Legalities of Runaways
I didn’t think about the legalities of running away back then. I was desperate, and escaping was the only way I could get respite. The world, and the laws that govern it, are not designed for abused kids. Especially those kids who use running away as a means to get out of their abusive situation. Even if only for a moment.
It is especially frustrating being in a system of law that requires parents to be legally responsible for their minor children. I don’t have an issue with that, per se, it does make sense. Children need guidance and someone to take care of them until they can do that on their own.
What doesn’t make sense is when those parents are abusing their children, and the abuser is legally required to have oversight of that child. The abuser will use that as a tool against that child seeking shelter in other places. My abuser used the law to get me to come home, keep me home, for a bit, and to threaten me. I stopped staying with friends because I didn’t want their parents to get in trouble. And so I slept in unsafe places as I wrote in Runaways: A Plea for Help.
A runaway is a minor (under the age of eighteen) who leaves home without the parent’s or guardians’ permission and is gone from the home overnight.1
Who Are We Really Helping?
When I was Googling and researching current statistics and trends with runaways, I noticed that most of the search results were resources for parents and caregivers. There are resources for children, but the first ones that come up are for parents and guardians. I am glad those resources are there for those parents who have the introspection to realize that they need assistance. But how many parents actually have that? In my experience, not many.
Those resources for parents and caregivers are not useful when the parent or caregiver is the abuser. Especially when you factor in that most abusive parents do not believe that they are abusive. My father denies that he ever sexually abused me. And my mother certainly did not think that she was emotionally abusive.
Why are there laws that enforce (to an extent) parents being responsible for their children? Why is it that the goal of most social services programs is to keep families together? I will tell you why I think those programs and laws are failing. There is no way for society to handle the staggering numbers of abused children. In part because we don’t want to believe that parents and caregivers would act in ways contrary to the benefit of their children.
In most states, running away is not a crime; however, runaways and their parents or guardians can face legal consequences. Adults who encourage or hide runaways can be charged with a crime.1
Preventing the Wrong Outcome
In early 2018 Trump signed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which prioritizes keeping families together. Yes, the family would be receiving at-home parenting classes, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment, and puts limits on placing children in settings like group homes. It is not even an overhaul of the foster care system as the author states, but a complete gutting of it, with no plans on renovation.2
The act is working towards a more preventative solution. Which, usually, I am all for. But my interpretation is that it is preventing kids from going into foster or group homes, not preventing the abuse from happening. I read that it is really a cost-savings measure, not anything actually to protect children.
I don’t think that all children should go into foster care or group homes. If there is a chance to save the family unit, then it should be done. But to put on blinders and work only towards keeping the family unit intact is short-sighted at best. The issue with crises such as abuse is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Speaking as an abuse survivor, I would have seen this as putting a band-aid on a broken leg. The damage had been done already. I would have scoffed at any help offered. Not because I didn’t think it was needed, but the person who needed it the most would never have engaged.
Validating Runaway’s Reasons
Okay, so the data tells us a story about abusive homes resulting in children running away. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Or maybe it does for the majority, but there are still those that slip through the cracks. The system developed to protect children is underfunded and overworked. What does that leave us?
It leaves us with something that doesn’t cost money. And that is, validating those kids’ experiences. What is validation, and how do we do it? “Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable.”3
There are six levels of validation. For this post, I am only going to write about the first one, because validation is going to be a whole blog post at some point. The first level of validation is being present.4 I am raising my head that over the last several years, I have not been good at being present. I worked a lot and was always on my phone. I wasn’t present for anyone, not even myself. Our lives pull us in a million different directions, and most of us are never present.
Being present is putting your phone away. I know, the horror of such a thing, but I know you can do it. Then look at the person or people that you are talking to and really hear what they have to say. That is the active listening component of being present.
Kids, runaway or otherwise, only want to be seen and heard. Sometimes that is all it takes to help them. I still wanted to leave home because I was definitely not getting any validation there. But having someone who really heard me, who took the time to listen and not pass judgment, that would have made, and eventually did, make all of the difference in the world.
I still remember the first time that Jean, an older woman who eventually took me in, heard me. She validated my experiences and realized how bad it was for me. She helped me to put words to what I was going through. Words like ’emotional abuse’ and ‘dysfunction.’ She was the first person to tell me that I was living in an abusive environment. And that it was not my fault. Tears are welling up now as I write this. I am ever grateful for what she did for me. She simply was being present.
What Can You Do?
Being present is a great start, and you may pick up on cues that you didn’t see or hear before. If someone is in danger than getting them to a safe place is the priority. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has nationwide resources to get people to a safe place. Whether or not someone is in imminent danger, getting them connecting to the resources that they need is a life changer.
- Stacy Barrett. “Runaway Teenagers.” Criminal Defense Lawyer. https://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/crime-penalties/juvenile/running-away.htm Accessed August 13, 2020.
- Teresa Wiltz. “When Trump signed spending bill, he signed into law a huge overhaul of foster care.” USA Today. May 5, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/05/05/foster-care-family-first-prevention-services-act-trump/573560002/ Accessed August 18, 2020.
- Karyn Hall Ph.D. “Understanding Validation: A Way to Communicate Acceptance.” Psychology Today. April 26, 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pieces-mind/201204/understanding-validation-way-communicate-acceptance. Accessed August 19, 2020.
- Karyn Hall Ph.D. “Understanding the Levels of Validation.” February 5, 2010. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/02/understanding-the-levels-of-validation/#:~:text=Marsha%20Linehan%2C%20Ph.,overestimate%20the%20importance%20of%20validation.&text=Linehan%20suggests%20using%20the%20highest,you%20can%20in%20any%20situation. Accessed August 19, 2020.