Many Americans believe a myth about runaway teens that goes something like this: Runaway teenagers are old enough to know the consequences of their own decisions and so must deal with those. They’ll come back home when they have had enough.

This simply is just a myth. Many of these teenagers have suffered through abuse and/or neglect at home. There was no responsible guardian caring for them at home, so they have no real home to go back to. The real truth that lies beyond the myth is that runaway teens leave in search of a better environment. Sadly for them, the streets won’t provide them with the safety or even the freedom that they are looking for.

The Alarming Statistics

  • The National Runaway Hotline found that 1.6-2.8 million youth runaway annually in America. Youth leave home as early as 10-14 years old.
  • According to one study, almost 1 in 4 runaway female youths were sexually assaulted at some time.  In the year after they returned home, eight percent were sexually assaulted.
  • Runaway girls are more likely to drink alcohol and be involved in sexual activity than their peers.
  • Almost half of the homeless youth interviewed by the National Runaway Safeline referenced situations in which they were kicked out of their own homes by caregivers or guardians. These youth are called throwaway children.
  • On any given night, the National Runaway Switchboard estimates that there are approximately 1.3 million homeless, throwaway, and runaway youth living unsupervised on the streets, in abandoned buildings, in shelters, transitional housing, with friends, or with strangers.

Why Teenagers Run

A lot of runaway youth leave home due to sexual or physical abuse in the home. As a matter of fact, the National Runaway Safeline reports that over 33% of runaway youths have been sexually abused, while 43% have been physically abused prior to their running away from the home. In addition, over 50% of homeless youth in shelters or living on the street said that they were either thrown out by their parents or that their parents were aware that they were leaving and were unconcerned. Witnessing the ongoing abuse of a parent or experiencing child abuse, threats, or actual physical and sexual abuse are all too often the cause of youth running away or being forced from their homes.

Why Teenagers Keep Running

Many teens see running away as a quick fix for their problems. Running away gives them a sense of control and independence in their lives.  They feel that they are escaping their problems, because running away allows them to change their situation. Running away, however, will most certainly create new problems. Many homeless youth will miss out on schooling, and drug use and sex work are often introduced in life on the streets. Drugs and alcohol are often used to help teens cope with negative feelings and bad experiences or as a gateway into entering them into prostitution or even trafficking.

What They Do To Survive

The National Runaway Safeline tells us that more than 70 percent of teen runaways interviewed explained that they left home on the “spur of the moment.” They did not have time to pack clothes, get money for food or shelter, or even to plan where they would spend their first night away from home. Many quickly realize they need cash, and they need it fast.  Fortunately, most children who runaway do come back home within a week but for those who do not, many fall into the trap of selling drugs or prostitution.  It often begins with teens trading sex for basic needs like food, shelter, or transportation. Some begin to trade for drugs as well. Moving from trading into actual prostitution becomes an unfortunately natural progression that has them hoping for a better life while getting deeper into a dangerous world. Some also turn to panhandling. At night, many youths move to a park or vacant building to sleep in hopes that they won’t be discovered by law enforcement.

How Does the System Help Runaways

Many states have developed tools and resources for law enforcement to use with runaway youth. In St. Paul, Minnesota, professionals and researchers developed a ten-question tool for police officers to use with runaway youths when they are picked up off the streets. Using this ten-question survey, law enforcement officers can assess the homeless youth to determine if they have been victimized while on the streets. Furthermore, the tool will help reveal what services the runaway teen may need. When developing the tool, researchers and professionals consulted with the police officers, who suggested that the survey have no more than ten questions. Police felt that there simply was not enough time in an interview to adequately cover more than ten questions. The following types of questions are included on the survey.

  1. What are the reasons that you decided to leave home?
  2. Can you tell me how long you have been gone?
  3. Can you tell me whom you have been staying with since you’ve been gone?
  4. Has anyone sexually assaulted you or touched you inappropriately since you’ve been gone?
  5. Are you having any health problems that you need help with now?
  6. Have you been hurt by anyone since you’ve been gone? Did anyone try to hurt you?
  7. When you’re at home, are you scared? Tell me using a scale of 0-10, with 0 being the safest and 10 being the least safe.
  8. When you’re at home or school, is there anybody you can talk to?
  9. Do you use drugs or drink alcohol?
  10. Are you involved in any gang activity?

How Does the System Fail Runaways

One smaller study interviewed 23 teens after they got off the streets. The average female age of the youths interviewed was 14 years old, and the average make age was 15. The teens discussed what they felt were roadblocks when searching for help on the streets.

  • They noted that they wished they were able to get help while still at home and help with keeping a relationship with their family.
  • They also noted that the stringent rules in homeless shelters often keep kids sleeping on the streets and wished those rules were more flexible.
  • The runaway teens wished they could access help with anonymity.  Many places ask them to give up personal information. They want the help but are reluctant to reveal their identities in many cases.
  • Runaway youths want to develop a relationship with one person who can help them over time – one person who can help them throughout a referral or assistance program.  It’s intimidating to some teens to have to talk and share with multiple adults.
  • Runaway teens want to access services that can sufficiently help them with their needs, including needs in the gay and lesbian youth community.

What You Can Do to Help a Runaway

Fundraising and Grant Writing: National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth has placed lots of funding opportunities on their websites. These opportunities come from federal agencies, corporations, and private foundations. The site also has many articles on fundraising and grant writing for runaway and homeless youth. Visit the site to see all the opportunities.

Donate: National Runaway Safeline provides a place to donate online. You can designate how you want your funds to be spent and make the donation in someone’s honor if you like. Donations can be made in any amount

Really get involved: If you have the time and energy, check with Volunteer Match to see how you what opportunities are available with the National Runaway Safeline. Contact them today to so you can start making a difference in the life of a homeless teen now.

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