A Million People for the Missing

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Runaway searches follow need: police

Posted by A Million People for the Missing on July 4, 2011 at 10:04 AM

Special to the Courier & Press Lt. Wayne Wargel of the Evansville Police Department doesn't remember anything to the scale of 12-year-old Josh Miller's runaway occurring here in his three decades on the force.

Like Miller, a Pike County runaway, children go missing in Evansville. Unlike Miller, they usually turn up quickly.

"Any time a missing-person report is filed, we believe the person who has filed the report and we're going to look for that person," Wargel said.

The search for Miller ended Saturday after a nine-day search. The boy was found hiding beneath his home. Volunteers as well as Ohio Valley Search and Rescue teams and the FBI worked together in the search. Miller is considered a habitual runaway.

Had he run away in Evansville, Miller would be right on the EPD's age cutoff for how a juvenile missing person search is handled. If a child 12 and under is reported missing to the EPD, the search begins immediately regardless of the person's past.

"We look everywhere we can possibly look until we've exhausted every last possibility," Wargel said.

If older than 12, the search size depends on circumstances. For missing people with a history of running away, law enforcement could consider a lesser search — usually one that hits typical locations where the person has run to in the past, Wargel said.

All missing people, regardless of age and circumstances, are added to the National Crime Information Center, Wargel said.

There are now six missing children in Evansville, typically comprised of juveniles upset with their home situations, said Sgt. Paul Kirby of the EPD. Of the 156 missing juvenile cases this year, he said only four have gone unsolved.

Jim Schroeder, a child psychologist at the St. Mary's Center for Children, said there are typically two reasons for a juvenile to run away: if they don't have a good outlet to deal with issues at home, or if they're not aware that it's inappropriate to leave the home.

"We've had kids before who just feel like they can't reach out — that they're alone and feel like they can't ask for help from people in the house," Schroeder said. "A lot of these kids, especially with developmental conditions, don't necessarily think about consequences or others' reactions to what they do. Their mind might be really focused on going somewhere they really like or enjoy."

Kirby said that when the missing children are found, investigators determine whether they ran away for a reason, such as drug or domestic abuse in the home, or because of delinquency on behalf of the juvenile.

All runaways have technically committed a crime, so a minor who leaves the house without parents' permission can be charged with a status offense.

"The only reason it's against the law is because of their age," said Wargel, who compared a status offense to underage drinking. "If there's a pattern with a child running away, then we will charge them with leaving home and send them to juvenile court."

At St. Mary's, Schroeder said he sees many juveniles who don't follow through with threats to run away. And when they do run away, that doesn't always mean the same thing.

"Sometimes people instantly think, 'Oh, there must be something horrible going on in this home environment.' Sometimes that's true," he said. "But there may be concerns about abuse or neglect or a really difficult situation at home, because we also see kids that run away who feel depressed or alienated."

Pike County Sheriff Jeremy Britton said he expects to continue to question both Josh Miller and his parents but at this time he doesn't expect charges to be filed. He is working with the state's Child Protective Services "to do what's best for the child."


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