Searching for Connection: A New Look at Teenaged Runaways

Article excerpt


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.


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. In addition, runaways usually have a plan of action that includes finding needed love and protection somewhere else. Finally, running away is not necessarily a permanent break with family--rapprochement can and does take place.


Researchers have distinguished between running to and running from behavior (Sharlin & Mor-Barak, 1992; Adams, Gullotta & Clancy, 1985; Palenski & Launer, 1987; Zide, 1990; Wilkinson, 1987). Sharlin and Mor-Barak (1992) observed running-to behavior in younger girls and running-from behavior in older girls. However, one theme that continually arose (across age and gender) in the accounts of the adolescents in this study was that they resisted fighting back with their parents, resisted breaking family rules, and, in a sense, tried to resist running away. Indeed, they seemed to struggle against running away, preferring instead to try to maintain family bonds (see Janus, McCormack, Burgess, & Hartman, 1987). Yet, most came to recognize that, beneath the anger that precipitated their running away, one crucial piece of the family covenant was painfully lacking--love between parent and child.


Amy, 14, was from a low-income family. She said she had been physically abused by her mother. She was at the shelter awaiting a dispositional hearing on a charge of possession of a stolen vehicle.

Many runaways reach the social service or juvenile probation system by way of police stations or hospital emergency rooms. Stealing, selling drugs, and prostitution are common crimes. However, untreated physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are often at the root of these behaviors. Of the runaways sampled here, 77% reported having been physically abused and 35% sexually abused in their families of origin.

Amy's story reflected this trend. She said that she ran away from home because of fights over the friends she was seeing, especially her 18-year-old boyfriend, who her mother wanted to have arrested for statutory rape: "I ran away from home because I have a lot of problems with my mom--we fight a lot. And we get in physical fights, but I don't hit her because she's my mom."


Gretchen, 16, was from a working-class family. She reported severe physical abuse by both her father and mother. Like Amy, she had the dilemma of not wanting to hit her mother, even when being attacked:

"She was choking me ... but I did not hit her back. I called her a name and that was it. When I tried calling the cops, she hung up the phone and started punching me. After she was done hitting me, she yelled at me for an hour." Rather than physically defend herself, her solution was to run away.

Emerson (1981) describes "last resort" responses, which are undertaken when all other possible remedies have been exhausted. Running away, in a sense, is a Last resort for teenagers in troubled families. [1] There may be other alternatives, but the participants cannot envision them. Gretchen confided that when she arrived at the shelter, she was frightened by her new surroundings, worried about what was going to happen to her, and apprehensive about being "in the system." She confessed that she was "scared to death," adding, "but I kept telling myself, anything is better than being at home!"


Isabel, 16, had a violent, "old-fashioned" father. Though her mother tried to intervene, Isabel ultimately was forced to flee. Isabel's files indicated that she had miscarried due to physical altercations in her family. According to Isabel, "A father should be trustable. In my house, when I come home, I get yelled at--first thing I do when I walk in the door. I used to slam the door in his face, I used to swear at him--I didn't care. See, when I was pregnant, my dad got drunk and came home and started hitting me...and he tried to throw me down the stairs!"

Conflicting Emotions

Home for youths such as Isabel, Amy, and Gretchen was unbearable. Nevertheless, most reported that they loved their parents--and at the same time were angry at them. Thus, they struggled to reconcile these powerful but conflicting emotions, as well as to refrain from striking back.

One popular conception of runaway teenagers is that they are incorrigible delinquents. However, the files and personal accounts of those at the shelter revealed that many had attempted to deal with difficult family situations. They did not want to run away, and did so only as a last resort. Amy, Gretchen, and Isabel offer a picture of youths struggling not to run away.


The "crumbling" of the family bond plays a crucial role in runaway behavior (Brennan, Huizinga, & Elliott, 1978). A second theme, however, became apparent in the accounts of the runaways. They sought people and places that would make them feel safe--a sort of "phoenix of connection" rising out of the ashes of disintegrating family relationships. Once the youths had run away, the next events mentioned almost always involved a person with whom they had run away or to whom they had gone. This pattern was so prevalent that out of the 26 teenagers, only one said he had no one to run to and nowhere to go when he ran away. This youth said that about 6 hours after bolting from the parking lot of the juvenile detention facility where his hearing had just been held, he returned home.

In the following three accounts, one youth escaped a violent home with a best friend, one ran from a crack house to a police station, and a third went to a phone booth to call his social worker. Whether they ran to neighbors, people they were dating, or to an aunt, cousin, or older sibling's house, a picture emerged of running away as a search for emotional connection and physical safety.


Most runaways do not run far from home. One study of runaways found that nine out of ten had run less than 100 miles (Finkelhor, Hotaling, & Sedlak, 1990), and this was true for 88% of the present sample. Jean, 16, however, ran an unusually far distance, crossing several states to escape family conflict and abuse.

Jean stated: "I ran away from my parents' house about two years ago, when I was 13 years old. It was very abusive at my mom and dad's house--physically, emotionally abusive. My stepfather is crazy. He's like this total alcoholic and a big pothead. Whenever he was drunk, he'd chase after us with guns!" In search of someone to help her, she went from a best friend to a 27-year-old boyfriend to a cousin.

Unfortunately, youths who come under the jurisdiction of the juvenile social service system face a great deal of shuffling. Caseworkers, probation officers, social workers, and counselors change constantly, and Jean expressed frustration and feelings of impermanence and disconnectedness: "DSS [Department of Social Services] should just stick with one kid. I wouldn't switch DSS workers every 2 weeks; I would follow through the whole thing."


Eva, a 14-year-old runaway, fled from peers to a police station. Eva, having escaped a physically abusive, alcoholic mother, was staying with a friend in what turned out to be a crack house--an apartment where persons would come to buy and smoke rock cocaine. One visitor sexually assaulted her and she ran to the police, even though she knew that her parents had reported her as a runaway: "I had gone down to the police station to turn in this guy for raping me and ... they pulled out my CHINS warrant [CHINS is the Department of Social Service acronym for child in need of services; in some states it is termed PINS, person in need of services], so my parents came down and got me. I went back to my house and I wasn't there for very long. I was there for a few days ... and then I ran away again."

Eva ran to a neighbor's house first, then to a friend. She ended up in the shelter and was hoping to be placed in a good foster home. Eva, like Jean, longed for stability, and her running away could be seen as a search for connection with others.


It was not clear how old Michael was, or exactly how long he had been away from home, although he said that he had run away many times. He had been staying with a foster family, but he ran away from them too because the foster mother physically assaulted him in front of others--that he had been shamed.

Although he enjoyed being with his older brother, who had already moved out of the house, he experienced conflict with his mother and younger sister: "My older brother is great ... but my sister is just a little snob. My ma is raising her to be a stuck-up little girl. She sticks her nose in everything. If I say, 'Get out of here, you little brat,' my ma jumps on me, 'Where do you get off talking to your little sister like that?' Ma just looks like she's ready to crawl down my throat, she's just chewing me out so bad. My sister thinks everything revolves around her and I was just sick of it! Day after day it was the same thing, and I just got all my stuff and told my social worker, 'Get me out of this house; I want my own place.'"

The jealousy, anger, and resentment between Michael and his mother and younger sibling was so great that it clearly weakened the family bond. Emotional crises sometimes precipitate runaway behavior, and in this case Michael knew he needed to leave home. As the family situation disintegrated, emotional connections with peers and community workers grew, fostering self-worth. He admitted that he loved being at the shelter and wanted to stay--"everybody treats me respectfully here."

Protection and Emotional Connection

For Jean, Eva, and Michael, the emotional connection, physical protection, and psychological nurturing that they needed was not being provided by family. These youths felt enough hurt to run away from home and seek stability elsewhere. They sought out friends, neighbors, or social service workers to meet their needs for protection and love. For some youths, however, running away was not always seen as final.


Although running away ruptured family bonds, healing and rapprochement were shown to be possible. In families where there has been severe and persistent physical and sexual abuse, reunification should not be considered; but where emotional and relational dynamics were less serious, youths often expressed the desire for reconciliation.


Gregg had run away from home because he felt that no one really cared about him, but he never gave up hope for reconciliation with his father and stepmother. Mainly, he was in trouble with his father: "Sunday was the first time I've seen him.... We went fishing and talked about all this stuff. It was pretty good. He won't let me back home, but that's ... because he doesn't feel I'll get along there. He's afraid of something that I'll do. He's afraid I'll hurt my mom or sister or something. I'm not a violent person at all ... but he's strongly against me coming back home. It's a little painful, but I just blame myself for that. I was off doing my own thing--drugs, basically."

Gregg was wistful for reconnection with his family. He yearned to be with his father, but the love and acceptance he desired was not yet possible.


Anne, 16, had extremely alcoholic parents who were physically abusive to her. She ran way from home and stayed with older friends who advised her to turn herself in to the authorities so that she would not have to be on the run for the next two years (when she would turn 18). Even though reunification was not likely until her parents stopped drinking, she hoped for family healing: "I try to remember all the good things that ever happened, as well as the bad."


Megan, 15, who was at the shelter because she had beaten up a girl at her school, was on her way to placement in a residential youth facility. She had been in a foster home when she was 13 because the Department of Social Services had found her to be suffering from child abuse. She ran away from her foster home and was eventually allowed to return to her mother. Her mother had recently shown improved behavior: "She had a steady boyfriend who beat me up... and then she finally met this other guy, and she's gotten a lot better.... She got her GED and she's going to college and she's going to graduate this year and she's a lot better mom than she was when I was little. She doesn't go out at all; she doesn't drink at all; I don't know if she still does pot at all." This gave Megan hope for the future.


In order for healing to occur, the behavior or attitude of at least one of the parties must change. In the case of runaway teenagers, it is the adult who must initiate or engineer the reconciliation, because that is the family member who has the legal and social power and, it is hoped, the emotional and psychological maturity to effect change.


Runaways do not want to leave home. The decision to run away is not an easy one. Teenagers struggle to find ways to love their parents even when there is chronic and acute family dysfunction--physical and sexual abuse, authoritarian and arbitrary parenting styles, neglect and abandonment, drug abuse, and other sources of conflict. Runaways wrestle with their dilemma, but ultimately choose what they view as personal survival over family unity.

Running away is a search for connection. When parents do not nurture and protect their children--instead offering abuse and neglect--the bonds that hold the family together weaken and rupture. Running away from home, paradoxically, is a search for connection, but with others outside the family who will provide this nurturance and protection. Even after running away, teenagers often seek reconciliation with family members.

Because the social and emotional bonds between runaways and adults are fluid, positive intervention can revitalize the social covenant. It is imperative that interactions between runaways and adults--police, parents, and social workers--instill trust. Thus, those in positions of authority should take responsibility not only for protecting runaway teenagers, but also for providing them with ways to exercise their independence in normative ways, and a means of reconnecting to those who can offer nurturing relationships.

Reprint requests to Laurie Schaffner, doctoral candidate, Department of Sociology, University of California-Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720.

(1.) Emerson discusses the use of punishment, such as incarceration, as a last resort to maintain social control; as used here, last resort refers to the response to a moral crisis. Thus, the term may be applied to both those exerting social control and those resisting inappropriate forms of social control. Emerson observes that this behavior occurs because "all such normal remedies are specifically inappropriate or have failed to contain the trouble" (p. 1). In the case of runaways, when family problem solving involves violence rather than calm discussion, running away may be seen as the only remaining option.


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