Teens Who Run From Troubled Families Find Help

The number of runaways is still too high, say the experts; programs rally to aid youth

For Lee Tan, two years of drifting on the streets of Boston ended with her pregnancy at 18.

"I knew I couldn't stay on the streets anymore," she says. "I had a life to take care of."

Tan was 6 when she and her large family arrived in the United States from Cambodia. As a teenager, she left home because of constant arguing with her stepmother and the clash of cultures in her family. She lived with an aunt for a while, and then, rebellious and defiant, she headed for the streets.

Experts who run programs to help runaways say Tan's family experience is becoming all too familiar in the United States. Pressured by overwhelming societal, marital, and economic changes, growing numbers of families are unable to talk and live together peaceably.

"What leads me to conclude that the runaway numbers are rising," says Lora Thomas, executive director of National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) in Chicago, "is the growing problem of the lack of communication among families that puts so much stress on children. And peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol has never been stronger. Too many kids are faced with a set of family circumstances they don't understand, and many take to the streets to survive."

The Children's Defense Fund estimates that more than 1,200 teens or children now run away from home every day in the US.

Unlike Tan, many have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Others are "throwaways," children who are thrown out, or who leave home and are unwelcome when they return.

"We see many more families with severe problems these days," says Virginia Price, clinical director of The Bridge, a nonprofit organization that has been helping runaways for 26 years in Boston. Among many services, The Bridge provides transitional housing for teens wanting to stabilize their lives.

Although there is no accurate way to measure the shifting runaway population, estimates of runaways under the age of 18 range from 450,000 by the US Department of Justice to 1.3 million by NRS.

The NRS was launched in 1974; it receives more than 120,000 calls a year on its hot line - 800-621-3230 - a toll-free number circulated nationally to schools, agencies, shelters and posted in public places such as bus stations and subways. All calls are confidential. Volunteers are trained to be nonjudgmental and help a caller understand the options available.

On a recent Thursday, Brian M., a supervisor at NRS, responded to a call from a 16-year old-boy from a large midwestern city. Calling from a phone booth, the boy said he had been physically abused many times by his father and stepfather.

"It's extremely scary to turn your parents in and join the system," Brian says. "This boy wasn't ready to do that. Because he was a minor, I told him what would happen if he went to a shelter or to child protective services. He said he was going to think it over some more and probably stay with friends for a few days or in the woods someplace because he liked camping. I told him to keep our number and call back anytime he wanted to talk more."

While reunification between runaways and families does occur, many of the families have never been unified in the first place. Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says only 28 percent of runaways are from two-parent families.

"We live in a time in which the stress and pressures on a single parent are enormous," he says. "Sixty percent of the runaways go to a friend's house, so they are not at great risk. But one of the complexities of this whole issue is that, in a lot of cases, returning the child home may not be the right thing to do. And resources to address the chronic runners are limited."

The result, according to the Department of Justice, is some 133,000 children who run away and do not have "a secure and familiar place to stay." Mr. Allen refers to these children as "hidden victims," vulnerable to exploitation such as prostitution, drugs, and exposure to AIDS.

"I know of a 17-year-old runaway who was raised by her addictive mother until she was 6," Ms. Price says. "Then she moved to her father's sister, then to her father, who was an addict. She hasn't seen her mother in 11 years. There is no family to unify with."

Often NRS arranges conference calls between parent and child, or delivers messages back and forth when direct communication creates too much conflict.

Drifting with her alcoholic boyfriend, Tan says she learned to drink and steal. Often she and her boyfriend spent the night in a haze wherever they stopped. Tan's route off the Boston streets began with a stop at a shelter. Eventually she connected with The Bridge. She was counseled, given prenatal care, and then she found an apartment.

Now she has an associate degree from college and works part time at The Bridge tutoring teens in word processing. "My baby is 16 months old now," she says, "and I have a really good support group around me."

"Runaways come from all economic situations," Ms. Thomas says. "Many stay away for a short time, but if they are gone for a day or two and nothing bad has happened to them, they see running away as a viable alternative."

Tan admits she has mixed emotions about life on the streets. "It was fun at times," she says, "but I couldn't do that forever. My boyfriend had been on the street since he was 11, and I knew, because of my baby, I had to be responsible. I'm even getting along with my stepmother."

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Runaways At a Glance

Because runaways and "throwaways" are troubled children who are often distrustful of authority, compiling statistics is difficult. But in a national report released earlier this year by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the following percentages help identify conditions for runaways up to age 21 as they passed through a number of urban shelters.

*52 percent were raised by a single parent.

*26 percent had attempted suicide.

*41 percent of the females reported having been pregnant.

*40 percent reported their parents or parent were on public assistance.

*37 percent (up to age 17) reported using marijuana.

In a 1990 US Department of Justice study, the most recent report on the problem, more than 500,000 children were classified as runaways or throwaways.

Among runaways:

*More than two-thirds were 16 to 17 years old.

*58 percent were girls.

*Only 28 percent ran from households where both parents were present.

*Some 12,800 ran away from juvenile facilities (both correctional and noncorrectional.)

*49 percent returned home within two days.

Among throwaways:

*84 percent were 16 to 17 years old.

*About as many were girls as boys.

*Almost half were asked or forced to leave their households. In another 25 percent of the cases, children had run away and their parents or guardians did not care whether or not they returned, and 29 percent made no effort to recover them.

*The majority - 68 percent - returned home within 2 weeks.

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