Just short of a week, Christopher Smithburg was missing. People volunteered to join the hunt to find him, officers spent extra hours working to find him, and praying folk prayed for his safe return. On the Tuesday following his Thursday disappearance, he was found. And everyone rejoiced. Or did they?
When I was probably seven or eight years old, I decided to run away from home. I was hurt over something that had been said to me, and I knew that leaving home would surely solve my problems and my hurts. It was near the holidays because my relatives had sent us the annual tin of popcorn with the dividers between the different flavors. I marched to the kitchen to get some plastic bags, loaded each with some popcorn, and wrote a note. I am running away from home. If you need me, I’ll be in the tree behind the Owens’ house. Love, Susan. I left the note on the steps leading to our basement, and I ran. I stayed in that tree until it was getting dark. I came home because the troubles within my home were not so bad compared to the scary things lurking in the woods. My parents didn’t make too big a deal over my return or my running. They just let me know they were glad I was home. In my adult years, I learned that my husband had also run away from home as a child. His mother had helped him pack his suitcase. Here we are today, two childhood runaways living the life!
Why is it that kids run away? Why is it that many adults run away? Some writers are quick to say drugs and alcohol make people run. Really, though, is that what made me run? No. According to the National Runaway Safeline (Formerly the National Runaway Switchboard,) between 1.6-2.8 million youth runaway each year in the United States. Why do children run? Peer Pressure, Problems at Home, Abuse, Drugs. The Polly Klaas Foundation has a wonderful page of information that I encourage you to read. http://www.pollyklaas.org/enews-archive/2013-enews/article-web-pages/the-truth-about-runaways.html
Last night, word came in that Christopher Smithburg had been found and was unharmed. This morning, it was shared that he had created a campsite where he was staying. I immediately thought of how scary those woods must have been to him and how glad he surely would be to be found—knowing people cared so much about his safety. What happened in the next moment, though, stirred so many emotions in me and reminded me of why kids run. No empathy. Punishing words. Punishing actions. The officials’ words were Someone will have to pay for this; he has cost us a lot of man hours. I could hardly breathe, tears welling as I heard not one kind word spoken about his safe return. I went to the computer to pull up the story about this boy and saw a sweet face holding a trumpet. There is more to this story. He might be a troubled youth. He might have even done something he shouldn’t have done. But hours before he was found, people were hoping and praying that he would be found safely. Moments after? The news story ended with He faces runaway charges. The comments on the news page had some comments that recognized the need to address why he ran, but others were more typical of an uncaring, unsympathetic society: Put that kid to work to make him pay back all the money that was spent searching for him. Kids need to realize the seriousness of something like this… The biggest problem with the kids today is they do not want to take directions from their parents….
Why did he run? What demon torments him? Has he been bullied? Has he been threatened? Do we care? Yes, many of us do care. Many of us care that while kids need discipline they also need compassion. Chris Smithburg would eventually know the cost of his return, but it is now being hung around his neck. Why did they search? Why did they care to find him if their response would be to punish him? Why are there more than a million kids running away each year? Perhaps the response of the finders is enough to encourage any kid to run and not be found. With the attitudes shown in just the past twelve hours, I am not surprised that kids who run fear every returning. Of course, there are lessons a child must learn, but there should be balance, and there is usually a story to understand.
There is a story of a young man who thought life away from home would be much grander than life with his family. When he finally realized that life at home would have been so much better, he was afraid to return out of humiliation. He found that he would have been willing to be an employee for his family just to have more than he had found on the road. His father, however, embraced him, celebrated his return, and reminded him of how incredibly loved he was and always would be regardless of his choices. It might just be a story, but it’s a story that has inspired many people to take a step back and revisit their attitude toward children who run from what they know. Perhaps it’s a story and an attitude more people should revisit today.
A young man ran for any number of reasons. He was hunted down in what many of us thought was an act of caring and concern. He was found and now bears the wrath of those who searched. What a society we live in today that our first response is anger and condemnation.
If you have run away and are scared to go home, don’t be afraid. Call the National Runaway Hotline at 1- (800) 786-2929. 1800RUNAWAY.