Hundreds of thousands of kids live on America’s streets in any given year. In addition, the National Runaway Switchboard – whose mission is to “help keep America’s runaway, homeless and at-risk youth safe and off the streets” – estimates that between 1.6 and 2.8 million kids either run away, or are kicked out of their homes by family, annually.
In a 1999 address to the National Network for Youth’s annual conference, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala pointed out that each year about 200,000 children are homeless and living on the street. When a young person is in this situation, the dangers are hair-raising: kids are targets for sex exploitation, HIV, violence, and are at risk for becoming drug-addicted homeless adults.
There’s a distinct difference between a runaway and a missing child. Michael G Conner, Psy.D., writing on www.crisiscounseling.com, a web site for understanding teens and preventing them from leaving home, says that runaways leave their families for specific reasons, usually to escape a painful situation. This is in contrast to missing children who may be lost, abducted, or held against their wills.
Most young runaways come from dysfunctional families where the parent might be plagued by a mental illness, where domestic violence may a terrifying threat within the family structure, or where the children are treated with enough disrespect that they have to get away from it all. On the website “Runaway Lives: Personal Stories and Reflections by Runaways and Their Families,” (www1.Iv.psu.edu/jkl1/runawaylives/), tales written about the runaway kids’ experiences give readers quite a desperate picture of how it feels to leave home, to be alone in strange territory, and how running away can become addictive when young people can’t seem to face their own problems head on.
Web sites intended to help devastated parents, once they realize that their child has run away, abound. Two examples are “Team Hope,” which gives one-on-one support to parents through a volunteer group of parents who have been in that predicament; and “Child Find of America,” a “locate center” for finding a child who has left home.
A relatively new category of runaway has emerged out of the chaos of life. Danielle Morton has recently written an article about these children in the Boston Review, and was a guest on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” on January 24, 2012. As a journalist, her interest was piqued when she learned that on December 28, 2010, eight young homeless people died in a fire at an abandoned warehouse in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Her interest was born of personal heartache because her daughter had been a runaway and spent some time in the same New Orleans warehouse, a place where runaways frequently sought shelter in the company of like-minded others. Through her daughter’s contacts, Morton gained access to a community of runaway squatters who, yes, left home, but not because their families were dysfunctional.
These were young people who left for the freedom of the road. They were not “lost souls.” They had parents who loved them, and most stayed in touch with their parents while hitchhiking from place to place. A common denominator of this group of runaways seemed to be a sense of not belonging to the world of their peers. Some couldn’t handle schoolwork or meet expectations relating to getting a job or securing a future similar to one their parents expect of them. Danielle Morton writes poignantly of her own angst and fear that she was losing her daughter forever. Her article is worth the read at www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/danelle_morton_new_orleans_squat. This story points out that kids don’t have to come from broken homes, have dysfunctional families, or be psychological messes for them to run away and break their parents’ hearts.
In her address, Secretary Shalala (mentioned above) spoke of runaway children, their dysfunctional backgrounds, and of promising government programs that would help “troubled families.” They included the Family and Medical Leave Act, raising the minimum wage, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the fiscal year 2000 budget, which included lots of money for child care. “Our young people must be everybody’s responsibility,” she opined. Not once, however, did she say that the Clinton administration would be investing in educational programs for would-be parents, and for our society in general, to put forth the message that the heartache and suffering of both runaway children and their parents can be lessened if we could just grasp that there are already enough of us.
It seems that no idea emanating from government ever considers the possibility that some people are not equipped to be parents and that procreating has endemic risks, no matter who is parenting.