Runaway cases present unique issues

Written by Pat Caldwell, The Observer October 28, 2013 09:57 am
Gathering information, conducting interviews and utilizing rational problem-solving techniques are three key components two regional law enforcement agencies utilize when tasked to track down individuals who abruptly disappear or run away.

The process is actually as old as policing itself and centers on the ability of law enforcement officials to gather as much pertinent information as quickly as possible.

“A lot of it has a common sense component,” La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey said.

By far, police departments in Ontario and La Grande field more runaway reports than missing person statements. Each incident, though, presents its own unique set of challenges.

“Each case seems to be a little different. Every situation is different,” Ontario Police Chief Mark Alexander said.

Many runaway cases, Harvey said, center on domestic disputes and often prove to be fairly easy to solve.

“I worked a case about a year ago where a mom and daughter had a dispute. The daughter fled the home and the mom reported it as a runaway,” Harvey said. “A runaway that goes to a friend’s house, those are not too bad. So it is really a case-by-case basis. There is not an exact science. But we take every report seriously and go step by step.”

Alexander and Harvey both said the basic police functions of interviewing and fact checking usually prove to be beneficial in runaway cases. If, for example, there is no evidence of a crime — such as a forced entry into a home or witness statements regarding suspicious circumstances — the task for police is straightforward.

“Usually the info provided gives you the direction to go look. A lot of it is based on the info from family. Maybe there is a note,” Alexander said. “We ask the parents why they feel their child has run away. There is usually some kind of issue going on.”

Both Alexander and Harvey said once a report is made on a minor who is assumed to be a runway or missing, the information is entered into a nationwide, law enforcement data base in an effort to help track them down.

Yet, if a child is considered to be abducted in an Amber Alert situation, then a whole different — and more complex — process is activated, Alexander said.

“An abducted child, that triggers a whole different system,” Alexander said.

Alexander said in Oregon when an Amber Alert is issued a series of measures are utilized by police. Police are required then to confirm a number of key items, including confirming the child has, indeed, been abducted, that the child is 17 or younger and that there is evidence the child is in danger and information on the abductor and his or her vehicle are utilized.

Harvey said his department fields fewer missing person cases than runaway incidents. Overall, Harvey said the largest workload for his department often centers on property crimes.

“As far as volume, property crimes impact resources most,” Harvey said.

In Ontario, Alexander said one twist to the missing person/runaway paradigm centers on those individuals suffering from dementia.

“When it comes to dementia cases, it is who knows? It’s a whole new ballgame,” Alexander said.

Still, even in those incidents, Alexander said police do interviews and utilize a common sense approach to find the missing individual. Alexander said his department also often receives requests from family members who live far away to do a welfare check on their relative.

“We get a lot of phone calls where they say, ‘Hey I can’t get a hold of my aunt and I live on the east coast,’’’ he said.

Harvey said one element to modern America — social media — often sparks more problems than it solves regarding runaway cases.

“People can spread anything on it with no fact checking,” Harvey said. “We get a lot of the rumor mill.”

In Ontario, Alexander said his department sometimes views social media as another resource to find runaways or missing people but he also asserted it often creates unforeseen and complex challenges.

“(Social media) does more harm than good. But in some missing persons cases it’s been a tool that ruled out abduction,” Alexander said.