Extending a helping hand can sometimes land you in a world of trouble. You may know of a child who's having problems at home and you may want to help. But helping a runaway who leaves his parents' home against their will may put you in legal jeopardy. Although the laws vary from state to state, if you give the child shelter, you may leave yourself open to both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit.
Depending on where you live, criminal charges are possible if you take in a runaway who's a minor. It's usually not a felony offense, but a serious misdemeanor. For example, in Iowa, it's an aggravated misdemeanor, and in Texas, it's a Class A misdemeanor, which is the most serious misdemeanor crime the state recognizes. Typically, the state must prove you knew the child was underage when you took him in and that he ran away from home. The precise offense may be harboring a runaway child, aiding and abetting, or contributing to the delinquency of a minor, depending on the jurisdiction. The phrases "minor" and "child" can be a little tricky. Usually they mean anyone under 18, but in some states, it can be a little younger. For example, in Michigan, a child is no longer considered a runaway after his 17th birthday.
In some jurisdictions, the child's parents might also have a right to sue you in civil court. This is the case in Iowa, where parents can recover the costs of looking for their missing child, as well as compensation for emotional suffering and punitive damages. Your degree of liability may come down to which acts you performed to help the child. For example, you might just have given him a hot meal and some advice, but if you lied to the police or his parents about knowing his whereabouts or you encouraged him to leave home, you could be vulnerable to a civil judgment.
Even if your state has lenient runaway laws, you'll probably run into some practical problems if you allow the child to stay with you for any length of time. You can't approve medical treatment for him, nor would you typically have any authority with his school. For example, if he needs a note from his parent because he's late or absent, you can't write it. You can't attend parent-teacher conferences – you have no legal standing in his life.
Alternatives to Harboring
You may be able to mitigate your civil or criminal liability in some states if you contact the child's parents or the police within 24 hours. It's possible you could come up with a sensible solution to the problem within this period of time. For example, you might come to an agreement with the child's parents awarding you legal guardianship of the runaway while the family works on its problems. This option would absolve you of both criminal and civil liability, and it would allow you to make decisions on the child's behalf, such as for medical care and education. You might not even have to take the full financial brunt of caring for him. Some states allow for child support in this situation, payable from the parents to the guardian.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.