Experts estimate there to be 100 million street children globally, some 10 million in India alone. Between 1.5 and 2.8 million youth run away in the U.S. each year. Around 1 out of every child who runs away is under the age of 7, although most are between the ages of 15 and 17.
Most, if not all, runaways are not running to anywhere but rather are running away from something. According to surveys done by the Crime Information Bureau of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the reasons children and youth run away include, but are by no means limited to:
Divorce, unemployment, domestic violence and school drop out rates are just a few of the factors contributing to these decisions.
What happens to children who run away? Let any teenager stand around alone, perhaps looking a little lost, in any bus or train terminal of a large city, and within an hour or so, or just a few minutes, a friendly predator will offer help-in ways that are hard to refuse.
A runaway coming to such a city center is liable to be involved in sex, drugs and crime (or some breach of city ordinances) within 72 hours. Andrew Lay has spent time with the Throw- Aways of Fullerton, CA and writes (Torch, http://www.fctorch.net/2.2503/throw-away-kids-1.236582.6August2010)
On any given day 13 of these throwaway kids will die on American streets. Some are raped. Some are beaten to death, shot or stabbed. What makes the situation even worse is that the only help these kids ever get from police is constant harassment. They are given tickets for loitering, camping, or panhandling, which is their only source of income besides prostitution.
Many are fleeing foster care. Most are running away from abuse or a situation they consider intolerable. Many are never reported because they are not wanted, or have actually been thrown out-throwaways.
New York Times (online Digest; 19Jul08:7) ran this editorial:
According to one federal estimate, the average age of a child first used as a prostitute is between 11 and 14, but victims as young as 9 are not uncommon. Many of the sexually exploited runaways have been neglected or abandoned by families that will never report them as missing.
These battered children would have a much better chance to build normal lives if the country stopped treating them as criminals and began to see them as the victims they clearly are.
States need to stop reflexively charging children as young as 13 with prostitution and locking them up….
A study by The Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law exposes the full sweep of this problem. Nearly all states allow children of just about any age to be prosecuted for prostitution, even though children are too young to consent to sex by adults. By charging children with crimes, the report notes, the system compounds the harm done to them and deepens the feelings of guilt and worthlessness that inevitably haunt victims of sexual exploitation.
Besides abuse, neglect, naïveté and possible defiance, young people can be on the streets because of mental illness-and all the more vulnerable. Many stories could be told; Adrian Walker of The Boston Globe (3April06:B1) writes of one. Andrea was 15 when she disappeared from foster care. She suffers from mood disorders, and it wasn’t the first time she’d run away. So no special alarm was raised. A few family and friends did search out her favorite hangouts in Somerville and along the seedier streets of Boston. Several months later a tip led police to where Andrea, now 16, was being kept. Sergeant Pi Heseltine of the Mass. State Police said her case has “all the earmarks of sexual exploitation.” She went on:
I think this is a case of a young girl who has been at risk for a variety of reasons. We’re losing more and more kids to the streets and the allure of something out there that’s not real. When they get in that situation, it’s harder and harder to leave.
Her mother recognizes a profound change in the girl:
She’s not the same bubbly girl I used to know. She’s not the laughing, free-spirited one. She’s very serious now.
Andrea spent time under medical care at an undisclosed location… it’s not clear what her future holds.
Donna Akers tells how she’s “been involved as an activist and scholar in the fight against human trafficking for two years.” She describes the plight of one child.
When I met Polly, she was only 12 years old; she had just had her birthday. Her mom was a drunk. Polly’s stepfather liked young girls. Mom didn’t believe her, called her a slut. Told her to get out and never come back. She wouldn’t leave. So her mom got a pipe and hit her in the face with it until she stumbled bleeding out into the yard.
(I met Polly when she) had been on the street for seven months. A social worker at a street outreach house in downtown Omaha told me the next week that Polly had shown up in hysterics. She hadn’t eaten for three days, and some man had assaulted her the night before, ripping up her shirt, trying to force her into an alley. Another run-away heard her screams and pushed the old guy off. Polly ran all the way to the outreach house and waited for hours until it opened.
A few months ago, I heard Polly got picked up by a pimp. He was selling her in exchange for a place to stay and a little food. She had a quota of $300 per night, every night. Come back short, and she got beaten black and blue. She gave him all the money she got. He gave her 20 bucks a week.
Now Polly’s 13. She’s hooked on crack. In a few years, she will be an adult. After 10 years as a prostitute, she’ll turn 21. Statistics say she will probably have:
• Physical health problems associated with beatings and rape, including
broken bones and need for wound care.
• Reproductive health problems, including exposure to HIV and other
STDs, pregnancies and fertility issues.
• Mental health problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and
somatic complaints (headaches, chronic pain) resulting from trauma.
• Alcohol and other drug use, as well as addiction.
Many will say, and advocates of legalized prostitution argue: “Prostitution is a victimless crime.” Considering the many Polly’s on our streets, such statements understandably make Donna Akers very angry (“Human trafficking plagues Nebraska’s thrown-away children,” DailyNebraskan, 15Sep2009).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What has brought you to this article?
2. Cannot a society be judged on the way it protects and supports its young?
3. What have been your feelings and thoughts as you’ve passed dirty and unkempt teens (and younger) on the streets? What reactions do you think other passersby have had?
4. Are you prepared to list reasons that have brought these youth to such a homeless condition? Why do so many of these youth stay on the streets? How long can one exist in such a situation?
5. Are there means of correcting these fault lines in our society, these abuses to children?
6. Who cares about, and are serving, these homeless youth in your city? Are you aware of some fine programs reaching out to them?
1. For further stories of homeless youth, stories presenting positive conclusions to sad and difficult stories, go to (myfriendsplace.org) and select Stories and Voices on the left of the Who We Are page.
2. Societies are called upon to protect and nurture their young. We must pay more attention to dysfunctional families, to abuses in our foster care system, to the exploiters of girls and women and boys, and to all the organizations working to remediate the condition of youthful homelessness.
3. Our goal should be nothing less than healthy kids in healthy homes in healthy communities.