Courts recognize teens who live on their own

Karen marked an anniversary recently. It has been two years since she left home. The dark-haired teen with dreamboat eyes and a Seventeen magazine face left her adoptive parents when she was 15. Her father threw her out one night after a fight, and she vowed never to go back. Today she lives in a halfway house with the help of public assistance.

There is a small but growing number of youths, like Karen, who are being declared "emancipated minors" through a court process that gives a youth the powers and rights of an adult. These minors are considered to be independent of their parents for civil purposes and can live separately from their family.

They have the rights of an adult, including earning and retaining wages, owning and managing property, establishing a residence, entering enforceable contracts, and being able to sue and be sued. The parents are no longer responsible for the youth.

Minors seek to gain independence from their parents for various reasons. Some have suffered neglect and sexual and physical abuse at home. Others are homeless. Some parents ask a child to leave when they cannot control him any more. Other minors leave under calmer circumstances; parents get job transfers and the high-school-age student wants to stay behind to finish school with friends.

Freeing a minor to live legally on his own is a good concept, some youth advocates say.

"Communities need to recognize that there are kids who are ready and need to live on their own," says Steve Rorke of the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services in Washington, D.C., citing abuse and neglect as reasons childrend shouldn't be at home.

Others argue that emancipation is not the best way to help youths.

"By and large, I think emancipation is a mistake," says a social worker in Boston, who prefers to help a child stay in the structure of the family. "The child, and taht is all these kids often are, thinks he can escape from anything this way, whether it is a real problem or not."

Families often resist emancipation for both emotional and financial reasons, says Ray Manella of the Youth Development Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Some depend on income from their children, or they dislike agency meddling. They question whether letting a youth become independent at that age is the best help for someone in trouble.

There are provisions for emancipating minors in at least 10 states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Statutes differ in each state. In Alabama, a person must be 18 years old to be eligible for emancipation. In Alabama, parents or a parentless minor may apply for emancipation. In California, the mminor can be 16 or below. And any minor there can petition the court.

In most states with laws, after the minor has petitioned for emancipation the parents are notified of a hearing date. A judge hears evidence supporting the petition, such as separate residence, self-support, or consent of parents. Parents opposed to emancipation can present their case.

California has one of the most complete emancipation laws, but youth advocates are working to make it simpler. Today a youth must go through an attorney, but one worker foresees the day when a standardized legal form will be available at county offices to set the process in motion.

States without specific laws recognize emancipation through court processes, marriages, or administrative acts in social agencies, which are not always consistent. In Massachusetts, for example, there is no clear-cut law establishing statutory procedure for emancipation. Robert H. Weber of the Children's Law Project in Boston is working on a state bill on emancipation for minors.

He admits that the number of minors who would be allowed the rights of adults would probably be small. But he says that clear laws are necessary for those minors who would be helped.

"Some parents would like the law to be clearer, also," Mr. Weber points out. "They agree that their child should be on his own, and they want to know what their own liability will be."

Once a minor is declared independent, he faces other obstacles. Public assistance is not always easy to get. Finding housing and a job is difficult for minors. They need to know how to manage a budget, cook meals, and take care of a home. A few independent living projects offer such help, but there needs to be a far great number, youth advocates say.

"The term 'emancipated minor' doesn't mean much," says Steve Rorke of the National Network of Runaway and Yough Services. "It just means a youth is not dragged into the family court for a custody case. The real problem is that society doesn't recognize these youths as individuals."

Karen has found good support from the state and from a runaway center. Despite the fact that she lives on her own in a halfway house, she leads a life similar to other kids her age. She was not enthusiastic about high school but stuck with it and has just graduated. She plans to go to college after working a year at a runaway center where she has worked part-time while finishing high school.

There is a trace of sadness in her voice as she talks about teens who have "a nice mom and dad" who send their child to school, buy her clothes, and are aware of her problems.

"I wake me up in the morning," she explains. "I do every little thing for myself."

Karen sighs as she says feels older than some of her peers.

"One day a girl walked in [to a high school class], and she was sobbing her heart out," Karen says. "I tried to comfort her and asked what was wrong. She said her mother wouldn't let her have a telephone extension in her bedroom." Exasperation is written all over Karen's face.

"It's hard not to be flip around them sometimes."

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