Searching for Connection: A New Look at Teenaged Runaways

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper presents the results of a qualitative study of 26 runaways in a rural New England shelter. Runaway behavior was viewed from the perspective of the teenagers themselves. The findings challenge popular notions that runaways are incorrigible delinquents who want to leave home, that the decision is impulsive, and that they hope never to return. Rather, many of the teenaged runaways left home in search of freedom from what they considered abusive treatment, whether physical, sexual, or emotional. Running away was found to be "last resort" behavior--teenagers' accounts yielded evidence that they struggled with the decision to run away. Nor was running away necessarily an irreparable break with family; many youths expressed the desire for reconciliation. Thus, running away was revealed to be a dynamic emotional experience for youths, which reflected changes in their social bonds with family, peers, and adults in the educational, legal, and medical systems.

INTRODUCTION

Approximately 12% of American youths run away at least once before the age of eighteen (Burgess, 1986; Garbarino & Garbarino, 1986). On any given night, there may be over a million adolescent runaways on the streets or "in the system" (National Runaway Switchboard, 1993; Burgess, 1986).

Runaways come from the full range of American families: White, Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian; single-parent and two-parent households; and privileged, middle-class, working-class, low-income, and even homeless families (Bass, 1992). Furthermore, they do not always run away from "home": youths run from foster care, shelters, group homes, and residential treatment facilities.

This paper presents the results of a qualitative study of 26 runaways. During the 1993-1994 academic year, the author spent time at a runaway shelter, interacting with, observing, and interviewing young people, as well as accessing their files, which included reports by social workers and juvenile justice system officers. Similar to estimates of the national population, 58% were female; 61% White, 12% African American, 23% Puerto Rican/Latino, and 4% other; 39% were from low-income families; and 35% were from single-parent families.

The county-run shelter houses 9 youths, males and females aged 12 to 17, for a maximum stay of 45 days. Residency is voluntary; that is, it is not a locked-down facility. Youths are referred internally from the State Department of Social Services or, in the case of young offenders, the Department of Youth Services. In other words, it is not a drop-in center--a runaway or abandoned youth could not walk up to the front door and gain admittance.

Placement at the shelter enables staff to assess adolescents' emotional needs as well as administer medication if necessary, and lets the adolescents "settle down" until the county decides what to do with them next. It serves as an alternative detention center for truants and other status offenders (status offenses are acts that would not be illegal if committed by adults; for example, sexual activity, drinking alcohol, and curfew violations). The shelter is considered a temporary residence for youths awaiting court dates or sentencing, or transfer to foster care or group homes. Serious habitual or violent offenders are not accepted. Thus, none of the participants in this study were runaways who had been involved in violent delinquent behavior, such as armed robbery or capital offenses.

Social bond theory posits that delinquency occurs when youths' moral, emotional, and psychological ties to society weaken or rupture (Hirschi, 1969/1985). O'Neil (1994) offers covenant theory to describe the connection that should exist within a family (as well as society; see also Giddens, 1991). For the runaway, the social covenant has been broken. Despite this rupture, the present study highlights that, in general, adolescents resist running away and that it is actually a last option for them. …