Central Oregon’s runaway youth at risk of trafficking and homelessness, advocate says
(Update: Adding video, comments by mother of runaway, police, J Bar J Youth Services)
Not all families report runaway youth, according to a youth program director
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Several families have reached out to NewsChannel 21 in recent months, asking for help finding a runaway child.
Amy Meddock said her 16-year-old daughter, Ember, ran away from her home in Kelso, Washington during the first year of the pandemic.
“From the parents’ side, it’s lonely, and we try to figure out where we went wrong,” the mother said.
She said Ember met an older man, who drove her to Bend and Medford: “This man ended up trafficking her to old men for the next three days.”
NewsChannel 21 spoke recently with Eliza Wilson, the director of runaway and homeless youth programs for J Bar J Youth Services.
Familial homelessness is a risk factor, one Wilson knows all too well.
Wilson said she experienced family conflict and homelessness as a child. She was able to turn her life around with the help of J Bar J Youth Services and its programs.
“I was really fortunate to receive services and have a stable place to live, graduate high school and go to college,” she said.
Now, Wilson's story has come full circle, in her role to advocate for young people facing the same struggles she once experienced.
“A lot of times, we try to find a reason why a young person is running away, and it tends to fall back on the young person,” she said. “I don’t think this is ever a situation that young people just choose. It’s oftentimes very complex.”
She cited two main reasons young people typically run away from home.
One situation is when a family conflict starts to escalate because the family has not received help to resolve the issues.
Another common situation is when a young person does not have family support at home, due to other factors, including but not limited to abuse, neglect and addiction.
“Adolescence is a tough time, and there’s a lot of external factors as well,” Wilson said.
Wilson said last year, J Bar J served more than 140 runaway or homeless youth.
The Homeless Leadership Coalition’s annual Point in Time count this year found there were 104 homeless youth between the ages of 18 and 24, and 223 under the age of 18.
“Many of the times a young person runs away, a parent doesn’t call them in (to authorities) as a runaway,” Wilson said. “By that point, the family has experienced so much stress and trauma that they aren’t involving law enforcement when a young person runs away.”
The Bend Police Department said they received 193 reports of runaways or missing youth in 2020 and 2021.
Sheila Miller, Bend PD’s communications manager, said that number could include repeated runaways.
“I think a common misconception is that they would get arrested, cited or taken to the Juvenile Department,” Miller said. “That does not happen.”
NewsChannel 21 asked what the process is like for Bend PD when people report a missing person or runaway.
Miller said the first step is to see if the person is at risk, which includes people 13 and under, with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, or with mental or physical health needs.
Then, she said, officers will work to determine who the legal guardian is and interview them about specific details, like where and when the person was last seen, what they were wearing at the time and any important physical descriptions.
The information and photos are then put into various national databases used by law enforcement.
“If they’re at risk, if they’re 13 or younger, or have a circumstance that makes them vulnerable, that’s really going to speed up and expedite the process,” Miller said.
Wilson said, “Many of the times a young person runs away, a parent doesn’t call them in as a runaway. By that point, the family has experienced so much stress and trauma that they aren’t involving law enforcement when a young person runs away.”
Miller said families might think they should wait a certain amount of time before reporting someone as missing.
Wilson said there are resources available for families to prevent young people from running away, including family mediation and sometimes providing short-term shelter to the young person until familial conflict is resolved.
If you or someone you know is experiencing trauma, substance abuse, or trafficking, here is a list of resources:
Cascade Youth and Family Center 24-hour Hotline
National Runaway Safeline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Trevor Project
Information for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth
Association of Child and Youth Care Practice, Inc. (ACYCP)
Helping Americas Youth
National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH)
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY)
National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE)
National Network for Youth (NN4Y)
National Youth Development Information Center (NYDIC)