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Can I Legally Run Away?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

You hate your life and your parents.

Things are bad at home – and you want to run away.

You imagine a clean slate. An escape. A fresh start. Maybe you think running away will make everything better. Maybe you believe that leaving everything behind will make your problems disappear.

But you’re not sure how to do it. And you wonder about the logistics.

You also wonder if running away legal.

Many Teens Want to Run Away

First, we’ll tell you this: many teens have been in your shoes. About two million youth try to run away each year, according to The National Runaway Safeline. Most are between the ages of 12-17. Most teens run away after a conflict with their family. About half of all runaway teens say the primary reason they leave is because of their parents.

Sadly, many parents tell their teens to leave the house or don’t try to stop them when they leave.

Statistics show that many teen runaways run to escape an abusive home environment. This can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, or both. Evidence shows 80 percent of female teen runaways experience sexual abuse. Verbal abuse often features prominently in these situations, too: many parents lash out at their teens without thinking about the impact of their words or actions. Most teen runaways want to escape abuse.

Running away, for them, seems safer than staying with their parents.

Evidence shows that LGBTQI+ teens are also at high risk for running away. Teens who question their sexual orientation or who do not conform to gender norms are often shunned by their parents, siblings, extended family, and friends. If they’re not outright rejected, shunning may cause them to feel ashamed about themselves. Studies show that between 11-40 percent of homeless/runaway teens in the U.S. identify as LGBTQI+. And close to 40 percent of runaway teens in Los Angeles are LGBTQI+.

Running Away is Not a Good Solution

Teens who run away often believe their home isn’t safe or their parents aren’t safe. And they may be right.

However, there’s one thing that they might forget:

The streets aren’t safe, either.

Most teen runaways are unprepared for life on the street. When they run out of money, many youth runaways end up homeless, hungry, and bitterly cold or dangerously hot. Unsavory characters will try to solicit adolescent runaways for prostitution. They offer food, money, or shelter in return. Desperate teens may give in – because they lack these necessities – but can end up stuck in a dangerous cycle that may include sex trafficking, using drugs, dealing drugs, violence, and other forms of exploitation.

If they don’t get involved in prostitution and drugs, runaway teens may end up in juvenile jail because they resort to stealing to survive. Street life is cruel and harsh. Teens under the age of 18 are officially minors. That makes it difficult to find work or do anything that requires the consent or co-signature of a parent or guardian. This limits or completely eliminates many opportunities to take care of themselves, financially and physically.

Most teens who run away don’t think that far ahead. But teens who consider running away need to think through the real-world consequences very carefully.

But Is It Illegal to Run Away?

We know you’re waiting for the answer to the question we pose in the title of this article.

The short answer is no.

Running away is not a crime.

You cannot get arrested or charged with a crime for running away from your family. However – and this is a big however – some states consider running away a status offense.

A status offense is something considered illegal because of a teen’s underage status. Other types of status offenses are not going to school (truancy), violating curfew, buying cigarettes, and underage drinking.

Status offenses have consequences for teens. Consequences include fines, counseling, suspended driving privileges, and at times, alternative living arrangements.

In contrast, non-status juvenile offenses are crimes committed by teens. These include things like shoplifting, burglary, assault, and murder.  There’s an easy way to know the difference between a juvenile crime and a status offense. If an adult would go to jail for the offense in question, it’s a criminal offense. If an adult wouldn’t go to jail, it’s a status offense.

So, is running away a crime?

Technically, no.

Is it a good idea?

Absolutely not.

What to Do If You’re Thinking of Running Away

If you run want to away from home, please explore other options to improve the situation you want to run away from.

Talk to your school counselor, faith leader, an empathetic relative, or any other trusted adult – like a friend’s mom or dad, perhaps – to talk through your situation. Ask them for help, support, and advice. They may be able to serve as a liaison between you and your parents if the lines of communication are broken. They may convince your parents to try family therapy, where you and your parents can work through your issues in a safe space conducive to healing.

If you live in an abusive household that’s unsafe, it’s important to share this information with the adults you choose to talk to. Keep in mind that most adults will be obligated to call Child Protective Services (CPS) or the police on your behalf. You can call CPS directly as well. If you’re afraid of calling from home, go to a friend’s house or another safe place to make the call.

Can Anyone Else Help?

In terms of your short-term living situation: consider whether a relative can take you in until you resolve the situation at home. Consider aunts, uncles, grandparents, or cousins. Consider friends. While it may be awkward, difficult, or embarrassing to ask, it’s still exponentially better than life on the street. If you think they may say no, take the risk and ask. They may welcome you with open arms.

If your home situation is bad – i.e. you’re the victim of violence, abuse, and/or neglect – and a relative or guardian can take you in, you can eventually ask a family court for a transfer of legal guardianship. A judge will consider both sides and decide whether it makes sense for you to stay with a relative instead of your parents. In the juvenile/child support system, a judge has the power to transfer guardianship to another adult if the situation calls for it, even if your parents refuse.

Call 1-800-RUNAWAY

If you’ve already tried all this, or are planning on running away anyway, please call The National Runaway Safeline (1–800-RUNAWAY) before you do anything.

The National Runaway Safeline is 100% confidential and open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The trained staff working at the Safeline will not call your parents if you don’t want them to.

They will not contact the authorities unless you specifically tell them about incidents of abuse.

What they will do is help ensure you are safe and taken care of. They will help direct you to shelters and tell you about alternative living arrangements. They can send a message to your parents on your behalf. If and when you consider returning home, they can help. But only if you want to. They will not pressure you to do anything that’s not in your best interest.

Residential Treatment for Teens

Teens with mental health or substance use issues may have a difficult home life. One thing common to adolescents with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD), psychosis, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), or other behavioral issues is interpersonal conflict with parents. If your family interactions always turn explosive and end in angry shouting matches, it’s possible you and your parents could benefit from professional treatment and support, in the form of individual therapy, family therapy, or both.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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