Runaway Youths

views updated

Runaway Youths

Throughout history, runaways have persisted as a formidable presence on the social landscape. Leaving behind families and friends for any number of reasons, these youths are quickly and almost invariably exposed to the brutal reality of a harsh life on the streets. Idealized images of adventure-loving adolescents seeking an escape from the monotony of suburban life are quickly replaced by the more realistic and horrific images of physical and sexual abuse, exploitation, sexually transmitted diseases, hunger, and criminal activity. There are an estimated 1.3 million runaways on the streets of the United States, and the social consequences associated with this population extend far beyond these individuals and their immediate experiences. Families, communities, and the society as a whole are affected by this ever-increasing population of at-risk youths. With one child out of every seven running away from home at least once, it is likely that almost everyone has either experienced or knows someone who has experienced the running away of a child or adolescent. What is more, running away from home is coming to be regarded as a major international problem with children from all countries running away from home for a variety of substantiated and unsubstantiated reasons. As such, stringent efforts have been made to understand this unique subpopulation of youth within contemporary society.

Defining the Concept of a Runaway

Providing an effective definition for what constitutes a runaway, or what the act of running away involves, has proven difficult for many researchers. Although generic definitions do exist, many are fraught with ambiguity or lack the clarity necessary for a genuine empirical analysis. For this reason, there have been multiple attempts to create typological classifications of runaways in an effort to provide a foundation upon which to develop more lucid descriptions and definitions of what this phenomenon actually entails. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) defines the act of running away as "leaving or staying away on purpose, knowing you would be missed, and intending to stay away from home for at least some time" (Gullotta 1978, p. 544). Although this definition does provide a thorough description of what an individual must do and feel to be labeled a runaway, it does not distinguish between the nature of the runners and their psychological and contextual motivations for doing so.

To remedy the problems associated with generic operational definitions, attempts have been made to systematically develop typologies of runaway youth. These devices, which provide information on subgroups of the population, are useful with more precise conceptualizations of the population, thus allowing for more effective empirical analysis.

Categories of Runaways

Four distinct types of runaways have been identified: running to, running from, thrown out, and forsaken (Zide and Cherry 1992; Cherry 1993). Running to individuals are those seeking the adventure of life on their own. These are the flower children of the 1960s who left home in search of the excitement of a life outside of the mundane confines of suburbia. These are the children who leave home for the excitement and adventure of a new life in a new city: they crave "limitless pleasures, instant gratification and freedom from parental attempts to set control or limits on them" (Zide and Cherry 1992 p. 158). They believe that the world that awaits them outside of the confines of their parents' rules and regulations is one that is far superior to the one that they are leaving. These kids are not leaving because of some intrafamilial trauma or negative dynamic, nor are they leaving abusive or neglectful parents. In fact, most of these youth come from a normal type of family, and positive familial supports await their return home (Zide and Cherry 1992; Cherry 1993). Another type within the runaway population is the running from subgroup. These are the youth who are seeking to escape something negative within their homes. Many times, these children are running from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, from the neglect of an alcoholic parent or stepparent, or from extreme financial hardship within the family. Unlike the running to youths, they are not searching for excitement outside of the home: they are searching for a life that is more tolerable than the one from which they escaped. Although their parents may wish them to return, they cannot return home to a positive support system and are thus in a far more dismal predicament than their running to counterparts (Zide and Cherry 1992; Cherry 1993).

A third type within the runaway population consists of youths who are forced to leave home as a result of intense alienation with their families. These throwaways differ from other runaways in that their parents express little or no desire for their return home. Many times, these emotionally distraught youths are leaving a situation that "has been preceded by years of failures, not only within the home, but also within the school system and community" (Zide and Cherry 1992, p. 158). These kids are typically more assertive, engage in considerable amounts of criminal activity, and are more antisocial than their runaway counterparts (Zide and Cherry 1992).

Finally, a fourth type consists of those forsaken children who are forced to run away as a result of the inability of their family to support them financially. These youths generally leave homes with large families with whom they have only the slightest of social bonds, and they also have very few peer relationships. Put simply, these children have little or no social, emotional, or economic support system at home. Thus, these children are more likely to be exploited upon their runs and are considerably more prone to feelings of victimization and poor self-concepts (Zide and Cherry 1992; Cherry 1993).

Other attempts at classification have yielded similar results. However, unlike the statistically driven approach of the previous typology (Zide and Cherry 1992; Cherry 1993), these attempts have created types based on intuition gained from experience working with the population. For this reason, the generalizability of these classificatory devices is questionable, at best. Still, they have merit in that they provide a means for more precisely understanding the nature of the runaway population. Specifically, one study isolated six subgroups of runaway children: (1) self-confident and unrestrained runaway girls; (2) well-adjusted runaway youth; (3) double failures, high delinquency involvement; (4) fleeing youth; (5) young, highly regulated, and negatively influenced youth; and finally, (6) young and unrestrained youth (Dunford and Brennan 1976). Although this typology has more groups, most of the groups included in the earlier typology exist within this one as well.

Historical Patterns of Runaways

Although there is a considerable body of research devoted to the analysis and classification of runaway behavior, attempts at placing this activity into its proper historical context have been scarce (Wells and Sandhu 1986; Chapman 1978; Minehan 1934). Researchers have emphasized that such efforts allow for a comprehensive understanding of the changing nature of this phenomenon. Any consideration of runaway behavior necessitates an inquiry into its origin and development (Wells and Sandhu 1986). However, runaway behavior is a direct consequence of the origin of the family: a social construction that necessarily implies the dependency and devotion of a child to his or her parents. Under this pretense, the origin of runaway behavior can be traced to no earlier than that of the origin of the family as it is known today.

Throughout history, there have been multiple waves of increased runaway behavior and activity. During these times, the rates of runaway children and adolescents soared, and their presence on the social landscape presented a formidable social problem for parents and policy makers. The first of these waves was precipitated by the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thousands of children, unprotected by restrictive labor laws and compulsory education, sought to escape the penury of rural life by obtaining factory jobs in the dense urban jungles of Europe and the United States. Leaving behind large families, many of these children left home with the consent of their parents and were forced into a new, urban poverty without the support of families and close-knit communities. The presence of this burgeoning population of young, urban independents activated protective legislation to strengthen and sustain the "dependency relationship" between parents and children (Wells and Sandhu 1986). Most influential to the problem of runaway youths was the early twentieth century emergence of the status offense: the criminalization of childhood and adolescent disobedience, including the act of running away (Wells and Sandhu 1986).

The second major wave of increased runaway activity occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Children, once again with the consent of their parents, left their homes in search of economic opportunity. So pervasive was the problem of runaway youths during this time, that children were forced to travel from town to town in boxcars on freight trains in search of any available financial or material assistance (Minehan 1934; Wells and Sandhu 1986). Although boys considerably outnumbered girls as runaways, girls were more frequently jailed and were sometimes forced into prostitution to pay for food and shelter. Male runaways were sometimes forced to steal and beg for all of their necessities (Minehan 1934). Following the Great Depression, and especially during World War II, runaways maintained their presence on the social landscape, causing a great deal of pressure to create social policy capable of eradicating, or at least decreasing, the negative effects of this activity on individuals, families, and communities (Wells and Sandhu 1986).

Finally, the third major wave of runaway behavior corresponded with the emergence of the counterculture of the 1960s. No longer were runaways seeking to escape the hardships of home, nor were their runs sanctioned by their parents: these runners flocked to hippie havens such as San Francisco to live as flower children and escape the "hypocrisies of a materialistic culture" (Chapman 1978, p. 18). Idealistic images of the adventurous and carefree hippies and yippies enticed many youths to abandon suburbia in search of the communal existence of brotherly and sisterly love. These images, however romanticized and picturesque, remained just beyond the grasp of many of these adventure-seekers, forcing them into a far more dismal reality: one characterized by drug use, sexually transmitted disease, exploitation, and criminality (Chapman 1978).

Demographic Considerations

Runaways continue to represent a significant social problem. In 1998, approximately 86 percent of the runaways in the United States were between fourteen and seventeen years of age. Calls to the National Runaway Switchboard indicate that 3 percent of calls are from throwaways, 1 percent are from homeless youth, 22 percent are from runners from, 10 percent are from potential runaways, and 61 percent are runners to. Nearly 74 percent of this population is female, a marked difference from the male domination of the earlier waves of runaway behavior and activity (National Runaway Switchboard 1998).

Most runaways are white and from two-parent households. Topping the list of motives for running away is an unpleasant family dynamic (40%), followed by issues with peers and school (15%), and abuse (8%). Almost 35 percent of these kids have run away before, and only 40 percent have crossed state lines (National Runaway Switchboard 1998).

One out of every seven children will run away at some point, and some five thousand of these children will fall victim to assault, illness, or suicide each year (National Runaway Switchboard 1998). For this reason, there have been many attempts, both public and private, to assist these children. The National Runaway Switchboard (NRS), for example, was created in 1971 to give "help and hope to [runaway] youth and their families by providing non-judgmental, confidential crisis intervention and local and national referrals through a 24-hour hotline" (National Runaway Switchboard 1998). Also, a plethora of homeless shelters and other nonprofit crisis organizations designed to assist the runaway population have originated in the past thirty years as the reality of the horrors associated with this runaway lifestyle have become evident.

Covenant House, started in 1972 by Sr. Mary Rose McGeady, is a privately owned chain of shelters for runaway youths with locations throughout the United States. Here, any homeless child or adolescent can receive room, board, mental health care, and a number of other crisis-related services (Covenant House 2002). Also, many communities sponsor independent runaway shelters for these at-risk homeless children. Although some house children only temporarily, many others are designed to integrate these children into society by teaching them basic life skills and providing them with assistance in obtaining apartments and other living accommodations.

International Perspectives

It is important to recognize that the act of running away among children and adolescents is not confined to the borders of the relatively affluent countries of Europe and North America. Large runaway populations affect many, if not most, countries throughout the world, with developing and impoverished countries experiencing larger populations of these youths (Rodwell and Cavalcanti 1998; Wright, Wittig, and Kaminsky 1993). In these developing countries, the causes, consequences, and characteristics associated with runaways and their respective activities are considerably different. In many cases, there is a clear distinction between homeless runaways and throwaways, and street kids. Homeless youths tend to live on the streets for economic reasons and maintain ties with their families and friends back home. Researchers in this area have frequently referred to this distinction as that of "children of the streets" and "children on the streets" (Lugalla and Mbwambo 1999). Whereas children on the streets are the street kids who work all day on the streets and have homes to return to at night or on the weekends, children of the streets consider the streets a permanent residence, and have maintained little or no family contact since their initial run. These children pose a considerable problem for third-world policy makers and planners because their presence is pervasive, and their problems are various. In countries characterized by intense and abject poverty, social programs designed to administer to these socially, emotionally, and physically needy children are scarce. As a result, many of these countries have recently experienced a dramatic increase in the size of their runaway population, and are clearly ill-prepared to effectively and appropriately manage the problems associated with these youths.

In Brazil, for example, runaways represent a sizeable population of children, many of whom are forced to leave their homes for the same reasons as their North American and European counterparts. For these children, "life in the streets is the outcome of [a] perverse combination of factors: the situation at home becoming too unbearable and the appeal and freedom found in the streets becoming too enticing to be ignored" (Rodwell and Cavalcanti 1998, p. 33). However, the social context within which Brazilian children exist differs in that it is characterized by difficult, if not unbearable, living conditions and social policies that do little to protect and assist the impoverished. The decision to leave the home is exacerbated in that little can be done to improve the quality of life within the home. In addition to their intense family turmoil, many (37%) of these children experience both physical and sexual abuse within the home. Thus, these children clearly fit into many of the typological descriptions articulated earlier, but their experiences are considerably more intense, unsolvable, and undeniably more turbulent (Rodwell and Cavalcanti 1998).

The presence and pervasiveness of gangs of homeless youth and runaways on the streets of Honduras is likewise an all-too-familiar reality. Much like in the United States, there are multiple categories of street children within this country: some youths are forced to leave their homes, and some leave their homes voluntarily in an effort to provide economic assistance to their poor families. Although all of these children present a social problem for this impoverished, developing country, some runaway behavior is encouraged as a result of its contribution to the economy. Many market children, as they are appropriately named, are forced to drop out of school to assist their families economically. These youth relocate from the vast rural hinterlands of this mountainous country and congregate in the shanty-areas surrounding the major cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. It is here that they attempt to earn enough money to provide for themselves and their families. Their presence, although unsupervised, plays an important role in the labor market of the country as these children work for low wages and long hours as market vendors and market aids. However, within Honduras, there is an additional population of street kids who are not classified as market children. These runaways are usually teenagers who have been orphaned or who have been abandoned by their families. Unable to enter the workforce, many of these children engage in delinquent activities such as theft and drug use. They consider the streets their home, and do not have families upon whom they can rely for social and emotional support. These are the truly homeless children who are in desperate need of any and all kinds of physical, emotional, and economic assistance. They pose a considerable threat to the cultural stability of this country, and thus present a major social problem (Wright, Wittig, and Kaminsky 1993).

In Tanzania, the presence of runaways on the streets of the major cities increased dramatically at the close of the twentieth century. Responding to the social and economic crises afflicting this Eastern African country, many of these children run away from home for economic reasons. The economic opportunity that awaits them in the city is more appealing than the poverty that exists within their homes. Many, if not most, of these children are leaving behind families whose primary economic support stems from primitive agricultural production and maintenance. In a semidesert country that is prone to frequent droughts and land that is only occasionally fertile, the economic promise of this endeavor is weak, at best. Children whose families cannot support them are forced to leave their rural communities and embark on a trek to Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam. Most of these children are between the ages of eight and ten years old, and most come from large families with six or eight children. Few have permanent accommodations on the streets, and many are employed only informally as car-parking boys and car washers. As a result of their unsanitary and unhealthy living conditions, these youths experience infectious diseases on a continual basis, rarely receiving medical attention. Also, many of these children become sexually vulnerable as a result of their situation. Both males and females frequently engage in prostitution to obtain money for food and shelter, and they are unlikely to practice safe sex because they cannot afford condoms, nor are condoms readily available in this country. Because of the dangers inherent in this lifestyle, many children join gangs for protection. These groups are highly organized and territorial, providing children with the social and emotional support lost as a result of their running away. Unfortunately, little is done to remedy the problems associated with these children. With only few financial resources, Tanzania is ill-prepared to manage this everincreasing population of at-risk youths (Lugalla and Mbwambo 1999).

Social service programs designed to administer to these needy children, although scant, have arisen in recent years with mixed results. Proyecto Alternativos, a health education and social service program for the street children of Tegucigalpa, is a prime example of a program that effectively addresses the situation of runaways in developing countries or children of the streets (Lugalla and Mbwambo 1999). This program attempts to assist these street children by providing "health education, a feeding program for the otherwise undernourished, nonformal educational and recreational activities, and primary health care" (Wright, Wittig, and Kaminsky 1993, p. 84). These services are designed to provide children with an alternative to the delinquency associated with life on the streets, and to assist them in establishing a permanent residence and obtain employment. In many Latin American, African, and Asian countries, the Peace Corps sponsors Urban Youth Development workers who organize and facilitate similar programs in an attempt to decrease many of the problems associated with the runaway population. These workers initiate programs with the hopes that the host community will maintain them after their service commitment is complete (Peace Corps 2002). Unfortunately, however, there is little information available regarding the effectiveness of these programs and others similar in scope.

The Psychology of the Runaway

Runaways represent a unique population among adolescents; whether this is a cause or a consequence of running away is unknown. Studies have shown that runaways are less adjusted than their nonrunaway peers, have lower achievement levels, are more frequently depressed, have poor family relations, and engage in more delinquent activities (Rohr 1996). Other researchers have suggested that runaways are sociopaths—that is, they refuse to commit to or believe in the traditional values and norms of the society within which they live. In addition, runaways have been portrayed as impulsive loners who are prone to excessive aggression when frustrated. They can also be passive-aggressive and possess several different personality disorders. Because the act of running away frequently involves feelings of intense alienation between children and their families, these children are, many times, quite exploitative and manipulative of other people. They do not trust others, thus they do not feel any obligation to treat others with respect. For this reason, many social programs designed to administer to this population focus on the provision of psychiatric care and counseling.


The problems associated with running away are multifaceted. Children and adolescents who leave home in the hopes of a better life on their own lose far more than a mere roof over their head. They lose the social and emotional support that comes with a loving family; they lose the feelings of security that only parents can provide. As education becomes a distant and fleeting memory, these children likewise lose the desire and opportunity to excel and compete with others from their own age cohort. They are truly the forgotten children, and attempts to understand and accommodate these vulnerable youths should be imperative. Running away is not an idyllic rite of passage for young people. It is not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi on a homemade raft. It is a harsh and brutal reality for millions of children worldwide, and it is a reality that needs to be addressed immediately. Programs such as the National Runaway Switchboard have made great strides in understanding and assisting these youngsters, but more attention must be paid to the international runaway problem, as the experiences of these impoverished children are far more intense and undoubtedly more dismal.

See also:Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Child Abuse: Psychological Maltreatment; Child Abuse: Sexual Abuse; Childhood, Stagesof: Adolescence; Children of Alcoholics; Conduct Disorder; Gangs; Grief, Loss, and Bereavement; Juvenile Delinquency; Missing Children; Poverty


chapman, c. (1978). america's runaways. new york: william morrow.

cherry, a. (1993). "combining cluster and discriminant analysis to develop a social bond typology of runaway youth." research on social work practice 3(2):175–190.

dunford, f. w., and brennan, t. (1976). "a taxonomy of runaway youth." social service review 50(3):457–470.

gullotta, t. p. (1978). "runaway: reality or myth." adolescence 13(52):543–549.

lugalla, j. l. p., and mbwambo, j. k. (1999). "street children and street life in urban tanzania." international journal of urban and regional research 23(2):329–344.

minehan, t. (1934). boy and girl tramps of america. new york: farrar and rinehart.

rodwell, m. k., and cavalcanti, h. b. (1998). "unstructured childhood: life on the street in rio vermelho, brazil." international review of modern sociology 28(2):29–44.

rohr, m. e. (1996). "identifying adolescent runaways: the predictive utility of the personality inventory for children." adolescence 31(123):605–623.

wells, m., and sandhu, h. (1982). "the juvenile runaway: a historical perspective." free inquiry in creative sociology 14(2):143–147.

wright, j. d., wittig, m., and kaminsky, d. c. (1993). "street children in north and latin america: preliminary data from proyecto alternativos in tegucigalpa and some comparisons with the u.s. case." studies in comparative international development 28(2):81–92.

zide, m. r., and cherry, a. l. (1992). "a typology of runaway youths: an empirically based definition." child and adolescent social work journal 9(2):155–168.

Other Resources

covenant house. (2002). available from

national runaway switchboard. (1998). available from

peace corps. (2002). available from

sarah michelle stohlman

robyn bateman driskell