Calls from runaway, throwaway youth skyrocket

(Photo: Jesse Muhammad)

The National Runaway Switchboard, a hotline which handles more than 100,000 calls annually, has released a new study showing that there has been an increase of more than 494 percent in crisis calls that cite the dismal economy as a reason for most youth leaving the home.

Annually an estimated 1.6 million to 2.8 million youth experience an episode of running away or being thrown away from home into the streets of America, researchers said.

In “Why They Run: An In-depth Look at America’s Runaway Youth,” the Chicago-based switchboard reported that three times as many teen runaways cited family financial woes as a factor in 2009 versus 2000.

The number of homeless youth call calling the national crisis line increased 98.9 percent—a jump from 739 calls in 2008 to 1,470 calls in 2009. Similarly, calls made by youth kicked out of the home increased 21 percent in the last year, 48 percent over the past three years, and 68 percent from 2000-2009.

“Confl icts in the home are major factors in children running away. There is a breakdown in communication between parents and their children,” Dr. Pauline Clansy told The Final Call.

Dr. Clansy has handled cases such as child runaways for over 23 years as a licensed psychologist in the state of Texas. Texas accounted for 10 percent of the calls made in 2009 to the NRS hotline.

The Why They Run study was released in early May and included statistics from a separate report released by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.

In a separate report, “On the Lifetime Prevalence of Running Away from Home,” the Urban Institute said Blacks have the have the highest runaway rate at 21.9 percent, followed closely by Whites at 19.1percent and Hispanics 14.7 percent.

“So many of the children I have worked with are throwaways, meaning the parent kicked them out of the house. The structure of the family is broken,” said Dr. Clansy, who heads a family practice in Houston with her two daughters.

The NRS study agrees with her assessment. Nearly 50 percent of those interviewed said they were thrown out of their homes and 30 percent said they ran away. Authors of the report also noted that runaway youth are likely to come from high-conflict home environments. Family dynamics such as divorce, remarriage, and problems with siblings accounted for issues made by 29 percent of crisis callers.

“I am not surprised by this because I was one of those little children who ran away from home,” Michelle Wilson, 33, told The Final Call.

Ms. Wilson was being raised by her single mother in Northeast Houston. Upon graduating from high school, she saw her mother dip into a bout with drugs and her father abandoned them both.

“I got extremely depressed so I decided to just hop on the Metro bus and leave. I eventually went to stay with a former boyfriend who had his own place. But things only got worse for me,” said Ms. Wilson, who is now a bank teller.

The NRS report shows 73 percent of the youth were living with one or more biological parents at the time they left home, with one-quarter living with both biological parents. More than 70 percent of youth interviewed ran away from home in the spur of the moment. Thirty-six percent who ran said it was pre-meditated and 78 percent of all runaway youth had $10 or less in their pockets upon leaving. While in search of money, the study shows that runaways will work to get a job, borrow from friends, get involved in drugs and even enter the sex industry. Nearly 35 percent of all youth resorted to panhandling, their number one source of financial survival.

(Photo: Jesse Muhammad)
“It got hard out there going from place to place and doing drugs here and there. I did it for a year or so and then I entered myself into a shelter. From there, I was reconnected with my mother but the conditions at home did not change,” said Ms. Wilson.

Ms. Wilson’s situation isn’t unique with nearly 50 percent of the youth interviewed in the NRS study saying conditions at the home that led to running away did not change and nearly 23 percent said things got worse.

Michael Pergamit, senior researcher at the Urban Institute, co-authored the NRS report by interviewing 83 teens in Chicago and Los Angeles. “One in five youth run away before reaching age 18, and half run away two or more times,” said Mr. Pergamit.

What are the solutions?

Despite the present youth craze with Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, texting and emailing, the NRS study shows these tools of communication are at the bottom of their list when handling these cases.

“Even though teens mainly use social media and texting to talk with friends, it is not the preferred way to provide solutions when runaway and at-risk youth are looking for help, according to the recent study among runaway and throwaway youth,” said Maureen Blaha, NRS executive director.

According to the Why They Run report, nearly 80 percent of runaway and throwaway youth prefer speaking on the phone to get help versus emailing or text messaging. They believe the latter cannot convey their needs effectively.

“We have to focus on clarifying communication in the household between the child and the parents. This is why I encourage family therapy,” advised Dr. Clansy.

On their Web Site, the NRS has posted 14 downloadable modules as part of their runaway prevention curriculum. The courses include communication, anger management, adolescent development, Internet safety, and community response.

On May 25, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children will led the country in observing annual National Missing Children’s Day. The center launched a Take 25 preventive child safety campaign to encourage parents and others to take 25 minutes to talk to children about safety on that day.

(This report by Jesse Muhammad originally appeared in The Final Call Newspaper Volume 29 No. 34, dated June 1, 2010. To read more please visit www.finalcall.com.)


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