Information about Thomas Kolding, a freshman at Mountain Lakes High School, who is missing.
Michael V. Pettigano and Albina Sportelli, North Jersey Record
When 15-year-old Thomas Kolding ran away from his Mountain Lakes home last week, he appeared to have his odyssey well planned out. He had a fully packed backpack, and knew to leave his cell phone at home so he couldn’t be tracked.
In fact, the internet has become a robust source of information for children who feel the temptation to run away. There’s a wikiHow page, titled “How to run away intelligently,” which explains how to practice being a runaway first, just what to pack, how to change your appearance, how not to get caught electronically, how to find a place to sleep, even how to get a job.
And YouTube videos abound, many created by young people, providing advice to their peers on how to run run away successfully.
But while such news might be disconcerting to parents, the internet has also become a go-to source with more resources for kids to provide help dealing with issues at home and to deglamorize running away as an option, experts say.
Even the wikiHow entry starts with the cautionary lines: “Running away from home, while it sounds liberating and glamorous, is not fun. You’ll be sleeping on the street, scrounging for food, and life certainly won’t be easy.”
There is no such thing as a “typical” runaway, the National Runaway Safeline says in its fact sheet. “Runaway youth come from every kind of neighborhood, rich or poor, rural or urban.”
There are countless stories of runaways.
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A 16-year-old California boy ran away in 2014, hid in the wheel well of a plane on its way to Hawaii and, incredibly, survived the five-hour flight.
Earlier this year, a 12-year-old from Sydney stole his parents’ credit card and booked a flight to Bali after a family argument.
“Running away from home, while it sounds liberating and glamorous, is not fun. You’ll be sleeping on the street, scrounging for food, and life certainly won’t be easy.”
An expert who has worked with runaway children for the last 20 years says children who leave their homes are sometimes just seeking a sense of control.
“It could be hopelessness or pressure from other entities that they’re involved with, their friends or something else. Or it could be wanting to control the situation they’re in at the time,” said Vilma Ramos, a case worker with the state’s Child Protection and Permanency agency in the Department of Children and Families.
“In the work we’ve been doing, there’s not a top five reasons why children decide to elope and because of that, it’s difficult to pinpoint specific signs for parents to look out for,” Ramos said.
Parents should just be aware the online guides exist and know what resources are available for their family if their child decides to run away from home, threatens to do so, or if there are difficult situations the family is dealing with, said Jason Butkowski, communications director for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
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“Even if you look back to the time before the internet, there was always information out there and there were always stories romanticizing running away – take Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Tramp,’” Butkowski said. “So, I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, but it’s something that we have to be cognizant of.”
“They may feel more comfortable reaching out … earlier through digital methods”
National Runaway Safeline
And while there are many guides online that show kids who are in despair how to run away, there are also more and more digital crisis support methods available for kids.
The National Runaway Safeline, the national communications system designated by the federal government for runaway and homeless youth, reported in 2015 that there has been a shift toward runaway prevention by helping more kids before they leave home through online support services.
“It is probable that the increase in digital connections as a method of reaching out to NRS is coming largely from this group of youth—they may feel more comfortable reaching out to NRS earlier through digital methods,” the report stated.
When a child does decide to run away, Ramos said, the state’s child welfare agency steps in to provide support for the family.
“Typically, when they’re living at home and they elope, we look at what drove them to that and how to repair that situation with services for the family, so they can feel supported,” Ramos said.
If parents are concerned about their child and looking for services, they can reach out to Perform Care, New Jersey Children’s System of Care service.
“These services are not specifically geared to runaways but just any family in need of supportive services,” Ramos said.
For Perform Care, call 1-877-652-7624. There’s no financial eligibility required, and the service is available for parents and kids.
There’s also the 2nd Floor youth helpline at 1-888-222-2228. It’s a peer-to-peer helpline for kids who aren’t comfortable talking to their parents about what’s going on.
“If a parent senses something might be up, they might want to share that number with them,” Butkowski said.
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