When a child runs away, the parent or guardian should contact the local police department nearest to where the family lives. If the family is in a rural area, they should call the local sheriff’s office. There is no waiting period to report a missing or runaway child.
The family should share with law enforcement the child’s vital information, including height and weight, hair and eye color, history of mental health problems, and identifiable marks, piercings and tattoos. The family should bring a current photo. They should also share how long the child has been gone, whom they may be with and whether they have run away before. The family should get the name of the officer and the case number of the police report.
What Is a Non-minor Dependent?
A non-minor dependent (NMD) is the term for a foster youth who remains in foster care past their 18th birthday. In the state of California, foster youth can stay in foster care until they are 21 years of age. A NMD has a status review hearing every six months. County departments of children and family services must track the placement of missing NMDs, as well as minors.
Running Away Isn’t a Crime
California has adopted the Interstate Compact for Juveniles (ICJ). The ICJ is a contract between all 50 states that provides for interstate procedures when a minor runs away in their home state and needs to be returned. The rules of the ICJ hold that running away is not a criminal offense or a delinquent act.
Taking a Minor Into Custody
A police officer can take into custody a minor or NMD who has run away. The officer will not charge the runaway youth with a crime, and can return the young person to their home or to a shelter for runaways. They can also briefly hold the runaway at a juvenile detention facility or convince the child’s parents or guardians to let the child or NMD temporarily stay with friends or other family members.
Illegal to Hide a Runaway
An individual cannot urge a minor to run away or hide the minor from the child’s parent or legal guardian. In California, such an act is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year's incarceration, a fine up to $2,500, and up to five years' probation. The California Penal Code related to harboring a runaway is not meant to criminalize acts by people who volunteer with a recognized civic or charitable organization or those who contact minors within the scope and course of their employment, like a shelter worker.
Two Types of Legal Guardianship
When a child comes to court because a parent has abused or neglected them, the child has a juvenile dependency case. A child with a case in juvenile dependency court is not a child who has committed a delinquent act. A child in this situation, or an adult who is concerned about the child’s welfare, may want to start legal proceedings to become the child’s legal guardian.
The two types of guardianships are: those connected with juvenile dependency court in which the child was removed from the home, and those connected to probate court. In a juvenile dependency court guardianship, the child will live in a licensed home while their case runs its course.
Reunification or Appointing New Legal Guardian
The court looks to help parents who want to be reunified with their child. But if this does not occur, the court will appoint a legal guardian for the child. A relative or friend can be appointed as a legal guardian.
In a juvenile dependency court legal guardianship, the court will terminate parental rights. In a probate court guardianship, the child will live with the person who is the guardian, and the court will not terminate parental rights. Parents can request visitation or file a petition for the court to terminate the guardianship.
When a Child Is Missing
A clinical social worker (CSW) is required to attempt to locate the child or NMD until they are found or the court’s jurisdiction over the child or NMD is terminated. A CSW is a government employee with their respective California county’s department of children and family services. The department must maintain the child or NMD’s dependency status even if the child or NMD refuses to cooperate with the child protection agency, runs away from their placement, or the location of the child or NMD remains unknown.
The court has the sole decision on whether it should terminate jurisdiction over the child or NMD. A CSW cannot make a recommendation to terminate jurisdiction unless the child turns 18 or dies.
When a Runaway Returns
A large number of people who have run away have had experiences with the child welfare system. When a child is found or returns, the CSW has certain responsibilities: Within 24 hours, the CSW must tell the parent or legal guardian of the child’s return and must contact the law enforcement agency where the missing person’s report was filed to ask that this report be withdrawn.
The CSW must follow up with law enforcement to make sure the report is withdrawn. If the child is picked up by law enforcement and delivered to a CSW’s office and runs away again shortly thereafter, the CSW must file a new missing person’s report. The incident is considered to be a new incident and deserves a new report.
Protective Custody Warrant (PCW)
A child who runs away or is abducted will have a protective custody warrant (PCW) issued for them. A PCW is a written order by a judge or other judicial officer directing a law enforcement officer or social worker to place a child into protective custody due to suspected abuse, neglect or risk of either of these dangers. A PCW is for a child aged 17 or younger.
A PCW will be recalled when a dependent child turns 18. The recall prevents the child from being detained and held in an adult facility. A CSW is expected to request a progress report hearing from the child’s 18th birthday. If it is not known where a child is located, the PCW must be renewed every six months or at the child’s next six-month hearing.
Additional Responsibilities of a CSW
When a child is found or returns, a CSW should notify the child’s attorney, if there is one, of the return within 48 to 72 hours. The CSW is expected to debrief the child within three business days after the child returns to care. They should address the child’s immediate needs, such as a need for a medical exam. Further, the CSW should determine what primary factors contributed to the child running away or being absent from care.
The CSW is expected to develop a safety plan to prevent the child from running away or being absent from care going forward. The CSW must determine whether the child was a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. If there is a reasonable suspicion that the child was a victim in this respect, the CSW is required to contact the state’s Child Protection Hotline to report child abuse. If the child cannot return to their previous placement, the CSW must explore the possibilities of placing them with another party, such as a suitable relative or licensed foster family home.
Runaway From a Different State
A CSW who is returning a child who is not under child welfare or juvenile court supervision to a different state or surrounding county should contact the child welfare agency in the other area. The CSW must make arrangements for that agency to assume custody of the child within 24 hours. The CSW should not place the child in a foster home. The CSW must also contact the child welfare agency in the child’s home state or home county and let them know the child has been located.
The CSW should ask what procedures the new child welfare agency will utilize to get transportation for the child to return home. If the other jurisdiction cannot pick up the child right away, the CSW should initiate a courtesy hold and place the child in foster care pending transportation home. The CSW must file a petition unless the child is returned to their home state within five calendar days or California home county within 24 hours.
The CSW should arrange for an attendant to accompany the child, if appropriate. The CSW should take measures to have the parent, law enforcement representative or child welfare agency representative to be present to meet the child at the airport or bus station.
Return a Child on Probation
When a CSW sees a child who is on probation in another state or California county return, they should call the probation department and confirm that the child is an active probation ward with an outstanding warrant. If the probation department in the other area finds that the child has an open case, the CSW should ask for the court order. The CSW should then call the intake and detention control staff at their county’s probation department and make arrangements for probation to take custody of the child.
Child’s Whereabouts Remain Unknown
When a child cannot be located, the CSW should complete a placement/address change form. They must make monthly inquiries to significant people in the child’s life for information as to the location of the child. They are expected to document all contacts and other efforts to find the child.
The CSW needs to follow all leads as they receive new information about the location of the child. The CSW should provide any new information about the child to the law enforcement liaison. They should follow up on the runaway status of the child with law enforcement once a month.
The CSW should provide assistance to any law enforcement agency that requests help in finding the child. If the child is located, the CSW must contact the child and encourage them to return to their family or placement. The CSW must also contact the law enforcement agency in the area in which the child is present to conduct a welfare check of the child.
Child’s Personal Property
If a child has an assigned social worker, the CSW will ensure the child’s personal property is stored for a minimum of one year from the date of their departure. If the child’s location is still unknown after that, the county department of children and family services that is serving the child may seek a court order authorizing the disposal of the property. The process regarding property involves several steps.
The CSW must take the child’s things from their placement no later than seven business days after the child left. The CSW must complete a form to transport the child’s property to storage. If the court directs the county department of children and family services to dispose of the property, the court will dictate how and when the property will be disposed of.
When a child returns or is found, a CSW can notify the government office where the items are being kept. The CSW should notify the facility in advance. If the CSW does not pick the items up in a few days, the office will take them back to storage.
- Arcata, California: Runaway Juveniles
- Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services: Missing or Absent from Care Children/Nonminor Dependents
- California Courts: Interstate Commission for Juveniles, Quick Reference Guide, Compact Operations
- California Penal Code: Sections 261 - 368.7 Good Morals
- California Courts: Juvenile Court Guardianship
- California Courts: Becoming a Guardian
- California Courts: What Is Juvenile Dependency?
- California Courts: Guide to Dependency Court for Parents
- The Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco: Guardianship of Children
- Youth.gov: Child Welare
- Sacramento County: Protective Information Custody Sheet
- Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services: Protective Custody Warrants
- Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services: Child Protection Hotline
- California Courts: Nonminor Dependent Flow Chart
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.