On the run: Sth Canty's disappearing children

18:54, Feb 10 2013
geoff mccrostie
GEOFF MCCROSTIE: "The average person wouldn't have any idea that this goes on."

At least one child goes missing in South Canterbury nearly every week.

In most cases, these children have vanished by choice. They're teenage runaways, and for many it's not their first disappearance, nor will it be their last.

Data provided by Timaru police highlights a problem that is a daily reality for Timaru's community services police, including Sergeant Geoff McCrostie, a 38-year veteran of the force who has been working chiefly with troubled youth and juvenile offenders for about eight years.

"Sometimes there'll be two or three files sitting on my desk when I come to work," he said. "So some mornings we start by looking for kids that haven't been home overnight, or for two or three days."

The Timaru Herald compiled case studies of five teen runaways and their disappearances from September to November 2012. On 56 days of that three-month period, at least one, and sometimes several, of the teens were missing from their caregivers' homes.

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The youngest runaway was a 13-year-old boy who went missing from caregivers in Christchurch and travelled, somehow, to Timaru to visit his mother.

One 14-year-old girl was away from her caregivers for as many as 18 consecutive nights. Police said she frequently turned up in Ashburton, where her family and friends lived.

Police records also included the troubling case of a 15-year-old girl who had been reported missing 149 times in less than seven years.

"The average person wouldn't have any idea that this goes on," Mr McCrostie said. "Most people wouldn't have anything to do with these kids who run away all the time, and wouldn't have any idea where they're going and what they're up to, because they're the exception, not the rule."

In South Canterbury, the majority of teens who repeatedly run away are in the care of Child, Youth and Family.

"It's not just kids in care who run and we're not responsible for everybody's children in the community," CYF's Mid and South Canterbury youth justice manager, Simon Coventry, said.

"But we work with a small section of the most difficult ones."

As of December 31, 131 young children and teens were in CYF care placements in South Canterbury. That figure includes Ashburton placements.

Of those, only a fraction could be considered habitual runaways, Mr Coventry said.

These troubled kids could be shuffled through dozens of caregiver homes around the country over a few years.

"A lot of caregivers get fed up and they say I don't want this person here any more," Mr Coventry said. "It's hard for caregivers.

"It's really a tough ask."

Police could pick up a runaway and return the child to caregivers, only to have the child disappear again hours, or even moments, later, Mr McCrostie said.

Some visited family or friends around South Canterbury. Others hitchhiked out of the area to places like Ashburton and Christchurch.

''They'll have connections with people they've met in Christchurch who live on the streets, so kids will head up that way,'' Mr Coventry said. ''Our really difficult ones will know kids up there because they'll have been in various homes together or have otherwise associated with them.''

It's not only a drain on CYF and police resources, but also puts the teens at significant risk of many dangers: becoming victims of violence, abusing drugs and alcohol, being without necessary medications, and committing crimes themselves.

"It's really scary what might happen to these kids," Mr Coventry said. "They're out and about, and not in the best places."

Mr Coventry said CYF staff worked to develop intervention plans for high-risk children, trying to identify triggers that caused them to run and to work out ways to address those triggers. Children also met with mental health professionals, when required.

"But you show me a teenager who wants to go see a psychologist or a counsellor. It's not just a matter of going: you go and talk to that person and you're solved," he said. "It just doesn't work that way."

Both men said it was usually a behaviour teens simply outgrew. They might get a job, or a new home placement, or their circumstances changed in some other way.

"But there will always be that percentage who go missing," Mr McCrostie said.

"They're looking for something. Excitement maybe, or friendship, or a sense of belonging."

The Timaru Herald