11 AUGUST 2003

The day-to-day arguments between frustrated parents and their emotionally volatile offspring have been a defining characteristic of adolescence throughout recorded human history.

Expectations differ when teens take off

But when a disagreement leads a teenage son or daughter to run away from home, a parent's mood swings immediately from anger to worry, if not sheer terror. Parents have been around long enough to know what can happen to little people in a big world.

When parents rush to report runaway offspring to law enforcement officials, they tend to expect the same intense concern. They want police to make discovery of their missing child's whereabouts a top priority, and may be taken aback when that doesn't happen.

Law enforcement officials are often parents themselves, so they can understand and sympathize.

But experience tells them to view fleeing the home as little more than a selfish, immature reaction by an angry teenager who just needs some time to cool off. Experience tells them there are more important things demanding their time and attention than looking for people who don't want to be found — particular people who may have whole networks of friends willing to help them hide.

Runaways can end up getting robbed, raped, beaten or even murdered, particular those spending extended periods on the lam in remote locales, as police well know. But most stick around close and turn up soon, little the worse for the experience. So conflict between frantic parents and world-wise police is almost inevitable — especially if it's a parent's first exposure to the phenomenon. The plain truth is, police aren't going to waste time looking for runaways unless there is clear evidence they may have come to harm.

Willamina's Connie Plemmons learned that the hard way after her 15-year-old daughter, Jessica, disappeared the afternoon of July 10. When she went to pick up her daughter after an overnight at the Sheridan home of friend Danielle Leach, the two had words. Jessica wasn't ready to go and became defiant about it. Plemmons told her daughter she would run some errands and come back later. When she returned, she was told her daughter had headed over to the home of a friend named Crystal. When Jessica failed to turn up, Plemmons called the Yamhill County Sheriff's Office and filed a runaway report. She tracked down Crystal, whose last name she never learned, but got no help in finding her daughter.

On July 14, after 3 1/2 days of what she described as frantic worry, she got a call from the child welfare office in Dallas. She could pick up her daughter there. “All of Sheridan, Willamina and Grand Ronde was looking for her,” Plemmons said. “We went days without eating or sleeping.”

She said the family of her husband, Larry, was so worried it was about to offer a $5,000 reward for Jessica's safe return. As it turned out, she said, Jessica was still at Danielle's when she swung by the second time. However, afraid her mother was still mad at her over the earlier blowup, she hid behind some garbage cans at the back of the house until she left. Jessica spent that night with Crystal. The next day, she moved on to the home of another friend. While scrambling for a good hiding place behind Leach's house, Jessica picked up a couple of bruises on her arms. One of her friends suggested she say they stemmed from blows inflicted by her mom.

When she told the story to a friend's mother, she became concerned enough to call authorities. That delayed notification to Plemmons that her daughter had been found, as authorities wanted to first satisfy themselves that Jessica had made up the abuse allegations to justify her decision to run away and hide out. Though relieved to have Jessica back safe, Plemmons criticized authorities for not taking her report more seriously and maintaining better communication.

“Even if they suspected I had done something to her,” she said, “they could have made a courtesy call saying Jessica had been turned in to such-and-such department. They didn't even have to tell me where she was.” As it was, Plemmons said, “She thought that I didn't care, that I didn't want her to come home.” She said the failure of authorities to promptly notify her when Jessica turned up served to support that, she said. In fact, she said she never did get a call from the Yamhill County Sheriff's Office, only from the Dallas child welfare office.

Deputy Paul Groth, one assigned to the case, said confidentiality rules prevent him from sharing specific details. But he said Jessica originally reported abuse by her mother, so the agency felt an obligation to investigate further before notifying her parents. It is department policy, Groth said, to hand off runaway cases to a detective for further investigation whenever abuse is alleged. “If I start to suspect abuse, I have to freeze the situation and make sure everyone is safe, and then the case passes out of my control,” he said.

Groth said the false abuse allegations complicated the Plemmons case, but said their experience really doesn't differ all that much from that of other parents in runaway cases. He said fearful parents typically expect more from the sheriff's office that it can realistically offer. In general, he said, unemancipated minors who leave home without permission do so in the wake of an argument.

The deputy assigned to the case begins by getting the youth's age, gender, description and medical history. He also notes the place and circumstances of the departure and the names of boyfriends, girlfriends, relatives or classmates in the missing youth's circle. He then compiles a report for downloading into the National Crime Information Center and Oregon Law Enforcement Data System databases — useful in the event the youth turns up in some other jurisdiction, which is frequently the case.

Beyond that, not much can be justified, Groth said. He said deputies' limited time is generally better spent working cases where laws are being violated and citizens are being placed in danger. “I'll knock on doors and talk with friends, but I'm not going to ignore my other calls for an argument that teenagers are having with their parents,” he said. “Unless there's some kind of abuse, inappropriate sexual relationship or violation of probation involved,” he said, it comes down to this: “If I trip over them, I'll bring them in.”

Sgt. Buz Sawyer of the McMinnville Police Department said the relative lack of urgency tends to distinguish runaway cases from missing persons or kidnapping cases, where there is more compelling reason to fear for the missing person's immediate welfare. He said he understands this can be difficult for worried parents to come to grips with. “If we get any information, we'll move on it,” Sawyer said. But he said parents often have better a better idea than police where they might find their missing son or daughter, anyway. And they clearly have more time to devote to the effort. In the majority of cases, runaways return to their homes voluntarily, Sawyer added, or their parents succeed in tracking them down and scooping them up without the aid of law enforcement.

Groth said the way parents react is also influenced significantly by any prior experience with the problem.

For the Plemmonses, it was a new and frightening development. Unfortunately, it's become old hat for some parents, though.

“The parents of the kids who are frequent fliers know what to expect, in most instances,” Groth said. “But in a situation with people who are not experienced with the system, they can come into it expecting more than we're able to offer.”

Sheriff's Lt. Michael Runyon seconded that, saying, “Runaways usually call home with their temporary situation. Police always have the option of putting them in protective custody, but often, a cooling-off period is all that's necessary. The biggest issue for us is always to try to get them back into their homes.”

And in that respect, Connie and Larry Plemmons can be thankful. At least they have Jessica back home again.

By Miriam Gottfried


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