I don’t know about you, but I have never met any child that would choose to run away from home to live the unknown life of homelessness. And yet, kids are making that choice day after day. Their home life is so abusive that they cannot live there another moment. Those kids are trying to survive, and for them, it may mean leaving. Unfortunately, running away from home is a red flag that is ignored time and time again by adults who can help.
My story was not much different. I mention at the end of my last blog post, Discounting Emotional Abuse: Words Are Weaponized, that I eventually left my abusive environment for good twenty-seven years ago this summer. I chose that timing because I turned eighteen that summer and became emancipated. But that did not mean that I didn’t have struggles after that. And before that, I ran away from home many times.
The simple fact that most runaway children are running from an abusive environment is not new. The very first search result when I was Googling information on runaways was a 1986 New York Times article. (see insert) That was thirty-four years ago. The data is old, but the reasons why children flee from their homes has not changed.
The study of 149 youths between the ages of 12 and 20 found that running away was often a symptom of family distress. High levels of conflict and aggression were typical in the families of repetitive runaways, as well as a lack of commitment and mutual support.1
Fleeing is the Only Option
More current data shows that one in seven children aged 10 to 18 years old, will run away from home. The current estimate is that one to three million kids are homeless. The most common reason for running away from home is physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse. Many kids may threaten to leave home, and it is the abused kids that decide to leave. In those cases, the abuse has typically been going on for years.2
I tried to get help and wasn’t able to for years. It got to the point that I felt that I had to take matters into my own hands. I wanted to survive, and I was going to do that any way that I could. And when the stress would get to be too much, I would leave. I would stay away for as long as I could.
No matter where I was, there were always issues. Some of the issues were getting enough to eat, finding places to stay, or just trying to navigate the world without parental guidance. Whatever the issues were facing those was always better than being home.
When I write about stress, I mean that physically crushing pressure like a vise. It never lets up, and when that pressure is on, you can barely breathe. It is a bit like have a constant panic attack. Every single day. There are not many people that can withstand that for extended periods of time. And yet, we expect children to do exactly that.
Going Back to Abuse
I always ended up going home. I would go back so that the police would not get involved. That was the threat my mother would make against whomever I was staying with that worked time and time again. No one wanted to involve the police. I was scared of getting everyone in trouble. And most of all, I didn’t want my mother to get into trouble. No matter how she treated me, I still loved her and wanted to be loved by her.
Contrary to what my family thought, I did not want to cause trouble. Along with feeling bad, I would begin to think I was overreacting. It was those little seeds of doubt taking root. Adults had told me that it couldn’t be that bad, so the logical conclusion was that it was me.
What did I know? I was just a kid. And so home I would go. At first, everything was fine, and then eventually it would escalate again. And I would leave again. It was a cycle that would continuously repeat for the next five years or so.
Discounting Runaways Reasons
I recently read an article about a ten-year-old boy in Washington State that went missing in February 2020. He was found safe. As it turns out, he ran away from home. The reason the caregiver gave was that he was in trouble, and he didn’t want to be there for the punishment. The kid was stockpiling food in the woods and had been planning to run away for a while.3 His decision was not from having to face the consequences of breaking the rules.
As I was reading that article, my alarm bells were going off. Something didn’t sit right with me as I was reading that. It wasn’t just that he ran away. Yes, that is a red flag all by itself. But it was also the things that the caregiver said about his reasons for running away. That he was trying to avoid punishment for breaking the rules. She also said that other people should not help a child to runaway.3 I disagree regarding that statement. But I will go into that in the next post about children running away from abuse.
Apparently my alarm bells were right. I found a subsequent article that the young man and his sisters were removed from the home by child protective services. The young man had told friends that he ran away from home because he was “not being treated right.”4
In the follow-up article the author wrote that he wasn’t “crying wolf” and that there may be validity to his reasons for running away.5 And that right there, the assumption that he was “crying wolf” is a problem. We assume that kids runaway because they don’t want to follow the rules. It was what people thought about me. And because of making assumptions about why a child would run away, we never get to the real issue, and it is then never addressed.
My Advice to Runaways
First, if you are thinking about running away, or if you already have and need help, please reach out to the National Runaway Safeline (NRS). I gave up on anyone helping me in an official capacity. I did eventually have help and support but never officially. I regret giving up on that avenue. It sucks that you have to advocate for yourself. Once you get help, you will have others advocating for you.
Ask for and accept help. Asking for and receiving help is a constant learning situation for me. Don’t worry too much about it, ask first, and worry about things later. I grew up not trusting that anyone would ever do what they said they were going to do, and that came with me into my adult life. Looking back, I wish I had asked for help instead of waiting for someone to notice that I needed it.
You are not alone, even though I know that you feel like you are. I incorporated being on my own into my armor and wore it proudly. Being on my own was the last thing I wanted to be. Here is a little secret that took me a long time to figure out, no one succeeds alone. I certainly didn’t. I had help all along the way.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I was getting help. But now looking back, there were people there watching out for me. Sometimes that help came from the unlikeliest of places. Like the teacher who gave me twenty dollars so that I could get food. Be on the lookout for those people who are going to be in your corner. They are there, and you might not even realize it.
What Can You Do?
The best way you can help that person to get in touch with professional services. The National Runaway Safeline is an excellent resource for both runaways and those looking to help them.
Unfortunately, the law is not on the side of the adult trying to help a child who has run away or is thinking about it. Listen to that child, don’t deny what they are telling you, and encourage them to seek help.
- Glen Collins. “Study Finds that Abuse Causes Children to Flee.” The New York Times. February 10, 1986. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/02/10/style/study-finds-that-abuse-causes-children-to-flee.html. Accessed August 13, 2020.
- Bijana Adamovic. “Running away from home – reasons why children do it.” Kids First Community. September 3, 2014. https://www.kidsfirstcommunity.com/running-away-from-home-reasons-why-children-do-it/ Accessed August 13, 2020.
- KOMO News Staff. “Missing 10-year old Mason County runaway found safe.” KOMO News. February 18, 2020. https://komonews.com/news/local/missing-10-year-old-boy-likely-ran-away-getting-help-from-friends Accessed August 13, 2020.
- Shawn Goggins. “Child Protective Services remove local boy and siblings from home he ran away from.” iFiber One News. http://www.ifiberonenewsradio.com/news/child-protective-services-remove-local-boy-and-siblings-from-home/article_df3d9498-5367-11ea-bf06-a3411a18cd8a.html Accessed August 17, 2020.