…Stabwounds that cut too close to home…
Runaways have higher rates of depression, physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug problems, delinquency, school problems, and difficulties with peers than juveniles who do not run away.
Many runaways have been exposed to high levels of violence, either as victims or as witnesses.
Juveniles in substitute care (e.g., foster care, group homes) are more likely to run away than juveniles who live at home with a parent or guardian. The chances of juveniles in care running away are highest in the first few months after placement, and older juveniles are more likely to run away than younger juveniles.
Juveniles who run away from substitute care are more likely to run away repeatedly than juveniles who run away from home.
Although they are only a small proportion of the total number of runaways, those who run away from care consume a disproportionate amount of police time and effort.
Those who run away from care also tend to stay away longer and travel farther away than those who run away from home.
Very few runaways are homeless and living on the street. Most stay in relative safety at a friend or family members home. However, some runaways lack safe living arrangements and stay on the street, in the company of a predatory adult, or in another situation lacking responsible adult supervision. Police and policy makers are most concerned about this group of juveniles, commonly referred to as street kids, because of the potential for victimization and criminal activity.
The triggers underlying a runaway episode from foster care or a group home may be different from those underlying a runaway episode from home. When juveniles in care do not have strong emotional ties to their caretakers, they often find it easier to leave. The reasons they leave are:
- return home or to their neighborhoods to spend time with friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, and family;
- get attention or provoke a reaction, to confirm that caretakers care about them and they are wanted;
- escape crowded facilities or to seek privacy;
- protest inadequate service or attention from social workers;
- protect themselves from bullying or sexual harassment by other residents;
- escape abuse by staff;
- resist imposed limits, particularly given that many juveniles in care come from homes with few limits.
Those living on the street face hazards that are self-imposed (substance use, consensual high-risk sexual activity), inflicted by others (victimization and exploitation), or driven by the need to obtain food, shelter, and money.
Juveniles living on the street develop survival strategies. Sometimes they access shelters or emergency care facilities; other times they are forced to settle for riskier arrangements such as staying with strangers who have apartments or living in abandoned buildings or on rooftops.
- Juveniles may shoplift, panhandle, steal, threaten, or use violence to get money from others.
- Although there is no consensus on whether the practice is widespread, some juveniles also engage in survival sex, meaning they trade sex for food, shelter, drugs, or protection.
- Sometimes, survival sex involves statutory rape, which has obvious implications for police. Some acts of survival sex are consensual; however, some runaways living on the street are exploited by predatory adults and become involved in prostitution, pornography, and drug dealing.
- In addition to being a precursor to running away, juveniles are often victims of physical and sexual assault while they are living on the street.
- Runaways living on the street jeopardize themselves by using drugs. Illegal drugs are very accessible to those on the street, who tend to use them both as social lubricants and to self-medicate.
- Large numbers of juveniles on the street also engage in unprotected sexual activity.
- These behaviors, coupled with the harms inflicted by others, create serious physical and mental health issues. Physical illnesses result from poor nutrition, poor hygiene, and exposure to the elements.
- Given their high levels of intravenous drug use, shared drug paraphernalia, and high-risk sexual behaviors, juveniles on the street are vulnerable to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.
- Finally, their stressful lives coupled with their troubled backgrounds make them susceptible to suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses.
- Many runaways living on the street constantly fear victimization and struggle to meet their basic survival needs. Very little is known about the experiences of runaways who do not spend time on the street. In general, runaway experiences are not all bad. Some juveniles feel independent, autonomous, and free and are relieved to escape the pressures of family conflict and school. Being away from home often provides time to think and is useful for sorting out problems. Unfortunately, running away does not improve juveniles’ emotional lives nor does it address the issues that made them want to leave home.
- The risks runaways face are endless: Malnutrition, psychological disorders, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, robbery, and sexual and physical assault have all been found in high proportions among these young people. One study found the rates of major depression, conduct disorder, and post-traumatic stress was three times as high among runaway youth as their peers.
- HIV may be 2 to 10 times more prevalent among runaway and homeless youth than for other adolescents.