Written by Patricia Martin, Second Life of Chattanooga
November is National Runaway Prevention Month in the United States. This is the month that we are all asked to create and raise awareness about the issue of runaways in our country. However, very few people even realize that this is still an issue or the reasons why children might choose to live on the street as opposed to their own homes. There is a strong misconception that children leave home because they are choosing to be defiant. Far more are the cases where a child is being victimized or abused and they are choosing to run from their abuser.
Based on research completed in 2002 on runaway and thrown away children in the United States, between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth (children 12-17) runaway each year. Additionally, this age group of children is at higher risk for homelessness than adults, per the same study. Of these youth that run away, 70% of them reported abuse as their reason for running away. This included physical and sexual abuse at home and the fear that abuse would continue if they returned.
Unfortunately, this abuse that leads to the child leaving home puts them at greater risk for abuse and exploitation on the street. Instead of finding solace or security on their own, many of these teens find only more adults willing to continue their abuse. Approximately 10% of the teens that sought refuge in a shelter and 28% of those that did not reported engaging in “survival sex” after running away. Survival sex includes sex in exchange for shelter, food, drugs or subsistence needs. Additional studies have found that among girls who run away from home, those that have been sexually abused previously are at greater risk for being sexually victimized while on the street.
These statistics are staggering. Even more so for me, as I was raised in a home where such abuse was common and raised with sisters who chose to leave home rather than continue to suffer such abuse. At the young age of 13 and 15, my sisters chose to leave home and make their way on their own. What they found when they left home, however, was not help. It was far worse than what they expected. But somehow, the idea of coming home was still not an option. The thought of returning to the abuse that caused them to leave in the first place was not considered. They would rather have taken whatever it was they were dealt on the street than come home.
It’s easy for me to see, from this perspective, how a runaway becomes a victim of human trafficking. These children already believe that they have no value. They believe this because the people who were supposed to love and nurture them told them with abuse that they have no worth. Now they find themselves alone, on the street, struggling to figure out how they are going to eat and where they will stay.
Someone who feels themselves worthless is apt to allow others to treat them that way also. So they give themselves away for food or money. Many of them find themselves in the hands of a person who initially told them they wanted to help them only to find that this person only wants to exploit them.
Or, in many cases, the exploiter found the child before they ever even left home. On the internet, on Facebook, on the multitude of social networking sites available to teenagers in this age. They sought the children out, lured them away from their situation and the child immediately entered the world of human trafficking – where they are now being sold. Less than human – less than a person – again.
So, what do we do with this information? Like most of the information we deal with around the issue of human trafficking, it seems like so much to handle. Too big to do anything about. But it isn’t. I encourage you, if you feel compelled by this issue to reach out to this list of shelters in our area. Find out what you can do to help these kids who just need someone to tell them they are not worthless. They are not alone. Regardless of what has been done to them or even what they have done to themselves, they are loved. They are valued.
And most importantly, be aware. Know what you are looking at when you see a kid alone on the street. Talk to others about what it is we are seeing on our streets when we see kids selling themselves for someone else’s profit. No one leaves home with the hope of becoming a prostitute. It’s all trafficking. And our job of creating awareness won’t be finished until they are all off the street.
Statistics obtained from: