Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Runaways

New York Times, October 26, 2009

Running in the Shadows

Recession Drives Surge in Youth Runaways

By IAN URBINA

MEDFORD, Ore. — Dressed in soaked green pajamas, Betty Snyder, 14,
huddled under a cold drizzle at the city park as several older boys
decided what to do with her.

Betty said she had run away from home a week earlier after a violent
argument with her mother. Shivering and sullen-faced, she vowed that
she was not going to sleep by herself again behind the hedges
downtown, where older homeless men and methamphetamine addicts might
find her.

The boys were also runaways. But unlike them, Betty said, she had been
reported missing to the police. That meant that if the boys let her
stay overnight in their hidden tent encampment by the freeway, they
risked being arrested for harboring a fugitive.

"We keep running into this," said one of the boys, Clinton Anchors,
18. Over the past year, he said, he and five other teenagers living
together on the streets had taken under their wings no fewer than 20
children — some as young as 12 — and taught them how to avoid
predators and the police, survive the cold and find food.

"We always first try to send them home," said Clinton, who himself ran
away from home at 12. "But a lot of times they won't go, because
things are really bad there. We basically become their new family."

Over the past two years, government officials and experts have seen an
increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets,
including many under 13. Foreclosures, layoffs, rising food and fuel
prices and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing have stretched
families to the extreme, and those pressures have trickled down to
teenagers and preteens.

Federal studies and experts in the field have estimated that at least
1.6 million juveniles run away or are thrown out of their homes
annually. But most of those return home within a week, and the
government does not conduct a comprehensive or current count.

The best measure of the problem may be the number of contacts with
runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make, which rose to
761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, when current methods of counting
began. (The number fell in 2007, but rose sharply again last year, and
the number of federal outreach programs has been fairly steady
throughout the period.)

Too young to get a hotel room, sign a lease or in many cases hold a
job, young runaways are increasingly surviving by selling drugs,
panhandling or engaging in prostitution, according to the National
Runaway Switchboard, the federally-financed national hot line created
in 1974. Legitimate employment was hard to find in the summer of 2009;
the Labor Department said fewer than 30 percent of teenagers had jobs.

In more than 50 interviews over 11 months, teenagers living on their
own in eight states told of a harrowing existence that in many cases
involved sleeping in abandoned buildings, couch-surfing among friends
and relatives or camping on riverbanks and in parks after fleeing or
being kicked out by families in financial crisis.

The runaways spend much of their time avoiding the authorities because
they assume the officials are trying to send them home. But most often
the police are not looking for them as missing-person cases at all,
just responding to complaints about loitering or menacing. In fact,
federal data indicate that usually no one is looking for the runaways,
either because parents have not reported them missing or the police
have mishandled the reports.

In Adrian, Mich., near Detroit, a 16-year-old boy was secretly living
alone in his mother's apartment, though all the utilities had been
turned off after she was arrested and jailed for violating her parole
by bouncing a check at a grocery store.

In Huntington, W.Va., Steven White, 15, said that after casing a
24-hour Wal-Mart to see what time each night the cleaning crew
finished its rounds, he began sleeping in a store restroom.

"You're basically on the lam," said Steven, who said he had left home
because of physical abuse that increased after his father lost his job
this year. "But you're a kid, so it's pretty hard to hide."

Between Legal and Illegal

Survival on the streets of Medford, a city of 76,000 in southwest
Oregon, requires runaways to walk a fine line between legal and
illegal activity, as a few days with a group of them showed. Even as
they sought help from social service organizations, they guarded their
freedom jealously.

Petulant and street savvy, they were children nonetheless. One girl
said she used a butter knife and a library card to break into vacant
houses. But after she began living in one of them, she ate dry cereal
for dinner for weeks because she did not realize that she could use
the microwave to boil water for Ramen noodles. Another girl was
childlike enough to suck her thumb, but dangerous enough to carry a
switchblade.

They camped in restricted areas, occasionally shoplifted and regularly
smoked marijuana. But they stayed away from harder drugs or drug
dealing, and the older teenagers fiercely protected the younger
runaways from sexual or other physical threats.

In waking hours, members of the group split their time among a park, a
pool hall and a video-game arcade, sharing cigarettes. When in need,
they sometimes barter: a sleeveless jacket for a blanket, peanut
butter for extra lighter fluid to start campfires on soggy nights.

Betty Snyder, the newcomer in the park, said she had bitten her mother
in a recent fight. She said she often refused to do household chores,
which prompted heated arguments.

"I'm just tired of it all, and I don't want to be in my house
anymore," she said, explaining why she had run away. "One month there
is money, and the next month there is none. One day, she is taking it
out on me and hitting me, and the next day she is ignoring me. It's
more stable out here."

Members of the group said they sometimes made money by picking parking
meters or sitting in front of parking lots, pretending to be the
attendant after the real one leaves. When things get really desperate,
they said, they climb into public fountains to fish out coins late at
night. On cold nights, they hide in public libraries or schools after
closing time to sleep.

Many of the runaways said they had fled family conflicts or the strain
of their parents' alcohol or drug abuse. Others said they left simply
because they did not want to go to school or live by their parents'
rules.

"I can survive fine out here," Betty said as she brandished a
switchblade she pulled from her dirty sweatshirt pocket. At a nearby
picnic table was part of the world she and the others were trying to
avoid: a man with swastikas tattooed on his neck and an older homeless
woman with rotted teeth, holding a pit bull named Diablo.

But Betty and another 14-year-old, seeming not to notice, went off to
play on a park swing.

Around the country, outreach workers and city officials say they have
been overwhelmed with requests for help from young people in desperate
straits.

In Berks County, Pa., the shortage of beds for runaways has led county
officials to consider paying stipends to families willing to offer
their couches. At drop-in centers across the country, social workers
describe how runaways regularly line up when they know the food pantry
is being restocked.

In Chicago, city transit workers will soon be trained to help the
runaways and other young people they have been finding in increasing
numbers, trying to escape the cold or heat by riding endlessly on
buses and trains.

"Several times a month we're seeing kids being left by parents who say
they can't afford them anymore," said Mary Ferrell, director of the
Maslow Project, a resource center for homeless children and families
in Medford. With fewer jobs available, teenagers are less able to help
their families financially. Relatives and family friends are less
likely to take them in.

While federal officials say homelessness over all is expected to rise
10 percent to 20 percent this year, a federal survey of schools showed
a 40 percent increase in the number of juveniles living on their own
last year, more than double the number in 2003.

At the same time, however, many financially troubled states began
sharply cutting social services last year. Though President Obama's
$787 billion economic stimulus package includes $1.5 billion to
address the problem of homelessness, state officials and youth
advocates say that almost all of that money will go toward homeless
families, not unaccompanied youths.

"As a society, we can pay a dollar to deal with these kids when they
first run away, or 20 times that in a matter of years when they become
the adult homeless or incarcerated population," said Barbara Duffield,
policy director for the National Association for the Education of
Homeless Children and Youth.

'You Traveling Alone?'

Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard,
said that while most runaways, like those in Medford, opt to stay in
their hometowns, some venture farther away and face greater dangers.
The farther they get from home and the longer they stay out, the less
money they have and the more likely they are to take risks with people
they have just met, Ms. Blaha said.

"A lot of small-town kids figure they can go to Chicago, San Francisco
or New York because they can disappear there," she said.

Martin Jaycard, a Port Authority police officer in New York, sees
himself as a last line of defense in preventing that from happening.

Dressed in scraggly blue jeans and an untucked open-collar shirt,
Officer Jaycard, a seven-year police veteran, is part of the Port
Authority's Youth Services Unit. His job is to catch runaways as they
pass through the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the nation's busiest.

"You're the last person these kids want to see," he said, estimating
that his three-officer unit stops at least one runaway a day at the
terminal.

Pausing to look at a girl waiting for a bus to Salt Lake City, Officer
Jaycard noticed a nervous look on her face and the overstuffed
suitcases that hinted more at a life change than a brief stay.

"Hey, how's it going?" he said to the girl, gently, as he pulled a
badge hanging around his neck from under his shirt. "You traveling
alone?"

"Yes," she replied, without a glimmer of nervousness. "I'm 18," she
quickly added before being asked.

But the girl carried no identification. The only phone number she
could produce for someone who could verify her age was disconnected.
And after noticing that the last name she gave was different from the
one on her bags, the officer took her upstairs to the police station.

When she arrived, she burst into tears.

"Please, I'm begging you not to send me home," she pleaded as she
sobbed into her hands. While listening, Officer Jaycard and the social
worker on duty began contacting city officials to investigate her
situation, and found her a place at a city shelter. "You have no idea
what my father will do to me for having tried to run away," she said,
describing severe beatings at home and threats to kill her if she ever
tried to leave.

The girl turned out to be 14 years old, from Queens. Shaking her head
in frustration, she added, "I should have just waited outside the
terminal and no one would have known I was missing."

In all likelihood, she was right.

Invisible Names

Lacking the training or the expertise to spot runaways, most police
officers would not have stopped the girl waiting for the bus. Even if
they had, her name probably would not have been listed in the federal
database called the National Crime Information Center, or N.C.I.C.,
which among other things tracks missing people.

Federal statistics indicate that in more than three-quarters of
runaway cases, parents or caretakers have not reported the child
missing, often because they are angry about a fight or would simply
prefer to see a problem child leave the house. Experts say some
parents fear that involving the police will get them or their children
into trouble or put their custody at risk.

And in 16 percent of cases, the local police failed to enter the
information into the federal database, as required under federal law,
according to a review of federal data by The New York Times.

Among the 61,452 names that were reported to the National Center for
Missing and Exploited Children from January 2004 to January 2009,
there were about 9,625 instances involving children whose
missing-persons reports were not entered into the N.C.I.C., according
to the review by The Times. If the names are not in the national
database, then only local police agencies know whom to look for.

Police officials give various reasons for not entering the data. The
software is old and cumbersome, they say, or they have limited
resources and need to prioritize their time. In many cases, the police
said, they do not take runaway reports as seriously as abductions, in
part because runaways are often fleeing family problems. The police
also say that entering every report into the federal database could
make a city's situation appear to be more of a problem than it is.

But in 267 of the cases around the nation for which the police did not
enter a report into the database, the children remain missing. In 58,
they were found dead.

"If no one knows they're gone, who is going to look for them?" said
Tray Williams, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Child Services,
whose job it was to take care of 17-year-old Cleveland Randall.

On Feb. 6, Cleveland ran away from his foster care center in New
Orleans and took a bus to Mississippi. His social workers reported him
missing, but the New Orleans police failed to enter the report into
the N.C.I.C. Ten days later, Cleveland was found shot to death in
Avondale, La.

"These kids might as well be invisible if they aren't in N.C.I.C.,"
said Ernie Allen, the director of the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children.

Paradise by Interstate 5

Invisibility, many of the runaways in Medford say, is just what they want.

By midnight, the group decided it was late enough for them to leave
the pool hall and to move around the city discreetly. So they went
their separate ways.

Alex Molnar, 18, took the back alleys to a 24-hour laundry to sleep
under the folding tables. If people were still using the machines, he
planned on locking himself in the restroom, placing a sign on the
front saying "Out of Service."

On the other side of the city, Alex Hughes, 16, took side streets to a
secret clearing along Interstate 5.

On colder nights, he and Clinton Anchors have built a fire in a long
shallow trench, eventually covering it with dirt to create a heated
mound where they could put their blankets.

Building a lean-to with a tarp and sticks, Clinton lifted his voice
above the roar of the tractor-trailers barreling by just feet away. He
said they called the spot "paradise" because the police rarely checked
for them there.

"Even if they do, Betty is not with us, so that's good," he added,
explaining that she had found a friend willing to lend her couch for
the night. "One less thing to worry about."