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Retired teacher shows knack for reining in runaway kids

SCOPE volunteer Georgiana Sutherlin  and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich  are seen at  her Spokane office (Jesse Tinsley)
SCOPE volunteer Georgiana Sutherlin and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich are seen at her Spokane office (Jesse Tinsley)

Talks to parents without upsetting them; keeps in touch with some

When Georgiana Sutherlin retired from teaching middle school in 2004, she didn’t want to give up working in the community. Now her volunteer job keeps her working with children as she tracks juvenile runaways for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

Before she retired she began working as a volunteer with the Sheriff Community Oriented Policing Effort in Medical Lake, where she lived at the time. She was staffing the Sheriff’s Office front desk at the Public Safety Building when she was asked to help with runaway paperwork. Five years ago that became what she spent at least two full days a week doing. “I just kind of fell into it,” said Sutherlin, 67. “It works really well. I’m used to talking to parents. I know how to do it without upsetting them.”

When a child is called in as a runaway, sheriff’s deputies take a report and determine if the child is endangered, which usually is someone under the age of 13 or possibly the victim of a crime. Deputies handle those investigations while Sutherlin does the others. She tries to track down the runaways and completes all the required paperwork. “I start calling schools and homes,” she said. “(School) counselors will often give me names of friends.”

She also works with parents about solving whatever problem made the child run away in the first place. Most runaways return home on their own or are easily located. It’s unusual for a runaway to be gone for a long time, but it does happen. “We just found a girl who had turned 19 in South Carolina,” she said. “She had been missing since 16.”

Along the way Sutherlin, a teacher for 39 years, has noticed something about the kids she is tasked to find. Sometimes they run away because they’ve been disciplined by their parents or just wanted to do something their parents wouldn’t allow. Almost all who take off have a bus pass that allows them greater mobility and most decide to leave on the spur of the moment, she said. “I would have thought they were low-income kids from unhappy homes,” Sutherlin said. “The majority of them are not.”

Weather also plays a role. “If it’s really nice out, they run away more,” she said. During last year’s severe winter weather, the number of runaways was down severely.

Most kids who run away turn up within 48 hours. They’re located at the homes of friends or other easily pinpointed locations. “I’ll find kids who are in school,” she said. “I’ve always thought that was bizarre.”

In 2009 there were 877 reported runaways in the area served by the Sheriff’s Office. “All but five of those came back,” she said. “I think in a month or so we’ll probably have them all.”

Even though Sutherlin knows that most runaway reports end well, she still has tremendous sympathy for the parents. “It’s really kind of scary when you come in, you go in to wake your child up in the morning and they’re not there,” she said.

She often keeps in touch with families after children return home, helping them work through issues and hopefully stop it from happening again. “I like it that way because I can keep track,” she said. “I try to create a bond between myself and the parents.”

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan calls Sutherlin a “shining example” and said as a former teacher she is a natural at the job. “This is something we would have to assign a deputy to if we didn’t have a volunteer,” he said. Sutherlin’s work allows the Sheriff’s Office to keep another deputy on patrol rather than handling the runaway paperwork.

In 2008 Sutherlin was recognized for her community service by the Daughters of the American Revolution. In a letter sent to the DAR at the time, Sgt. Dave Van Wormer of the sexual assault and child abuse unit praised her work. He wrote that Sutherlin’s work saved “hours and hours of time, work and money, and she does it all with a smile. We couldn’t ask for a more dedicated and pleasant person to work with.”

Sutherlin is happy with her work, which she believes gives her a purpose. “It’s kept me so young,” she said. “It’s as much a benefit to me as it is to the Sheriff’s Office.”