If you were expecting Dickens, forget it. Homeless kids in Georgia do not have a special look. They’re hiding right in front of you. That’s the first thing we learned from Mary, who looks like any other teenager in Atlanta. Her hair is tied up with a pink ribbon on top of her head and several subtle piercings adorn her face and ears. Dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, she is quick to flash her big, bright smile. Mary is one of an unknown number of homeless young people living in Atlanta. Mary’s experience is not very different from that of many homeless teens. After a stormy relationship with her mother, she was kicked out of her parents’ house on her 18th birthday three weeks ago. “I didn’t get along with my mom, but my dad was okay. We got along,” she said.
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.
The future is uncertain for 700 Georgia teens in foster care who will turn 18 in the next year. They have a big decision to make – whether to go out on their own, or remain with a foster family. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien profiles an Atlanta teen and the choice he faces. We hear from DHS Commissioner B.J. Walker, and Cathy Colbenson, CEO of CHRIS Kids, who warns that a quarter of the young people who age out become homeless within two years. This is not just a Georgia problem. There are 400,000 children in foster care across the nation.
A young boy is ripped from his family. As he is placed in the back of a stranger’s car, he looks out the back window and sees his mom crying and his dad in the back of a police car. He doesn’t understand. He is scared. He can’t stop crying.
A young teenager is running the streets and getting into trouble. He is stealing and getting into fights to survive. He knows he is ready to kill if he has to. A young man was neglected and sexually abused as a child. He sees no purpose in life. Death, at times, seems more inviting than life.