, is going to turn into that worst-case scenario," says his boss, Lt. Adrian Vasquez, who oversees violent crimes and Larsen's unit.
Larsen works 29 hours a week mining social media for clues to where kids might be hiding. He also talks to friends, classmates, neighbors and others, but law enforcement doesn't issue Amber Alerts — public notices for a missing child — for runaways. Those are reserved for abducted children.
Moreover, Larsen says media attention usually isn't a good tool to locate runaways for several reasons. First, there are so many runaways, the public might become numb to such notices. Second, public announcements can either play into kids' attention-seeking behavior or drive them further underground, he says.
Typical runaway situations, police say, include a girl who lived with her father in another state but moved here to live with her mother for financial reasons. Confronted with having to adjust to a new house and new rules and being a new kid in school, she ran away to stay with an aunt and uncle, who contacted her parents, and she was returned home.
Another felt ostracized at school and ran away from his single-parent home to stay with friends. He stayed with a different friend every night, obscuring that he was, in fact, a runaway. His mom's been trying to track him down but so far hasn't been successful.
Cops usually don't throw a lot of resources at a runaway case unless they have solid evidence they're in danger, Vasquez and Larsen say.
For one girl reported as running away from home, police made the usual calls and social media checks but didn't have enough to go on to make it a higher priority. Or as Vasquez said at the time, police hadn't gotten any information that led them to believe she was being trafficked, being held hostage somewhere or kidnapped.
But that didn't mean she wasn't at risk.
That 16-year-old, whom we'll call Sarah, left home earlier this year and almost immediately became a crime victim.
"My decision to run away was impulsive," she says, having agreed to share her experience on condition of anonymity, in the interest of helping other teens understand the dangers. "I made the mistake of going to strangers for help and made the poor choice to drink. I was sexually assaulted on my first night out of my home.
"I realize now that running away was like playing Russian Roulette. There are so many awful things that can happen to someone."
Some runaways find their way to Urban Peak, which serves homeless youths with immediate shelter, and then supports them with job readiness, access to health-care services and sometimes another place to live. (Kids 17 and younger must have permission of a parent, guardian or the Department of Human Services to stay at Urban Peak.) The agency works with DHS, AspenPointe and others to foster family reunification and counseling strategies. It also works with Greccio Housing and private landlords to find affordable places for youths ages 18 to 25.
Kemppainen can't explain why Urban Peak has seen a 24 percent rise in the number of those 15 through 20 — to 183 — who stayed in their shelter last year. But she says the common denominators are alcohol or drug abuse or an attitude of defiance, and that many street kids have been in foster care.
Teens, she notes, aren't fully developed physically, neurologically and emotionally to understand the consequences of actions such as running away. Others may have behavioral and mental health problems, some brought on by abuse and neglect at home. They also have trust issues. "They don't trust anybody," Kemppainen says. "Or they had so little support they trust anybody who seems to show interest."
Some parents even bring their kids to Urban Peak because they feel they can no longer manage the household with the child present, she says. "More than half of those at Urban Peak have family who told them to leave," she says. "Disruptive family conditions are the main reason young people leave home, whether abuse, neglect or economic hardships."
Kemppainen says there's no guarantee that a child won't flee again and again, especially if family issues remain unresolved.
She says, via email, "There is a significant correlation between previous abuse at home and runaway rates. For example, children who were sexually abused are more than twice as likely to have run away from home (17 percent) than those who were not sexually abused (7.9 percent). Youths who are physically abused are three times as likely to run."
She emphasizes that many kids are "thrown away." An 18-year-old girl arrived at Urban Peak at evening one day recently with both parents, who wanted to kick her out of the house for a while.
The girl told case workers both parents are alcoholics. She said she wanted to finish high school but didn't know how to use the bus system and hadn't been homeless before. Urban Peak, Kemppainen says, will provide a bus pass and help her get to school, while also providing her with a quiet space and computer to do her homework.
From 25 to 40 percent of the kids served by Urban Peak are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, says Kemppainen, and some have been kicked out of their homes because of that. "The vast majority of LGBT youth who leave have run away because family rejection was so harmful they decided the streets are a better option," she says.
The rising tide of homeless youths, she says, could be linked to a lack of prevention programs that foster family unification, such as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which tries to help parents understand and accept their kids' sexuality.
Jasper Sandoval, 20, who will soon leave Urban Peak after a five-month stay and move into his own apartment, says kids often are simply looking to escape a bad relationship with a parent. In his case, his homeless mom moved to Denver to stay with her sister, leaving him with no place to go. At Urban Peak, he was able to get three part-time jobs and save money for his new place. He's also interacted plenty of times with kids who chose the streets over home.
"They think running away will solve the problem," he says, "but it adds all sorts of new problems."
Kemppainen estimates Urban Peak will host up to 200 youths in its shelter this year, but twice that number will be "hiding in plain sight" on the streets, in abandoned buildings or parking garages or couch-hopping, sometimes at homes of people they don't know.
While local law enforcement says very few runaways get hurt during their absences, which normally last only a day or two, Persilla Bowers met a different fate.
A chronic runaway in the 1980s, Bowers' remains were found in a shallow grave south of Colorado Springs 10 months after she was last reported as a runaway in October 1984. She was 19.
Her sister, Rosemary Rodriguez of Colorado Springs, remembers Bowers had just returned home in Fountain from a trip to Oklahoma, where she said she had married a soldier. About 10 days later, she left.
"She went out one day and never came back," Rodriguez says in an interview. The following August, her mother saw a television news report of human remains being found and had another daughter call the Sheriff's Office. Dental records confirmed it was Persilla. There's been no arrest.
Rodriguez says her sister began running away at age 11, when she hitchhiked to Los Angeles. After that, Persilla lived off and on in group homes, from which she also ran away several times, Rodriguez says, adding her sister developed a risky lifestyle that included prostitution. She was a "wild child," she says.
"The Fountain Police Department wouldn't do anything, because she had had that history of running away from home," Rodriguez says. "I could see why. They would think she's on her free-spirit quest again, because that had been her whole history. I don't know if they could have done anything to save her."
Rodriguez wonders if Persilla had abandonment issues stemming from the sudden departure of their father when the kids were young. She also thinks her sister, for all her worldliness, was naïve about the dangers that lurk on the streets for youths.
"There's predators all over the place," says Sheriff's Commander Richard Hatch, who is still investigating the Bowers homicide case and also works runaway cases. "You put a young child out there, male or female, they are in great danger. There is always someone out there who will take advantage of someone else, particularly someone vulnerable, like a child."
That's why one dad, whom we'll call Mike, recently decided to print fliers about his missing teenager, which offered a reward for information about her whereabouts. The fliers were strategically placed where his child might go. For all of Larsen's cyber efforts, it was the old-fashioned piece of paper that led to the teen being found.
Mike says he felt reassured the Police Department had a special investigator just for runaways. But even that didn't calm him completely. "I realized there is only so much the Police Department can do for a parent," he says.
As time passes and leads dwindle, he adds, parents are faced with just waiting or trying their own search through fliers, a social-media campaign or seeking help from national organizations.
He got a valuable piece of advice, he says, from another parent through NCMEC: "Do what you need to do to keep your sanity." That made Mike focus on his family and taking care of himself so he would "be prepared for my daughter's return with an open heart."
Parents might find reassurance in studies that show most kids run away only once, maybe twice, and children are less apt to run away from their own homes than from group homes.
So, getting back to Sarah: After a few weeks she returned to the welcoming arms of her family, vowing never to leave again.
"I know now that there are so many better options that were open to me than running away," she says. "If you are a teenager thinking about running away, think twice — it's definitely not the fantasy it's made up to be."
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