Article #5: Kids On The Run
Estimates of the current number of runaways range from 600,000 to two million. Many runaways are back home within a week. Of those who don’t return, only a handful ever reach one of the 700 shelters set up for them across the country.
Technically, not all of them are runaways. Some are what youth workers call “throwaways”—youngsters forced out of their homes by abusive parents or made to feel unwelcome for economic reasons.
Officials of the Health and Human Services Administration says that more than half of all runaways have been physically abused, and that most are not reported missing by their parents.
An extensive survey of 14,000 households conducted by the Opinion Research Council of Princeton, N.J., revealed these facts about runaways aged 10 to 17:
- About three percent of the households with children in that age bracket had a runaway child.
- Most runaways are between the ages of 15 and 17.
- Almost half (47 percent) of the runaways are girls.
- The children of white-collar workers are as prone to leave home as those of blue-collar workers.
Why Do They Run?
The reasons for leaving home are as varied as the youngsters themselves. Sometimes there’s no apparent reason.
For some running away is an act of self-preservation, even though it is fraught with danger. On a Christopher Closeup television program, William Treaner, founder of the National Youth Work Alliance and a former runaway himself, observed:
“In a number of cases, family life has deteriorated to such an extent that making a decision to leave can, in fact, be a fairly healthy decision.”
Says William L. Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption: “Sexual activity is one of the major reasons why young people run. In a few cases there is sexual abuse in the home. Or it may be a young man who has fathered a child out of wedlock and is concerned about his situation. Mostly, it’s a pregnant young woman caught in a situation where she feels she can’t stay at home, can’t talk to anyone.”
A study undertaken in Boston uncovered these reasons for leaving home:
“I have no one to talk to at night.” “My family did not want me.” “It’s better to get beat up by a stranger on the street than by someone you care about at home.” Still others cite reasons such as these: “My teachers picked on me.” “I got in with a bad crowd.” “I was always getting in trouble.”
After Running, What?
Sometimes the experience of running away brings a change of heart. Wendell Marthers ran away from his Pennsylvania home to find “movie stars, glamour and beach boys.” Instead, he recalls being “scared just about every day I was gone, worrying about being arrested, about being killed or beaten up.”
And he was beaten up—six times. He returned home five years after leaving.
However, one large shelter reports that only 10 to 12 percent of the youngsters it serves are successfully reunited with their families. The others?
Some of them “develop families on the street,” according to Lois Lee, director of Children of the Night, a Los Angeles program to help youngsters break away from prostitution. “They’ll form groups and look out for each other.”
To survive, some youngsters turn to prostitution and crime. As Treaner observed on Christopher Closeup: “It’s a very tiny minority—less than one-half of one percent, if that—who are able to run away from home, to find a place to live, to find a job, and to establish themselves independently.
A few reach a runaway house. Dr. James Gordon of the National Institute of Mental Health says such temporary refuges offer young people “a time and a place for themselves, a chance to take a critical and often compassionate look at the families with which they have been hopelessly struggling.” The family discovers that impasses may be broken, that choices are possible and that differences do not necessarily spell disaster.
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