New Barton Center Measure Could Help Keep Runaway Kids Safe

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Shelter, food, counseling and medical care may not seem like typical 18th birthday presents, but many local experts say, thanks to a state law, many underage runaways in Georgia often wait until then to seek such services at local shelters.

“A lot of runaways show up at shelters on their 18th birthday seeking services that they could not get before due to their age,” says Kirsten Widner of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. “Under the bill that we’ve drafted, they would not have to wait until they’re 18 anymore.”

Currently emergency shelters in Georgia that serve runaways face a legal liability if staffers provide services to young people under the age of 18 without parental permission. In light of the law, most shelters in the state do not serve underage runaways at all. The staffs at those that do, typically try to contact the child’s parent or guardian before providing any services. If the minor will not share any contact information or claims that he or she left home due to abuse, shelter workers say, they often contact law enforcement or file a report with Georgia’s Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS). DFCS often takes custody of the child. If law enforcement cannot locate any relatives, the youth may be sent to a juvenile detention center. All of those responses, shelter workers say, tend to deter troubled young runaways from seeking any help at shelters. A new bill drafted by the Barton Center would give shelter staffers a 72-hour window before a parent or guardian would have to be contacted.

“This will give us a window of 72 hours to build trust with that child; we can get a better sense of their situation so that we can help them.,” says Kathy Colbenson, chief executive officer of CHRIS Kids, a residential treatment facility for homeless 17-24 year-olds. “A lot of times they’re reluctant to stay at the shelter and receive any kind of help because they know that they have to be reported to DFCS.”

Allison Ashe, executive director of Covenant House Georgia which is the Atlanta branch of a national network of shelters that provide services to runaway and homeless youth, echoes a similar perspective.

“Many kids hide out and stay away from the shelters, out of fear that they’ll be reported,” she says. “They end up spending a lot of time outside, sleeping in parks and cars. Many of them do couch surfing for a while. They tend to eventually hook up with an older kid or a pimp, someone who will harm them. It’s all because they don’t have the support system in place to deal with their issues.”

Widner, the Barton Center’s director of policy and advocacy, and fellow supporters plan to meet with lawmakers this week in hopes of securing sponsorship for the new bill that would create a new exception allowing shelters to provide short-term emergency services to runaways. If passed, they say, the new law would ultimately help more runaways stay safe and likely increase the number of shelters providing services to minors.

“This [law] could be the difference between life or death,” contends Colbenson. “The streets are dangerous for these kids.”

Widner adds that the proposed measure also benefits parents of runaways.

Kirsten Widner

“If more kids go to shelters instead of staying on the streets it will keep them safer and that parent will receive a call within 72 hours,” she says. “That parent will have more information about where their kid is. Research shows that the vast majority of children go back  home eventually. This will help facilitate that process.”

Widner predicts that the bill will be picked up and introduced early in the legislative session, which kicked off a week ago today. The new law would eliminate the threat of criminal liability that shelters that serve underage runaways now face, which includes violating two state laws:

  • Contributing to the unruliness of a minor.
  • Interference of custody of a parent.

As a result, most shelters in the state don’t provide any services to youth under the age of 18 at all, resulting in fewer resources being available for young people on the streets. Georgia is among roughly 30 states that do not currently endow shelters with the special status allowing for the extended 72-hour window for required parental or guardian contact. The designation, local service providers predict, will make a major difference in Georgia.

“That’s one of the reasons that there is such a pipeline of girls for child sexual exploitation here; there aren’t enough laws to address the problem,” adds Ashe. “That’s why so many girls fall prey to pimps. This legislation would help address that; it’s a step in the right direction.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

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