The police were knocking on our door one night last week. They were looking for a neighbor’s 12-year-old son. It wasn’t the first time. A few weeks ago, after an argument with his father’s girlfriend, he ran away for eight hours. My teenage son found him wandering on the other side of the neighborhood. He said he’d spent the day under a highway bridge.
I feel for parents who have to deal with runaway kids. There is the emotional trauma, but there is also this: Running away from home is one of the most risky behaviors a teenager can choose.
Why do kids run away from home? The reasons are many, but it is usually a signal of problems at home, such as abuse, or drug or alcohol addiction, or problems at school. Many teenagers have rudimentary coping skills for handling difficult life situations and are not aware of the access they have to help through a school counselor, teacher, church, or community resource safety net. By running away they trade small problems at home for the larger problems of living on the street.
This is a pervasive problem with teens and young adults, according to the National Runaway Switchboard. “Almost 1 in 7 kids between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away at some point. And there are 1 to 3 million runaway and homeless kids living on the streets in the United States, ” according to the Switchboard’s website.
Most authorities recommend that parents call local law enforcement to report a missing child so that the child’s information can be entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC)/Missing Persons File database. This also allows local law officers to issue a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) Report in your local area. In cases of kidnapping, abduction, or when you feel that your child might be in harm’s way, law enforcement can issue an Amber Alert through the America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response system.
But what happens to the kids once they hit the streets? Is there anyone out there waiting to meet them besides the pimps and the criminals? Thankfully, StandUp for Kids, a nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta works with the kids who are amongst America’s fastest growing homeless population.
Sarah Rooney, Director of Community Relations at StandUp for Kids has this advice for parents with a kid who’s already tried running away or is threatening to do so. “The best advice I could give a parent is to help the child stay in school. If ‘traditional’ school is not working for the kid, then try to find an alternative or non-traditional approach. Not having a GED or High School diploma is such a difficult obstacle to overcome and the older kids get the harder it is to get a GED.”
StandUp for Kids provides a safe haven on the streets for kids using several models. “We have a street outreach team that looks for homeless youth (under 25) to hand out food/ sanitary packs and also to let them know what services are available in the center,” said Rooney.
The services needed to help kids kick homelessness are many. “StandUp For Kids offers various programs such as GED tutoring to help kids pass their GED test,” Rooney said. “We also offer a hot meal, job coaching, mentoring, help with getting necessary ID requirements and we have a volunteer nurse that comes in once a week. We have a clothes closet where kids can get a new outfit and we provide showers and washing machines for laundry. … We also have a jobs bulletin board that is kept up-to-date.”
The kids that Rooney works with have many of the same characteristics as homeless kids all across America. “I have worked with many different kids,” he said. “Some are over 18 and struggle with literacy and reading skills. Many of the kids I have worked with have been in or are in abusive relationships. They often end up on the streets because they are running away from these abusive relationships or have been thrown out by a guardian.”
These “thrown-away” kids aren’t without talents and resources. “Many of the kids I have worked with are talented in the arts, drawing, or music,” said Rooney.
But, he added, “many of these kids have to act tough to survive on the street but inside they can be just as scared and vulnerable as any of us. These kids inspire me and I look forward to seeing them and working with them every week.”
November is National Youth Homeless Awareness Month:
- A resource for parents and teens is the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 with a 365 day, 24-hour hotline staffed by specially trained Boys Town counselors. These hotlines are exactly what parents need at a time of crisis. Oftentimes it’s difficult to step back from the emotions to rationally decide what to do in this situation.
- The National Runaway Switchboard began in 1971 to combat Chicago’s runaway teen problems, but has since been expanded across the nation. It provides a 24-hour a day, 365 resource for teens and parents of runaways who call the 1-800-RUNAWAY hotline.
- The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention also publishes a handbook for parents entitled, “When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide” which is available for a free download.
- StandUp for Kids was founded in 1990 to rescue homeless and at-risk youth. The national headquarters are located in Atlanta, Georgia but also runs programs in a number of other states. StandUp For Kids is run almost entirely by volunteers. Donations and volunteers always needed.