Academic journal article Social Work Research

Differences and Predictors of Family Reunification among Subgroups of Runaway Youths Using Shelter Services

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Differences and Predictors of Family Reunification among Subgroups of Runaway Youths Using Shelter Services

Article excerpt

Community-based youth shelters represent the primary method of intervention for runaway youths and are mandated to reunify youths with their families. The study discussed in this article pursued two research questions: (1) What are the differences among runaway-homeless, throwaway, and independent youths? (2) What youth demographics, personal characteristics, and family factors predict youth's reunification? The Runaway Homeless Youth Management Information System (RHYMIS), a comprehensive, automated information system developed to assist federally funded youth shelters nationwide, was used. The final sample included 17,790 youths using shelter services during 1997. Chi-square and logistic regression demonstrated that the three groups differed significantly on a variety of characteristics. Among runaway-homeless youths, family characteristics were most important for youths' reunification; among throwaway youths, problem behaviors predicted not returning home, and among independent youths, only individual demographics predicted reunification.

Key words: families; runaway youths; typology; throwaway youths; youth services

Runaway youths remain one of the most needy and understudied adolescent populations (Kipke, Montgomery, Simon, & Iverson, 1997; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Ackley, 1997). Estimates suggest that the number of these youths is increasing and, that between 575,000 and 1 million youths in the United States run away or are forced to leave their parental homes each year (Finkelhor, Hotaling, & Sedlak, 1990; Greene, Ringwalt, Kelly, Iachan, & Cohen, 1995; Herin & Rudy, 1991). Research has shown that these youths often have a variety of problems, such as school failure, substance abuse, criminality, and unprotected sexual activity (Greene, Ringwalt, & Iachan, 1997). These troubled adolescents come from diverse, multiproblem living situations and give many reasons for running away or leaving their homes (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Yoder, 1999). They frequently report high levels of family conflict, including parental abuse, criminality, and substance abuse (Kipke, Palmer, LaFrance, & O'Connor, 1997; Stiffman, 1989; Whitbeck et al., 1997). In addition, these families have histories of unstable housing situations and often are characterized as emotionally unavailable and lacking effective parenting skills (Bass, 1992; Whitbeck et al., 1999).

Because runaway adolescents typically lack the skills and education necessary to obtain and maintain gainful employment, they often are forced into prostitution, drug dealing, and other criminal behavior to survive (Greene et al., 1997). Life on the street also can have "deadly consequences" because these adolescents are at significantly increased risk of serious health problems such as malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, and premature death resulting from suicide, murder, and drug overdose (Powers, Eckenrode, & Jaklitsch, 1990).

To disentangle the heterogeneity of this population, researchers have divided runaway youths into three categories (Bass, 1992; Ringwalt, Green, & Robertson, 1998; Zide & Cherry, 1992). A recent study confirmed the distinctiveness of these subgroups and encouraged future research focusing on developing services and interventions specific to these unique groups of youths (Zide & Cherry):

* runaway-homeless youths--stay away from home at least overnight without the permission or knowledge of their parents or guardians

* throwaway youths--leave home because their parents have encouraged them to leave or have locked them out of the house

* independent youths--feel that they have no home to return to because of irreconcilable conflicts with their families, have lost contact with their families, or have families that are homeless (Bass; Kurtz, Jarvis, & Kurtz, 1991).

Community-based youth shelters are the primary method of intervention designed to meet the complex needs of adolescents who leave home before possessing skills to live autonomously. …

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