Runaways in the Triangle

We’ve all passed by them. Those people. The ones who are dirty and sleeping outside of buildings in major metropolitan areas. Sadly, the existence of homeless people isn’t much of a shock anymore. But their faces might be. Because some of those faces belong to children.

The National Runaway Switchboard approximates that between 1.3 and 2.8 million children are runaways or homeless. They also estimate that one out of every seven children will run away from home before the age of 18. Living on the street, these young people face dangers that most parents don’t want to think about. Drug and alcohol use, physical and sexual abuse, and exploitation are common. And, according to Michael Rieder, the executive director of Haven House in Raleigh, today’s runaways face additional threats. “Gangs, disease and predators have all increased,” he says.

Most of us would like to believe that runaways are a “big city” problem, but, according to local experts, the crisis is on the Triangle’s doorstep.

The local numbers are surprising.
Haven House, a United Way agency, has focused on these issues for the past 30 years. Since 1981, the organization has operated a crisis/runaway shelter that provides services to a range of youth and their families — people who are grappling with a “wide spectrum of issues,” says Rieder. Their problems, he says, vary “from moderate to severe.”

Haven House programs include the Safe Place street outreach program, the Second Round boxing program and a drop-in center.

According to Jodi Springer, MSW, the associate executive director of Haven House Services, “We are providing services to nearly 200 young people at our shelter annually, but that only includes those who actually spend at least one night at our youth shelter. As an agency, we serve over 1,000 youth annually. We estimate that 1,500 young people are on the street annually in Wake County alone. That would include runaway youth, homeless youth and those who have been kicked out of their homes — throwaways.”

It’s different than we see on TV.

More than 60 percent of the runaways who turn to Haven House have willingly left the home of their parents or legal guardians. They span socioeconomic groups, but they share some commonalities.

“Family conflict, parenting problems, blended families, financial hardship, trauma and other precipitating events, including abuse … all are commonly found among these clients. One surprising statistic is that young people from middle and higher socio-economic families are more likely to run away,” says Rieder.

Most runaways don’t get far and they don’t stay gone long. Sometimes the act of leaving is a way of asking for help or physically acting out a change that the child would like to see — a change in their environment, which, in their mind, would be for the better.

“The decision to run away may be an appropriate coping mechanism to escape abuse or an intolerable situation,” says Rieder. Unfortunately for these kids and their families, they don’t realize that a host of local and national agencies, non-for-profits and churches are eager to help them.

“Most youth who run away travel less than five miles from their homes and return on their own without intervention. The runaway incident may very well be an indicator that the youth and the family are in need of assistance, but getting the family and/or the young person to recognize that and making them aware of the availability of services is a major challenge,” says Rieder.

Community resources are poised to help.

Haven House isn’t alone in addressing issues that can lead local youth to run. A number of programs in our communities offer aid to troubled youths and their families by addressing a range of issues. They attempt to intervene in the family crises that lead youths to leave; they address issues of poverty, substance abuse among parents and teens, and domestic violence; and they grapple with the greater issue of homelessness.
Hopeline, Inc. in Raleigh has a teen talk-line focused on crisis intervention and suicide prevention for teenagers and an afterschool “Phone Friend” program for younger kids. Though neither of these phone lines is specifically aimed at addressing the issue of runaways, they do offer a listening hear, words of encouragement to the young person on the other end of the phone and referrals to experts who can help.

Wake County Public School System offers a program called A Growing Place. This is a school focused on the unique needs of homeless children and dedicated to providing them with “a nurturing and stable school environment,” according to the Wake County Public School System’s Web site. A designated social worker’s number is also offered on the site.

In Durham, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church offers the Emily Krzyzewski Family Life Center, which reaches out to at-risk youth and their families in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Locally, agencies are attempting not just to help at-risk and troubled kids and their families but also to understand them. In the spring of 2006, to better serve their clients and with assistance from Meredith College, Haven House conducted a research study of 75 local homeless people. The study’s intent was to paint a demographic profile of these young adults and find out what they perceived as their greatest needs. Contrary to what may be the traditional image of homelessness, 40 percent of the respondents had jobs.

Sixty-three percent reported that this was their first experience of being without a stable place to live. The average length of time they had been without a home was over two weeks. Their histories commonly included a stint in foster care, a group home, a shelter or even jail. Those surveyed considered their top needs to be finding permanent housing, securing transportation and obtaining life skills, such as money management, banking and personal development. The participants ages ranged between 14 and 25; 18 percent already had children of their own. Perhaps saddest of all, their average age was 19.

In the face of worrisome statistics like these, the experts from Haven House offer words of encouragement. “Children can often return home following the involvement from our staff in addressing the crisis and providing family counseling,” says Springer. “In most cases this is possible, and this is our goal unless there are significant reasons why a return to home is inappropriate.”

Even kids who can’t immediately be placed back in their homes can be helped. Haven House works in conjunction with other agencies to address the underlying problems that caused the youth to run away initially and, if those underlying issues are too overwhelming and present too great of a risk to their young clientele, they examine other options.

According to Springer, “Safety, homelessness, violence, abuse or other extreme circumstances can make an immediate return home impossible or at least inappropriate. Haven House and other service providers are engaged to meet the varied needs of our youth when a return home is not feasible.”

Funding and intervention are needed.

Attitudes about homeless youth have evolved over the years. Previously kids who ran away were considered “truants and ungovernable children,” according to Rieder. The outlook for these kids was pretty grim.

“[They] were locked up in detention, often sent to ‘training schools’ or juvenile justice institutions. In the early 1970s, federal and state laws were changed to require these young people to be served in a less restrictive setting and that such behavior be decriminalized,” says Rieder.

As laws and attitudes changed, improved and more conscientious services were created. Unfortunately, government funding has not kept pace with the number of youth that need this assistance. Much of the money that was earmarked to address runaway issues now goes to minimize what lawmakers consider more serious problems. Funding, explains Rieder, “has been shifted to serve those exhibiting more serious behavior – assault, robbery, gang related delinquent behavior.” Agencies like Haven House want to intervene in the lives of troubled kids before their behavior escalates or they fall into the wrong circles living on the streets.

Look for red flags.

Though we may not want to admit it, sometimes the kids that are poised to runaway are kids we know. Though no one can predict with absolute certainty which kids will choose to run away, according to the National Runaway Switchboard, parents should look for four signs that their teen or a family friend may be thinking of running away:

• Changes in behaviors or patterns
• Rebellious behavior
• Hinting at running away
• Withdrawing or hoarding money (along with a bag or backpack of clothes)

Though some of these may be signs of everyday teenage behavior, parents shouldn’t make assumptions. The National Runaway Switchboard encourages parents to communicate with their child clearly and calmly by saying, “I’m afraid you might run away from home.”

Resources are available to parents who suspect their own child or a friend of their family may be at risk. The National Runaway Switchboard (http://www.nrscrisisline.org/) offers advice to kids, tips for parents and educators, and a runaway-prevention education kit. They also publish articles for download and sponsor an intervention hotline for parents of children who have already run away or who may be considering it.

If you think a family friend may be considering running away or may be in a dangerous situation, Safe Place (nationalsafeplace.org) offers resources to find “immediate help and supportive resources for all young people in crisis,” according to their Web site. In addition, local churches and organizations — including Haven House, Wake County Human Services, Stand Up For Kids (a national organization with a branch in Durham), and Orange County’s Department of Social Services — offer their support.

Changing the fate of these kids starts with genuine concern for them and respect for their situations. Representatives from the organizations interviewed for this piece encourage nonjudgmental communication, paying attention, sympathizing and avoiding lectures. Once a parent or other adult recognizes that any kid considering running away from home is very likely a child who is surrounded by problems, it’s easier to turn off the desire to hassle or give answers and turn on the ability to listen. And perhaps having someone to talk to will make all the difference.

Runaway Prevention Tips

• Pay Attention. Listen when your children are talking. Don’t just nod your head while you’re watching television, reading the paper, or using your computer. Don’t just pretend to listen to them. Kids know the difference!

• Give Respect. Acknowledge and support your child’s struggle to grow to maturity.

• Understand Your Child. Try to sympathize with what your kids are going through. Look at life – at least occasionally – from their point of view. Remember that when you were their age, your ideas seemed to make sense to you.

• Don’t Lecture. Everyone hates to be lectured, especially teenagers. We all respond more favorably to clear information and direction, when we know that the questions we ask will be answered and respected.

•Don’t Label. Useless labels will only confuse the real issues that you wish to address.

•Discuss Feelings. Talk about what it feels like to be a parent. Share with your child the things you need from him. Encourage him to talk about his feelings, too. When parents share their feelings, children know it’s safe to share their own.

•Create Responsibility. Give your child choices, not orders. Help her to understand the consequences of her actions. When punishments need to be administered, try asking her what she thinks would be appropriate. Make sure the punishment fits the “crime” and is consistent with other actions you’ve taken.

•Administer Positive Praise. Describe your child’s positive and negative behavior and how it affects others. Be specific and give praise to reward good behavior. Positive behavior acknowledged is positive behavior repeated. Try to praise your child than you criticize.

•Stop Hassling. Asking too many questions often shuts off information. Give your child the opportunity to volunteer her thoughts and feelings, while you show a sincere interest, without probing.

•Don’t Always Give The Answers. You want your children to be able to find their own answers or solutions to problems. You can help this by not giving them the answers all the time. Instead, discuss options. Play “what if” to help them develop problem-solving skills.

•Use Team Work. Work together with your child to lay out the problems and find mutually agreeable solutions.

Source: National Runaway Switchboard (http://nrscrisisline.org)

If Your Child Runs Away

•Notify the police and file a missing persons report. Keep records of all details of the investigation and stay in touch with authorities while your child is missing. Call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUAWAY. NRS operates a 24-hour confidential hotline for teens and their families. Services include crisis intervention, information, referrals, and the Home Free program in partnership with Greyhound Lines, Inc. Specially trained volunteers at the hotline will help you process the situation and give you support.

•Leave a message with the NRS for your child. Spread the word among your friends and your child’s friends that you have done this and to encourage him/her to call. Your child can also leave messages for you.

•Tell others that your teen is missing. Let them know that you are concerned and ask for their help and support. Posters can help if your teen is still in the area or contact the news desk of your local television station or newspaper.

•Check any records that may give clues about your child’s whereabouts. Look at phone bills, e-mail activity, pager records, credit card activity, bus or airline dockets, bank statements, and employment records.

•Visit your child’s school. Talk to the administration, security, teachers, or counselor for any information that might be useful.

•Install Caller ID or other tracing methods, if available in your area.

•Contact hotlines for parents of missing children. If you think your child was abducted or you need assistance in distributing posters nationwide. NRS can provide you with national and local referrals.

•Take care of yourself and your other children. This is a difficult time and you don’t have to deal with it alone. Turn to people you know and trust for support. NRS is available 24 hours every day for you.

Source: National Runaway Switchboard (http://nrscrisisline.org)