What makes a young person run away from home? What happens to them after they have left? Social science researchers in various countries have investigated the issue.
The research suggests that parents and societies may be able to prevent young people from running away or, failing that, provide important intervention after they become homeless.
Runaway youth often become homeless, leading researchers to put the two groups in the same category, such as in the article titled, “The Mediating Roles of Stress and Maladaptive Behaviors on Self-Harm and Suicide Attempts Among Runaway and Homeless Youth.”
Victimization and Neglect
Trauma in general is associated with homelessness in youth. In the United States, National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children (NISMART) reports, “The most common endangerment component was physical or sexual abuse at home or fear of abuse upon return.” On the other side of the globe, a 2006 Australian study from The University of Sydney found “trauma is a common experience amongst homeless youth prior to homelessness.”
Girls who run away are often fleeing sexual abuse at home. Dr. Kimberly Tyler and colleagues of the University of Nebraska studied 137 homeless or runaway girls found “child sexual abuse was positively linked to trading sex and sexual and physical victimization.” Girls who were sexually abused at home were likely to prostitute themselves and meet with violence on the street.
The Australian study identified “family problems” which included abuse which did not meet the threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder, and neglect such as lack of food. Of 35 homeless children, seven were considered homeless due to family problems.
Drugs and Alcohol
The Australian study also found “once homeless, for the majority of youth there is an increase in the number of psychological diagnoses including drug and alcohol diagnoses.”
Girls who run away are more likely to use marijuana and alcohol, particularly if they were away from home for an extended period of time. “Age, age at first run, longest time away from home, sexual abuse, and trading sex had significant indirect effects on alcohol and/or marijuana use.”
A study of runaways in Los Angeles by Amanda Moskowitz and colleagues found those who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to have parents who did so.
Crime and Homelessness
Runaway youth may engage in criminal activity, but the Australian researcher found “crime did not precede homelessness for all but one youth” (of the 35 studied). In other words, once children are homeless, they may turn to crime.
Prevention and Intervention
Various types of treatment for substance-abusing runaway adolescents has been found effective, including community reinforcement approach, motivational interviewing, and ecologically-based family therapy, with motivational interviewing showing the quickest results according to an article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Sadly, some youth are more accurately called “throwaways” than “runaways.” Some parents sexually abuse their children or allow others to do so. Parents who are consumed by their substance abuse problems may lack the emotional or physical resources to care for their children. Contacting a child abuse hotline when abuse is suspected may allow social workers to intervene before a child becomes a runaway. In the United States and Canada, abuse can be reported at The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD.
Keeping Kids Safe
Providing substance abuse treatment and parenting classes may keep a child safe. At-risk youth require intervention to keep them from the downward spiral of homelessness, substance abuse, criminal behavior and mental health problems. For the sake of our youth, society should focus on preventing problems, rather than waiting to fix them.