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Running Away In America

by Allen Cardoza

When Paul was 14-years old, he promised his parents that he would stop "cutting" school and taking illegal drugs after he was caught doing both. Boarding school would be the consequence if it happened again. Three days later, Paul was caught with cigarettes. Before his parents were able to punish him, he stole the family car and ran away for five days. He was robbed and beaten. He smoked crack cocaine for the first time and wrecked the family car, breaking three ribs and his arm in two places. When asked why he ran away he replied, "I was sure my parents were going to send me away for having cigarettes."

The number of runaway youths in America has reached staggering proportions and continues to grow. A national incident study authorized by the Department of Justice estimated that over 450,000 teenagers ran away in 1988. The US Government reports that in 1990 there were approximately 1.3 million runaway and homeless youths on the streets. All indications from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are that the numbers have been increasing each year since 1988.

2007 statistics show that one in seven kids between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away at some point. And there are 1 million to 3 million runaway and homeless kids living on the streets in the United States. International studies show that nearly every industrialized country struggles with many of the same issues with runaway teens as that of the United States. How can we reverse this trend? Communication.

We must raise our children from dependency to independence while showing them how to collaborate as a group or family without manipulation. Parents should see assertive challenges to their authority as a signal to improve communication within the family, acknowledge that their teen is attempting to become more independent. Parents can help young people achieve independence by establishing a more collaborative decision-making style.


Throughout history, adolescence has been a time to assert oneself in a rebellious nature. Some adolescents learned to accept the rule of the household, while others who did not feel valued within the home environment sought recognition elsewhere. The early American colonists openly took in thousands of immigrant youths, most of whom were runaways from Europe. These youths worked as servants, farm hands and apprentices. When the colonists settled into a farm economy, their own runaway children were regarded as a loss to the family's economy because they had performed much-needed work for the family. Unwilling to accept these losses, colonists soon began to regard runaways as violators of the community's religious morality (1). Severe laws were enacted against running away in the 17th and 18th century Commonwealth colonies and early American states; thus keeping many teenagers closer to home and dependent on the family farm or business (2). With the development of factories, expansion of the West and railroads providing transportation to urban areas, young people began running away in droves, taking Horace Greeley's (3) advice and heading west to seek their fortunes. At one point in the mid-19th century, a large portion of the work force in factories was made up of teenagers used as cheap labor. Nearly half of these children were believed to be runaways (4). Some of the products manufactured in the factories helped to make teen labor less essential to the economy of rural towns, bringing about a more tolerant attitude toward runaways.

As the turn of the 20th century approached, unionization of the labor force reduced the need to employ anyone under the age of 165. This put many runaway teenagers and unemployed youths on the streets of cities, where they were soon regarded as a menace to the community. With a sharp rise in juvenile delinquency, child labor and compulsory education laws were enacted, and the juvenile justice system was formed. This severely restricted access to employment for minors.

In the early 1900's, child-guidance clinics opened to guide and counsel youths, including runaways. At this time, the juvenile justice system classified runaways as juvenile delinquents, and the psychological community perceived running away as a failure of the children to adopt the values of their parents.

The Rise of Youth Shelters

In the wake of the anti-war and civil rights movements, the 1960's brought another change in perception about runaways for many people. Instead of juvenile delinquents, they were young activists, "flower children" or "hippies." This shift in perception and an increase in runaways living on the streets created the need for runaway-youth shelters. These shelters were formed in college towns and communities where the movement was strongest. In 1967, the Huckleberry House was founded in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco (6). Larry Beggs, a founder of the Huckleberry House, states that 664 runaways used the house the first year and eventually approximately 50 percent returned home. In his book, Huckleberry's For Runaways, Beggs states his belief that running away is a desperate cry by a young person to have his or her feelings honored.

Many counselors who worked with runaway youths of the late 1960's and into the 1970's had been runaways themselves or part of the anti-establishment movement, making it easy for them to place blame on the parents as the cause of the runaways' problems.

In 1974 Congress passed the Runaway Youth Act. This legislation de-criminalized running away and recommended that state and local law enforcement no longer arrest or process runaways through the juvenile justice system. This appeared to be a reaction to a 1973 mass murder of runaway teenage boys in the Houston, TX area. Elmer Wayne Henley and his accomplice Dean Allan Corll, were convicted of murdering 27 boys. The two would befriend, exploit and murder the boys after offering shelter and a hiding place from authorities (7).

Cases like Henley's and that of John Wayne Gacy, who was convicted in 1979 for the sexual torture and murder of 30 young males, consistently gain national publicity. The fact that approximately 5,000 runaway and homeless children die each year from assault, illness and suicide unfortunately doesn't receive comparable publicity. These figures are based on findings from the National Runaway Switchboard, headquartered in Chicago, IL.

Many runaways in the 1980s and 1990s found surrogate families in gangs and cults. It is particularly compelling that they appeared to be drawn to these groups by an atmosphere of camaraderie and acceptance, while believing they can maintain their independence. In reality, they usually have far less independence and the camaraderie comes with a heavy price tag, often in the form of exploitation.

Children have fabricated stories that adults bought into without the slightest shred of corroborating evidence. On the other side of the coin, assumptions have been made by parents who threw a child out of the house for a theft that was later determined to have been committed by a relative who was above suspicion. The one common thread that runs through nearly all the cases is a lack of communication. The single greatest way to reduce the number of runaways is to improve the communication within the family before the child runs away.

Steps to Improve Communication Skills

The first step toward improving communication skills is to improve one's listening skills. Parents need to listen first and strive to understand. Children need to listen to what is asked of them. For example: A parent says to his or her son, "If you don't get your grades up from D's to B's by this summer vacation, you're going to have to go to summer school." The child could respond with, "I accept that consequence, but if I do get my grades up to a B average, can I extend my curfew from 10:00 p.m. to midnight for this summer?" In this manner of communication, both sides have the opportunity to feel good about the collaborative decision. It is also easier for the teenager to accept the consequence if he does not reach the goal.

Building Success

One tool that drastically reduces miscommunication is the use of a family contract. Most families that stick with a contract and update it as the children grow older find great success and a much more loving environment at home. A successful family contract should explain the responsibilities of the parents, such as providing a safe home environment or encouraging good assessment skills rather than trying to pick the children's friends. It should explain the responsibilities of the children, such as chores or learning the powerful communication tool of keeping a "truth journal." Also include sections on grades and allowance, as well as consequences for breech of contract.

Parents need to keep in mind that no contract or amount of communication is going to keep an adolescent from ever rebelling against some form of authority, or experimenting with things that may be harmful. Remember to:

  1. Explain to your children that no matter how much you may disagree, dislike or disallow a behavior, you will always love them.
  2. If they still need to get away from their home, ask them to consider going to a friend or relative's house for a cooling-down period.
  3. Make sure such a period is for a specific length of time and there is a plan to sit down and talk when cooler heads prevail.

Getting them off the streets

If an adolescent is already on the streets and appears to be a danger to him or others, it is time to get help. Locating runaways is a very specialized field of investigation. A runaway teen doesn't normally leave a "paper trail" like most adults. These investigations are probably as close as one gets to the old "gum shoe" style of pounding the pavement, showing pictures or following those you think will be in contact with the subject. There are of course some updated techniques like the use of "trap lines" and computer "cookies" that modern technology has given us to help locate where the subject is or where they might be headed.

In most cases, just locating and getting the teen home is not enough. If parents have their teen brought home without a plan, the teen will probably go right back out the window - if not the next night, the next conflict. Parents should have a plan they think will work, and if it doesn't - depending upon the issues at hand - they should contact a professional.

What to do next?

Some Psychiatrists, psychologists, educational consultants and family counselors specialize in working with at-risk youth. Many of them work with or can refer to programs, hospitals, or boarding schools that also specialize in this area. Parents should not stop there. Understand that whatever type of program your child may go through, they are still coming back home to an environment that at some level contributed to the situation. Ultimately, parents should work on their own communication skills and plan more quality time with their children.


1.Gordon & Beyers, "Reaching Troubled Youth: Runaways and Community Mental Health." (DHHS Publication #ADM 81-955), (1981). 2. Liebertoff, "The Runaway Child in America: A Social History." The Journal of Family Issues, vol.1, no.2, pgs 151-164, (1980). 3. Greeley :Hints Toward Reform." New York: Harper & Row (1850). 4. Hopkins, "Adolescence: The Transitional Years." New York: Academic Press, (1983). 5. Bakan, "Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact: Daedalus, vol. 100, pgs. 979-995 (Fall 1971). 6. Beggs, "Huckleberry's for Runaways." New York: Ballantine (1969). 7. Mann, "An Endless Parade of Runaway Kids." U.S. News and World Report, pg. 64 (1983, Jan 17th).

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