Every day across the country children are leaving home for a future of danger and uncertainty on the streets. For most, the time away from home is short and mostly uneventful. For others, a life on the streets turns tragic when they realize that what once seemed like a solution soon becomes another situation from which they must escape. If the problem of teenage runaways is to be understood and possibly prevented, parents need to know what makes teens run away, some of the consequences of running away, and what help is available for teenagers who choose to run away from home. For parents, the reasons why a teenager needs to run away are very important. Although all the possible reasons for running away are too numerous to name here, there are some characteristic reasons that cause a teen to runaway. In her book, Anyplace But Here: Young, Alone, and Homeless: What to Do, Ellen Switzer (1992) gives four categories of reasons for a teen's need to run away: physical abuse, sexual abuse, family problems, alcoholism, and other substance abuse.
The rates of child abuse increase as children become older. Adolescents have the highest rates for physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Among adolescents, males and females have comparable rates of physical and emotional abuse, but females have four times the risk of sexual abuse than males (Papalia & Olds 1993). In a study of maltreated teens who ran away from home, it was found that females accounted for 87.3% of the sexually abused runaways. They also comprised 83.9% of the group that was both physically and sexually abused (Kurtz, Kurtz, & Jarvis 1991). The results of a study at a runaway shelter in central Florida showed that biological fathers were most often responsible for physical abuse, however stepfathers were most often responsible for sexual abuse (Warren, Gary, & Moorhead 1994). The outcome of both physical and sexual abuse appears to have a cumulative effect on children. Teens who are abused both physically and sexually tend to have more personal, family, and school problems than those who only suffer from one form of abuse (physical or sexual), or who were not abused. The runaways who experienced both forms of abuse were the most likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, experience depression, contemplate or attempt suicide, need hospitalization for mental reasons, and be involved in prostitution. The physically and sexually abused teens repeatedly ran away and stayed away from home longer than nonabused teens. Parents of the abused teens were more likely to know about the child running away and often did not want the child returned to the home (Kurtz, Kurtz, & Jarvis 1991).
Along with the threat of physical and sexual abuse, many runaways have to contend with parental abuse of alcohol or other substances. In a study of 68 adolescents at a juvenile detention center in Missouri, researchers found that 43% of the group with alcoholic families were in the highest category of child abuse compared to 6% of those from a nonalcoholic family. The study also revealed that 70% of the adolescents in the alcoholic group scored positive on an addiction scale compared to 46% of the nonalcoholic group (McGaha & Leoni 1995).
Not all children run away from home because of physical or sexual abuse; most children simply run away from parents who neglect them. A parent who is suffering from alcohol or substance abuse will not be able to give a child the emotional or physical support they need. By running away from home, neglected children are attempting to find what is missing from their lives - love and support. When teens decide to run away from home they may be leaving a life of abuse and neglect only to replace it with one of exploitation and victimization. The longer they stay away, the more likely they will become involved with groups of people who engage in criminal behavior to support themselves (Simmons & Whitlock 1991). After two weeks on the street 75% of runaways will have become involved in some kind of activity that exploits children: pornography, prostitution, drugs, or crime (Forst & Blomquist 1991). Fortunately, most runaways do not become long term runaways. Half return home before the end of the first evening and a large majority return after a few days. This time period appears to be an important factor in the amount of exploitation of a runaway. When the URSA Institute and the RTI (Research Triangle Institute) conducted a study of 362 runaways, they found that only 4 (1.1%) had engaged in prostitution and none reported being a victim of child pornography. Most of these runaways had returned home after a few days and probably did not stay away long enough to resort to prostitution or pornography as a means of survival (Forst & Blomquist 1991). Besides the threat of violence and exploitation, runaways are susceptible to many health problems while living on the streets. Runaways are more likely to need medical treatment for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), hepatitis, respiratory problems (asthma and pneumonia), scabies, and trauma (Forst & Blomquist 1991). Most runaways prefer to stay on the street or with friends rather than go to a shelter. This makes studying the group very difficult since there is no clear cut definition of runaways and homeless adolescents. Homeless youths may not be runaways, but may have been forced out of their homes (a group that could be called "throwaways") by parents who no longer want to care for them. Regardless, they live mostly on the streets and have essential health needs similar to the remainder of the homeless population (Council on Scientific Affairs 1989). For the runaways who become involved in prostitution and child pornography, the danger of contracting AIDS is certainly an increasing risk. In a study of 206 male and female runaways from New York City, it was found that runaways engaged in more unprotected sexual activity and had greater numbers of partners compared to other adolescents (Rotheram-Borus et al. 1992). Runaways from other metropolitan areas are also at risk for AIDS. A study of Cleveland runaways showed increased risk of AIDS due to unprotected sex and multiple sex partners, although not as high as the New York group. The Cleveland group also had a greater knowledge of AIDS prevention, but the Cleveland group was comprised of short term runaways whereas the New York group was primarily composed of long term runaways and homeless adolescents (Zimet et al. 1995). The health problems of runaway teens is a complex issue since the total number of teens on the streets in need of medical care is unknown. Many teens do not trust health care providers and delay seeking treatment because they believe money is needed prior to receiving medical care. When they finally do obtain treatment, they often refuse any follow up care. Although some medical workers are hesitant to provide care to juveniles without a parent's consent, most states allow emancipated minors to obtain health care without parental consent. An emancipated minor is one who is living apart from their parents (with or without their consent) and is not receiving parental financial support (as the majority of runaways do) (Council of Scientific Affairs 1989). Although medical attention is often needed by runaway youths, other services are just as important for the well being of runaways. According to United States Government estimates, 500,00 to 1.5 million adolescents runaway or are forced out of their homes every year. There are an estimated 200,00 homeless adolescents living on the streets, and approximately 66% seek services at shelters. The runaways range from less than 11 years of age to over 18; half are 15 or 16 years old (Administration on Children, Youth, and Families 1994). Since the passage of the Runaway Youth Act by Congress and President Ford in September 1974, the Department of Health and Human Services creates grants and offers assistance to cities and organizations for the development of runaway youth facilities that are not part of the law enforcement or juvenile justice system (Forst & Blomquist 1991). In addition to the funds which directly support temporary shelters for runaway and homeless youth, approximately 10% of the funds are used to fund the national toll-free hotline, training and technical assistance, research on teenage prostitution and chronic runaways, and methods to improve outreach, prevention, and family reunification (Administration on Children, Youth, and, Families 1995). Other services that are part of the Department of Health and Human Services: National Runaway Switchboard Hotline - The National Runaway Switchboard is a confidential telephone information, referral, and counseling service for runaway and homeless youth and their families. The hotline has helped approximately 300,000 youth and families during the past five years. Over 10,000 calls are received monthly on the toll-free phone number: 1-800-621-4000. National Clearinghouse on Runaway and Homeless Youth - The National Clearinghouse on Runaway and Homeless Youth (NCRHY) serves as a central information resource on runaway and homeless youth issues for youth service providers, policy makers, and the general public. The Clearinghouse can be reached at (301) 608-8098. Drug Abuse Prevention Program - Since 1988, the Drug Abuse Prevention Program assists communities in addressing drug abuse among youth by providing services designed toward the prevention, early intervention, and reduction of drug dependency. Funds are used to provide individual, family, group, and peer counseling. The program also provides community education and outreach activities, training to service providers, and research. Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth - Since 1988, the Transitional Living Program for Homeless Youth has provided support for projects that promote the transition of homeless youth, age 16 to 21, to self-sufficient living and prevent their long-term dependence on social services. Services include shelter, education, job training, health care, and other assistance. Although most runaways leave home because of relatively minor family problems (compared to abusive situations) and return after a few days, this should not eclipse the dilemma of the children who leave an abusive home only to be victimized again once on the streets. Runaway children are some of the most exploited members of society. The danger of living on the street is a poor choice for a child in an abusive situation to have to make, but thousands choose the street every year. The irony of runaways is how they risk being victims of prostitution, pornography, crime, drugs, and AIDS in an attempt to escape a life of abuse.
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