November is CHOCK-FULL of awareness campaigns, but one of them is of particular note for Boys & Girls Club staff. National Runaway Prevention Month is a good time (though it shouldn’t be the only time!) to stop and learn about the issue of youth who run away from home, and how Clubs can play an important role in preventing it.
According to the National Runaway Safeline, between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away each year. Why do youth run away?
- 47% of runaway/homeless youth indicated that conflict between them and their parent/guardian was a major problem.
- Youth who have previously run away, those who have nontraditional family structures, parental health issues preventing work, or low educational achievement are at increased risk of homelessness.
- 50% of youth in shelters and on the streets said their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn’t care.
- 34% of runaway youth reported sexual abuse and 43% of runaway youth reported physical abuse before leaving home.
- LGBTQ youth run away more likely than heterosexual youth, often due to a lack of acceptance within their families, or being thrown out of the house.
Youth who run away experience negative health and education outcomes. What exactly do they face?
- Running away from home once decreases the likelihood that a youth will graduate from high school by 10%, and running away multiple times decreases the likelihood by 18%.
- Homeless youth are at high risk for involvement in the criminal justice system.
- 80% of runaway and homeless girls report having been sexually and/or physically abused.
- 10% of shelter youth and 28% of street youth report having participated in survival sex, which is the exchange of sex for shelter, food, drugs, or other subsistence needs.
- 22% of runaway and homeless youth have misused prescription drugs within the past 30 days, which in turn makes them more likely to then inject other kinds of drugs.
- LGBTQ homeless youth have twice the rates of sexual victimization on the streets as non-LGBTQ youth, and are more likely to attempt suicide (62%) than their peers (29%).
Are there warning signs we can watch for?
Yes! Youth who are thinking about running away often display similar sets of behaviors. If we’ve done the work of getting to know our youth, we may be able to notice the following:
- Changes in behavior patterns including eating or sleeping significantly more than normal or unusual mood swings.
- A drop in grades, increased absences, and increased rule breaking.
- Accumulation of money or possessions.
- Verbalizing a desire to run away, like saying “I have to get out of that place” or threatening to run away.
What can we do to prevent running away?
Boys & Girls Club and Youth Center staff are in a unique position to prevent running away, as we have a focus on developing supportive relationships with youth. When youth feel a connection with a trusted adult, they may be more likely to go to that adult when they are in crisis. These kinds of one-on-one relationships do not happen overnight, but are the result of the day-to-day work that we do in our Clubhouses. To help build that positive, supportive environment, check out the Positive Club Climate resources on BGCA.net.
The National Runaway Safeline has developed a free evidence-based life skills curriculum with 14 modules called Let’s Talk, available in both English and Spanish. Each module runs about 45 minutes and includes interactive activities and everything program staff need. The curriculum is specifically designed to target the reasons that youth run away, with topics including Communication & Listening, Runaway Reality, Anger Management, Stress Reduction, Future Life Planning, and more. For Clubs who may want to run this program as part of a grant, there are also pre- and post- tests for each module, though I wouldn’t give them ALL, as we don’t want to overwhelm. Consider pulling one or two questions from each module to create your own version.
Even if you don’t run the curriculum, be sure to share the National Runaway Safeline with your youth. They have free 24/7 phone and email lines, as well as a chat line and resources to read on their site and a parents/guardians section. Consider hanging one of their free posters in your Teen Center.
If you want to learn more about youth homelessness, the Department of Health and Human Services has put together lists of recommended books and films. Some may be appropriate to explore with youth, but always have staff prescreen them to be sure.
Remember that Club professionals are mandated to report any suspected abuse of a minor to state child protective services. Call the Child Safety Hotline for Clubs at 1-866-607-SAFE for assistance.