Outreach critical for runaway youth; tracking varies by county

Always Investigating

Missing and runaway kids are getting a lot of community attention on Hawaii Island, but the numbers on Oahu are far larger, and the public won’t usually know the names and faces to look for elsewhere. Always Investigating looks at the runaway problem on all islands.

Not only is there a big difference in terms of how counties publicly report runaways, but the risks of being on the run are greater during a pandemic and legislative funding is largely frozen for social services to intervene.

Every time a youth goes missing on the Big Island there’s a public announcement with a name and a picture even when it’s a runaway. That’s drawn a recent wave of attention through social media groups, police and county government and community rallies.

The Big Island has 400-500 runaway cases a year, 150 so far this year. But elsewhere it’s another story — three to four times the number of runaway cases on Oahu, as many as 2,000 a year and more than 500 so far in 2020.

“Oahu is such a large metro city that there are so many things going on people overlook,” said Lisa Tamashiro with Adult Friends for Youth, a social service agency that handles a program started just last fall for HPD’s District 8 — Ewa to Makaha — the area with the most runaway cases on Oahu.

Most of us won’t know the names or faces to keep a watch for because the Honolulu Police Department doesn’t publicize every name like the Big Island. HPD tells KHON2: “News releases are generally issued by CrimeStoppers and only with a family member or guardian’s consent.”

Meanwhile social service providers such as Adult Friends for Youth helps find kids, reunite families, and divert the teens to a path of care and services that won’t have to involve arrest and court for running.

“Whether they’re running to something or running from something, just to have youth on the streets — especially now more so it’s been exasperated during this pandemic — it’s very dangerous,” Tamashiro said. “There are perpetrators and predators out there looking and targeting young kids.”

That’s been the experience on Hawaii Island, too, where several felony drug and sex crimes have been charged against men found with runaways. The same may be happening in Honolulu

“Those were a couple of the cases HPD was concerned about and to try to track down,” Tamashiro explained. “These perpetrators are so smart. They’re not going to be the ones to lure the kids. They’re going to use other kids to lure kids.”

In Honolulu the runaways aren’t often off by themselves.

“Kids are not usually running alone, they’re usually running with other groups,” explained Deborah Spencer-Chun, president of Adults Friends for Youth, “building their own family, building their own community.”

It’s a community that can come with big risks, especially now.

During the pandemic we got a call from the police department saying we really would like you to help us find this one girl and we believe this is the area,” Spencer-Chun said of a recent case. “It was an abandoned townhouse in the area (housing several runaways), and at that point it’s also educating the kids about how severe the pandemic was because they’re grouping and not understanding they could be creating this cluster.”

Adult Friends for Youth is one of many nonprofits statewide whose legislative funding is frozen since GIA money — grants in aid — have not yet been dealt with at the Capitol. That’s a $300,000 hit for their program alone.

Kauai County puts out press releases for all runaway kids, they’ve had 50 so far in 2020 and usually have as many as 200 a year.

Maui County doesn’t publicize runaway names and did not yet provide its annual data but told KHON2: “Ninety-nine percent of the time the juvenile is located within 24 to 48 hours.”

So how can the community-at-large help when not privy to the names or pictures of those on the run?

“If they see something suspicious, of course, if they can be notifying the police that, hmm, that relationship doesn’t seem normal,” Tamashiro said, “or if they do see a cluster of kids especially in that area we’re talking about, they can let us know and we can go out there to at least check it out.”

These social workers teach the teens a “PEARL” of wisdom and say adults can practice it, too, when encountering kids in need: Peace, Empathy, Acceptance, Respect and Love.

“If you just bump into them in the market and they’re just treated with those PEARL words,” Tamashiro said, “they might be like, ‘Maybe I don’t want to be out here on the streets. I miss my family.’ Every little encounter, we don’t know when it will ignite.”

“These kids might look like you want to cross the street, but just understand that does hurt, and they’re someone else’s child,” Tamashiro said. “Every little thing that happens is a nick and it just deepens the wounds.”

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