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Why do teens run away? These Connecticut youth journalists looked into it.

Ali_RFA_Service.jpg
Ali Oshinskie
/
Connecticut Public
From left: Waterbury police Lt. Kim Binette, juvenile division commanding officer; Lt. Ryan Bessette, public information officer; and Waterbury Youth Services youth journalists Trinity Jackson, Kaylia Hall and Tassura Nunes.

It’s a common occurrence in Waterbury: A teenager goes missing and the Waterbury Police Department writes up a one-page missing person flyer. A lot of them end up on Instagram, said Tassura Nunes, a 17-year-old Waterbury resident.

“When it’s on people’s stories, they are much more descriptive and you know because they know the person personally,” Nunes said, a journalist in the Waterbury Youth Services’ journalism class.

Nunes said these posts sometimes include theories of what’s going on with the alleged runaway.

“They’ll be like, ‘This was happening before they ran away; I think this happened and then they ran away,’” she said.

But for the public, most stories stop there. News outlets don’t follow up on most of the stories, and Waterbury police said they’ll sometimes circulate a follow-up flyer, saying simply that the juvenile was found.

Trinity Jackson, 17, also in the journalism class, recalled that she saw an acquaintance on a flyer one day and then on the bus a few days later.

“It’s kind of like, normal,” she said.

But the students of Waterbury Youth Services wanted to know more. Nunes, Jackson and a few other students worked to find out why kids run away in Waterbury and what happens after they are found — and they put together a podcast.

Listen to their podcast and see below for a transcript of their reporting.

Resources for teens in Waterbury


The Waterbury Police Department told Waterbury Youth Services that most teens who run away are experiencing a mental health crisis or conflict in the home.

One out of every five teens has run away before age 18, according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Most are gone for only a few days and stay within 50 miles of their home, according to data published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. And 26% of Waterbury teens not living at home said they had to leave due to some conflict at home, according to a 2020 study from the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.


In the podcast, the students discuss what teens can do besides run away. These are their recommendations.

Talk to someone 

Talking to a school counselor or someone you trust at school is a great place to start. Most of them are mandated reporters, so if you’re nervous to share, ask them first what they are required to share and what they can keep between the two of you, according to Amanda Augeri, a counselor at Waterbury Youth Services.

“I got a therapist. It wasn’t easy, I didn’t just go up to my parents and say, "I need a therapist." When [my mom] realized that my mental health was getting worse, she started thinking "maybe my child might be having a problem." When my therapist would then explain to her in different words how I’m feeling is when she actually started talking to me and we started making agreements."
-Tassura Nunes, youth journalist at Waterbury Youth Services

Problem-solve with your parents 

Try talking to your parents about what you need or what’s making your life hard. Waterbury police Lt. Kim Binette recommends having agreements in place, about chores and phone use, so that when things get heated you have a plan.

“This agreement has to be both with the child and the parent, because sometimes a parent [doesn’t] care what their child has to say about it. [Parents] also don’t explain. And I feel like teens, we need to understand completely why, like to get it in our heads, ‘Oh yeah, now I need to start taking up my responsibilities.’”
-Trinity Jackson, youth journalist at Waterbury Youth Services

Move on or try another way

Sometimes parents won’t understand, but Jackson said she’s managed difficult scenarios by letting things go. She takes care of her responsibilities, does her chores and then goes to her room. If your parent really needs to know what’s going on, bringing in another trusted friend or adult to help explain how you feel can help defuse the tension.

“Something I recommend not trying is like, just yelling. Yelling don’t work at all, no matter how mad you are really.”
- Steven Dunbar, youth journalist at Waterbury Youth Services


Resources for teens in Waterbury 


If you’re running away or in crisis, you can go to a Safe Place — they are all over Waterbury, including at Waterbury Youth Services and the YMCA downtown. Text the word “SAFE” and your current address to the number 44357 to find the closest one.

Anyone can call 1-800-RUNAWAY if you’ve already run away or even if you’re considering it. If you prefer to talk online, you can chat with someone on the website. They’ll help you get the support you need.

If you’re worried that you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, you can text the word “HELP” to 233733.

Anyone can report someone missing: friends, peers, teachers or family. If the person who went missing is from Waterbury, you can call the police department’s non-emergency number at 203-574-6911.

If you meet someone who’s running away or just having a crisis, just listen to them and try to make them feel understood.


The podcast is part of the Report for America Service Project. Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Corps members volunteer their time working with youth on journalism projects. RFA corps member and Connecticut Public reporter Ali Oshinskie partnered with Waterbury Youth Services. The goal of the RFA Service Project is intended to help youth develop media literacy while asking and answering questions about the world around them.

Transcript of the podcast

Tassura Nunes  

Hi, I'm Tassura Nunes

ali_rfa_tassura.jpg
Ali Oshinskie
/
Connecticut Public
Tassura Nunes, Waterbury Youth Services Young Journalist

Steven Dunbar  

and I'm Steven Dunbar.

Trinity Jackson  

and I'm Trinity Jackson. And this podcast is Missing Kids in Waterbury. We're high school students in Waterbury, Connecticut. And we're in a journalism course, at Waterbury Youth Services.

Tassura Nunes  

I'm pretty sure we've all seen a missing persons post or report before. Among people our age, we see them on Snapchat and Instagram all the time. Friends share it to help spread the word. One of our journalism teachers brought in flyers from the Waterbury Police Department, she says she gets them pretty often.

Steven Dunbar  

Last year 50 percent of people without housing were teenagers or younger. Teens who run away are not always unhoused, but it gives you an idea of the problem.

Trinity Jackson  

It's a problem all over Connecticut and the country. There's not a lot of good data on this, but one study found that one out of every five teens ran away before 18. That's according to the National Longitudinal Survey of youth.

Steven Dunbar  

Yeah, and people usually do it more than once. More than half of those runaways did it twice, and then a third of them did it three times.

Trinity Jackson  

But we wanted to know why this happens. Like, what's the process of finding them and what happens next?

Tassura Nunes  

I know enough of us have thought "I could just leave." And that's the realization that you really could just leave. But then you have to think about what's next.

Steven Dunbar  

To understand what happens with these kids in Waterbury, we spoke to Lt. Kim Binette. She's in charge of the Youth Division Squad at the Waterbury Police Department.

Trinity Jackson  

Lt. Bennett explained to us what happens on her end when a kid runs away. Usually someone close to the runaway like a parent or foster parent reports them missing. Binette explains that they..

Lt. Kim Binette  

"..try to obtain as much information as we can about the location names, phone numbers of friends, and places that they would normally frequent."

Trinity Jackson  

The police department can try to locate your phone through the phone company and they'll also ask teachers and friends for information.

Lt. Kim Binette  

“We also do missing persons flyers and put those up on our social media pages.”

Tassura Nunes  

Okay, here's an example of what a police report would look like. It has the date and time of release and location and who was contacted in regard of the runaway. It also has the identifying age and name of said runaway and when they were last seen. One police report states “on April 20, 2022 at 11:32am and Waterbury police department was contacted....”

Trinity Jackson  

I think I see them a lot. So it's like, not gonna say it feels like nothing seeing them. It's kind of like, normal.

Tassura Nunes  

“They were last seen wearing a black Champion hoodie and black Adidas sweatpants.” I have a black Champion hoodie, I think black is the best color to have a Champion hoodie in.

Trinity Jackson  

What it doesn't say is why the person ran away in the first place.

Steven Dunbar  

and the police don't usually know anyway.

Tassura Nunes  

So we've come up with this fake scenario as an example of what a missing person's story would look like. Imagine a 16 year old girl, maybe she got into a fight with her mom. Her name is Melissa. She often misses the bus because she can't get out of bed and her grades have been slipping. She's struggling with depression. That day, she slept in the bus left and her mom realized that Melissa wasn't on it again, and they got into a fight. The fights often make Melissa feel isolated and this one set her off because her mother brought up all these other arguments that they've had. Now she feels like her mother won't ever understand how she feels. When her mom dropped her off at school, she walked the opposite way from the building.

Lt. Kim Binette  

“So a majority of the kids do suffer from mental health issues and are in crisis. And a lot of times there has been an incident that has triggered the situation and most times it's parents attempting to discipline them or enforce household rules, and the juvenile takes off.”

Trinity Jackson  

Melissa's example is made up but there's data to back it up. A survey from 2020 shows a quarter of Waterbury teens not living at home said that they had to leave due to some conflict at home. That's according to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. Binette says a lot of these kids are in foster care.

Steven Dunbar  

But that's not all cases. Binette says sometimes teens are acting out or having behavior issues

Lt. Kim Binette  

“And they maybe have trauma from past abuse incidents.”

Steven Dunbar  

Many kids who runaway are experiencing sexual abuse at home. One in 10 children in America experience sexual abuse before they turn 18, according to the data from Darkness to Light, an organization trying to end sexual abuse of kids. For some, running away from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is an escape.

Tassura Nunes  

We also spoke to Stacy Rubinfeld, she's also part of Waterbury services, where she runs the child advocacy center.

Trinity Jackson  

When someone has been abused and is ready to report it, Rubinfeld coordinates a team of people to investigate and prosecute the case if that's what the person wants. She also helps them get the therapy or other support they need to heal.

Stacey Rubinfeld  

“Because we don't want to further traumatize kids who have made a disclosure. So it could be really scary to go into a police department and have to explain to an officer what happened and then have to go talk to a DCF worker about what happened. So we want to minimize the number of times that somebody has to share their story and really not provide further trauma to them.”

Tassura Nunes  

Rubinfeld explained to us that there are many different types of abuse. To summarize, there's physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and neglect can count as abuse. Physical abuse is like hitting or punching, it's bodily harm done on purpose. Emotional abuse is mental harm towards another. This could be a guardian saying something like "you're not wanted" or abandoning their kid. Neglect can be many things. It's when a parent ignores and doesn't provide things you need, like medicine when you're sick, food on a regular basis, and make sure you're getting your education. Sexual abuse could run from inappropriate touching to trafficking. And these types of abuse often overlap and happen at the same time

Stacey Rubinfeld  

“Exploring what abuse is and doing as much education awareness and prevention as possible is really the best way to minimize the number of kids who are abused.”

Steven Dunbar  

Rubinfeld says the best way to prevent abuse is education. If kids and adults know what abuse is and how to recognize when it's going on, they can be aware that something's wrong.

Trinity Jackson  

As we heard, abuse is one of the many reasons teens don't feel safe and leave home. So what happens to those kids after they run away? It usually depends on the reason why they ran away.

Tassura Nunes  

The police told us that when they find them, sometimes the police will bring them home. But that's only if the teen is doing okay. If they're having a mental health crisis, or if they tell the police they're being abused at home, they wouldn't take them home right away.

Lt. Kim Binette  

“Youth need to know that even if they ran away, they're not in trouble, the police are not going to arrest them. Their job is to return them to where they belong, whether it's a biological parent, a foster parent, or a service program that they've been placed in, and to make sure that they're okay, medically, mental health wise, and that they're safe.”

Trinity Jackson  

And did you know teens between 16 and 18 in Connecticut have certain rights?

Steven Dunbar  

Yeah, they can't force you to go home if you don't want to. The police can tell your parents where you are; that is, if telling them won't put you in danger. And Connecticut law states that a police officer can help you get the help you need, like the medical care or a place to stay. So what might happen in the case of Melissa?

Tassura Nunes  

I was gonna say something like Melissa shouldn't run away, she should talk to her guidance counselor since guidance counselors like to tell your parents all your business.

Trinity Jackson  

In the case of Melissa, it doesn't seem to be any, like abuse or neglect. So I feel like if she was found she would be like, brought home, maybe treated for like mental health because she was kind of depressed.

Tassura Nunes  

I mean, if she really wanted to leave, they can't force her to go back home. They can't force her to go back home, even if she wasn't in a crisis.

Steven Dunbar  

Lt. Binette told us most kids are having a mental health crisis. Here's what usually happens in that situation.

Lt. Kim Binette  

“So if they've been found, and we find that they are in crisis in any way, shape, or form, behaviorally, mental health wise, medically, whether they're unstable, suicidal, anything like that, we would send them to the hospital to be evaluated. Sometimes we also have Youth Crisis Intervention Team, which is social workers from the school department that work a second job and they come out to calls involving youth with police officers. So a lot of times they can recommend counseling services to the family for the juvenile and connect directly with the school to help the counselors at school, to make them aware of the situation and put things in place at school to help them.”

Steven Dunbar  

So they would start to get help for their mental health. But [what] f they were trying to get out of a bad situation, like if they were being abused...?

Lt. Kim Binette  

“So once we are aware of where this child was located, and the reason that they told the parent that they ran away, that would trigger a DCF referral on our part, who would then start the minimal facts process and determine if abuse actually took place if this child is still disclosing that happened to them, and then it would be further investigated.”

Trinity Jackson  

How do you think you'd feel if you were having the worst day of your life, ran away, and then you were picked up by the police?

Tassura Nunes  

Oh, I go crazy. I'd go crazy if I was having the worst day of my life. Because I know that I wouldn’t leave home for no reason. If I was having such a bad life at home, that I wanted to leave that moment, then I would not go back unless what I wanted to happen in my house happened. So my parents would have to compromise or they wouldn't have me.

Trinity Jackson  

I would feel like a criminal. I would feel like a criminal because like the police are picking you up. Usually when the police pick you up it's like, you got to get in the back of the car. Like, you're like basically being arrested without being arrested.

Tassura Nunes  

Like, ‘you're not gonna let me sit in the front seat? Don't you feel bad for me? I had to leave.’

Steven Dunbar  

Shoot, I'd be annoyed, like Trinity said, I'd feel like I'm a criminal.

Trinity Jackson  

Binette says that, like almost all the runaways they hear of are found. But there are risks with running away.

Lt. Kim Binette  

“Another issue that we do have is human trafficking. So kids that do run away, may look to people that they don't know, strangers to befriend them, and help them on their journey of having a place to stay and food to eat. And human traffickers are very good at being that person.”

Tassura Nunes  

She says they gain the trust of that child and then traffic them which means they make them do work without pay. It's like slavery, essentially and sometimes it's sex work. Binette says she's dealt with two cases of confirmed human trafficking in her time working in the youth division. But there have been other cases where she suspected it. It was really hard to get these teens to work with her.

….That's crazy because it's like, okay, you're found, but you’re getting trafficked? And it's like, do you want to go through the whole process of talking about what happened the entire time you were missing and being trafficked? Or do you want to just get help and go home?

Trinity Jackson  

Yeah, I agree. So I have a question for you guys. Like, is running away a good way to deal with these things?

Tassura Nunes  

No, because like, okay, you're running away because you're experiencing abuse. But what if you end up trusting somebody, and then they turn their back on you, and now you're getting human trafficked?

Trinity Jackson  

Yeah, I feel like running away can be dangerous, because then you're exposed to even more dangerous things in the world and people. Like you can put your trust in somebody that is not the best person and then they can traffick you.

Tassura Nunes  

I feel like if you're getting abused, and you want to run away, you don't know where to go, you should go to the police station. Because if you're running away, because there's abuse in the household, you're already in a very vulnerable situation like, mentally. So I feel like you should find somebody who's going to report it to the police station. Like, if you're too nervous to go to the police station yourself, at least find someone you know. Like, if you're running away, go to somebody you know, and have them go with you. But I don't think you should just run away and put your trust in a completely different person.

Steven Dunbar  

Shoot, running the way at times could be good. Well, maybe I guess, there's downfalls. There's pros and cons, all of that. But for this specific situation, like I don't feel like that's the right idea, that's the best idea. Because shoot, you just gonna go back to the abusive home.

Tassura Nunes  

A lot of parents will be like, “Why doesn't my child trust me with how they feel?” And they'll be the same parents to be like, “you don't feel that way” [to their child]. Like how do you know? You're not me. So I feel like instead of making children feel like you're not going to believe them, or you're going to put them down, [parents] should show them that they can go to you with their problems.

Trinity Jackson  

I feel like, yeah, we all know that you can go to a guidance counselor, or like a teacher, but like people are really scared. Youth don't always have a lot of trust in the teachers and the guidance counselors because of them just telling our parents [what we share]. Like how do we know like, you're not going to tell our parents, which may be the same person that is abusing us what we told you? I would feel comfortable talking to someone at [Waterbury] Youth Services, if like, a situation like this was happening to me.

Tassura Nunes  

I'd definitely text Amanda [at Waterbury Youth Services]. She's a mandated reporter so even if I don't say explicitly, I want her to report this, I can drop enough hints, and she'll do it.

Ali Oshinskie  

I was just curious, like, what you think are other good ways to solve this issue for kids who feel that they have no more options than running away?

Tassura Nunes  

If you have friends, you can tell them about your situation, and if you're too nervous to say something, you can ask your friend to tell their parent. Or you could ask your friend to actually report it with you. Because a lot of people are very nervous around adults because if you're getting abused, and those adults are the ones you're supposed to trust, it's very hard to trust other adults that do seem like they can help you. So I feel like if you already have a friend that knows what's going on, you can go to them and be like, 'Hey, I'm ready to talk about this,’ and they can actually go and report it with you.

Trinity Jackson  

Binette wants to reduce the number of kids who run away because she sees how tough it is for them. This is what she says parents can do:

Lt. Kim Binette  

“If they start displaying behavioral issues, [parents] should reach out for some help in addressing these and try to determine what is going on with the kid, why they're feeling the way they're feeling, and acting the way they're acting and how these kids can deal with the problems that they're facing, as opposed to running away.”

Steven Dunbar  

Adults should know that kids don't run away for fun. They don't just do it because they want to do it or to put themselves in danger for fun. They leave because they don't have any other options.

Tassura Nunes  

That's a really hard thing: feeling like you don't have any options. But is that actually true? Do kids have options? What are the things teens can do to feel better?

Steven Dunbar  

Make more friends, make new friends, I don't know what else to say without it sounding smart or something!

Tassura Nunes  

If you make more friends, then it's like, it's peer pressure or whatever. But if you're having a problem at home, the more people that know about it, you'll feel more inclined to actually do something about it.

Trinity Jackson  

We keep saying it, it sounds repetitive, but like, talk to somebody that's trusted. I feel like you should just find someone that you can confide in, and like, talk to. Someone that you can trust, that's not going to like, run your business out to like, be malicious type stuff. Like not to hurt you, someone that actually wants to help you and get help.

Tassura Nunes  

It feels very nice because when you have that person you can be completely honest with, anything can come to your mind, and you could say it and they won't judge you. It feels very good.

Trinity Jackson  

Here's what Binette says [teens can do:]

Lt. Kim Binette  

“Communicate with your family about what bothers you and what you need. So that maybe there can be some compromise in the household rules. Having agreements in place and compromise within the home, before these issues come up, is something that can [help] avoid a larger argument. And if there are bigger problems, obviously seek help. Peers can help by letting someone know, such as a teacher, counselor, their own parent, when a friend discloses that they're having problems at home, that they're feeling suicidal, that they're having issues with being abused, they can reach out for them, when the person that's disclosing is not really doing it for themselves.”

Trinity Jackson  

Do you guys think that would actually work?

Tassura Nunes  

If the problem is so bad you want to run away? No, because I don't think that kids just decide that they want to run away after having household problems. I think it's the repetitive, all the time [stuff]. The parent either won't include them in any decisions or whenever they try to talk about how things are run in the house, the parent doesn't want to listen to them. I feel like if they talk to somebody else, and then talk to their parent all together, it would work. Because parents that are that way, don't listen to their kids and would only listen if another adult actually agreed with what their child is saying.

Trinity Jackson  

I feel like they'll only listen if another adult like, was also speaking. But sometimes they might get defensive about it and things can be worse for the child at home. But I also feel like this agreement has to be both with the child and the parent. Because sometimes it's like, a parent is like “what I say goes.” They don't care about what the child or the teen has anything to say about it. And they also don't do explaining, like, “oh, you need to do this in the house, because I'm doing this and it makes me feel like this.” They're just like, “oh, just because I said so.” And I feel like teens, we need to understand completely why, to, you know, maybe get in our heads like, “oh yeah, now I need to start taking up on my responsibilities.”

Steven Dunbar  

Everything she says is facts, because it happens with my dad too.

Ali Oshinskie  

Has anything you guys have done with your parents helped in terms of like, getting what you needed?

Tassura Nunes  

I got a therapist. It wasn't easy. I didn't just go up to my parents and say, “I need a therapist.” My mom was very like, authoritarian. Like, the only reason I got a therapist was because she still cared about me so when she realized that my mental health was getting worse, she started being worried, and was actually thinking maybe my child might actually be having a problem. And when I talked to my therapist, and my therapist would then explain to her in like, different words, how I'm feeling is when she started actually talking to me. And when we actually started making agreements.

Trinity Jackson  

For me, my attempts have not worked. But things have gotten better for my household. Like, um, things have gotten better with the relationship between me and my mother because of me. Because I personally, like I stopped just trying to fight it. I just do what I do, and then go in my room. Like even though it's not like the worst situation, teens do fight with their parents, and have conflict and don't agree on a couple of things, which we don't agree on. So like, what works best for me: I just try to take care of my responsibilities so like, I can avoid as much conflict as possible.

Steven Dunbar  

Well, something I recommend not trying is like, I guess just yelling. Yelling don't work at all, no matter how mad you are really, it don't. No explaining helps anything-- trying to explain yourself don't help nothing. Well, at least for my little situation I got going on at my current [place]. But yeah, that's all, shoot.

Trinity Jackson  

Rubinfeld says that for people who experience abuse, they don't have to feel hopeless.

Stacey Rubinfeld  

“We have lots of evidence-based mental health treatments that really show that therapy and treatment works. People can move past traumatic experiences so I can't recommend that enough.”

Tassura Nunes  

Like Binette said, school counselors can help or really just anyone you trust at school. Most of them are mandated reporters so if you're nervous to share, ask them first what they're required to share and what they can keep between the two of you. If you're running away or in a crisis, there are also these things called Safe Places all over Waterbury where you can get help. There's even one here at Waterbury Youth Services. All the Fire Departments and the YMCA downtown are Safe Places. If you don't know where the closest one is, you can text the word "SAFE" and your current address to the number 44357.

Trinity Jackson  

If you've already run away, or know someone who has you can call, 1-800-RUNAWAY or you can search 1-800-Runaway and there's a chat box on their website. They'll help you get the support you need. If you're worried that you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, you can text the word "HELP" 2233733. Anyone can report someone missing friends, peers, teachers or family. If the person went missing is from Waterbury, you can call the non-emergency number at 203-574-6911.

Steven Dunbar  

And probably the most important thing is, if you meet someone who's running away or having a crisis just listen to them and try to make them feel understood.

Trinity Jackson  

Thank you for listening to Missing Kids in Waterbury podcast. We'd like to thank our guests, Lieutenant Kim Binette at the Waterbury Police Department and Stacy Rubinfeld from Waterbury Youth Services for helping us understand the issue.

Tassura Nunes  

And also a big thanks to our journalism teachers, Amanda Augeri, Lauren Danielowski, and Ali Oshinskie. We also want to say a big thanks to Connecticut Public, Report For America, and especially Waterbury Youth Services for making this possible.

Steven Dunbar  

We also want to thank Jasmin, Alivia, Zahriah, Steven, Selena, Kaylia, Kalese, and the other students in journalism at Waterbury Youth Services. They helped us report and understand that story. We miss you guys.

Tassura Nunes  

This podcast was reported, produced, and hosted by…Tassura Nunes,

Steven Dunbar  

Stephen Dunbar

Trinity Jackson  

and Trinity Jackson.

All  

Thank you for listening!

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.
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