Guest Column: Runaway youth have been ignored for far too long

By Mariah Fritchen

Runaway cases flood the juvenile delinquency system every year. Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in a year (1). The circumstances by which these youth feel as though running away is their only option are different for everyone. Many people view youth as though they run away from home to get attention from their parents or because their parents are strict and the youth do not want to follow the rules of the household. This is, however, not the case for most youth runaways.

Eighty percent of runaway and homeless girls reported having been sexually or physically abused (2). Based solely on this statistic, it is clear that there are much deeper issues in the lives of most runaways than simply wanting attention or not wanting to follow the rules. When youth are running away, it needs to be a red flag to professionals who work with youth that there is something wrong in the home and the child needs social services to intervene. In many cases of child runaway, the child becomes a habitual runaway. This is characterized as a child who is constantly running away on a regular basis.

Twelve percent of runaway and homeless youth spent at least one night outside in a park, on the street, under a bridge or overhang, or on a rooftop (3). When most Americans think of the homeless, they think of men with addiction problems sleeping on park benches. Many Americans should be saddened at the fact that youth are sleeping outside, potentially in the cold, where they are in danger of assault.

Nine percent of runaway youth in a non-random sample of more than 1,600 youth reported engaging in survival sex at some point in their lives (4). Youth are putting themselves in at-risk situations to survive their current lives. Another aspect of runaways that may surprise Americans is runaway youth are 50 percent male and 50 percent female, although females are more likely to seek help through shelters and hotlines (5). Males are running away at the same rate as females.

We cannot continue to look away from the problem of youth runaways. In America, we pride ourselves on our children being the future leaders of this country. How can we say that children are going to be the future of this country when they do not feel safe in their own homes and do not have a safe place to sleep at night? Local government must take action and see that this is an issue in our community.

Every night during the 10 p.m. news, the chief of police comes on and says, “It is 10 p.m., do you know where your child is?” The answer for many parents in this community is “No.” Although this is a community effort, it is key that local government, including the police and courts, make sure the children of our community are safe every night. Wandering the streets at night can be dangerous for anyone, but it is especially dangerous for children.

The police need to make sure children are staying off the streets, and the courts need to make sure children are being referred to social services so children are not turning into habitual runaways. The statistics speak for themselves in proving that runaways are clearly an issue, and it is an issue that has been ignored in this community for too long.

Mariah Fritchen is a Rockford resident.


1. Rice, E., Barman-Adhikari, A., Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., Fulginitti, A., Astor, R., … Kordic, T. (In Press, Available Online). Homelessness Experiences, Sexual Orientation, and Sexual risk Taking Among High School Students in Los Angeles. Journal of Adolescent Health.

2. Molnar, B., Shade, S., Kral, A., Booth, R., & Watters, J. (1998). Suicidal Behavior and Sexual / Physical Abuse Among Street Youth. Child Abuse & Neglect. Vol. 22, NO. 3, pp. 213-222.

3. Westat, Inc. 1997. National Evaluation of Runaway and Homeless Youth. Washington, DC: US Dep’t of HHS, Admin on Children, Youth and Families.

4. Walls, E., & Bell, S. (2011). Correlates of Engaging in Survival Sex among Homeless Youth and Young Adults. Journal of Sex Research, 48(5), 423–436.

5. Hammer, H., Finkelhor, D., & Sedlak, A. (2002). Runaway/Thrownaway Children: National Estimates and Characteristics. National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

From the Nov. 6-12, 2013, issue

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