Juneau runaways young, vulnerable

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2001

Even with no roads out of town, Juneau has its share of runaway kids.

Runaways average five a month, said social worker Jefty Prather of the Southeast office of the state Division of Family and Youth Services. "It's a national problem, and Juneau tries very hard to deal with it."

Runaways fall into three main groups: those abused at home, those not welcome at home and those who are welcome at home but choose not to live there, Prather said.

Two March 5 shift reports from the Juneau Police Department give glimpses of the scenarios parents face.

3:45 p.m.: Request to Locate, for a girl, 13, last seen at the Zach Gordon Youth Center. She was reported missing by Cornerstone (an emergency shelter that offers mediation and a safe environment) and police are asked to return her there if she is spotted.

10 p.m.: A woman, 40, calls about her son,13. The son had given his older sister a black eye, called the mother and sister names, refused to go to bed when asked, and threatened to kill the cat five times. The youth is arrested for fourth-degree domestic violence assault and lodged at Johnson Youth Center, the juvenile jail.

Prather has worked in child welfare for two decades. He recalls a case in Texas where a father shaved his daughter's head to keep her home. Prather's supervisor did not consider this a parental right. Parents have the right to persuade but not to bruise, disfigure, starve, enslave or imprison.

"Some kids run because they are being mistreated in their homes. When we are made aware, we conduct an investigation," Prather said.

If children are indeed mistreated, they may be removed from parental custody and placed in foster homes. Child Support Enforcement collects up to one-quarter of a parent's gross income for child support in such cases.

On the other hand, there are children who don't behave. "There is a group of kids here who don't like to be told what to do," Prather said. Sometimes the solution is a cooling-off period, a remediation program and/or counseling. Kids may cool off at Cornerstone for a few days or three to four weeks.

But Cornerstone is not a flop house, Prather said. "If they are hungry or need clean clothes, they can go to Cornerstone. But there are rules there, too," he said.

Although runaway teens are the most visible in Juneau and glean the most attention, there are also younger cases, Prather said. Typically these youngsters are on the street because of abuse and neglect; Mom and Dad don't care where they are.

"They go to a friend's house and don't want to go home. Or they say to a teacher, 'I wish I could go home with you.' " Vulnerable younger kids may drift into party houses where the welcome is warm, Prather said.

"Parties are always going on. People who give alcohol and drugs to children are pond scum. Girls get taken advantage of when they are high," he said.

"We have a 9- or 10-year old here today. In the five years I have been doing this," said Nat Milner, emergency services program coordinator at Cornerstone, "the kids have been getting younger. And we are dealing with a lot more mental illness."

Middle-school-age kids are "really tough" to deal with, Milner said, "because they feel they know everything about everything and they are not afraid to tell you."

"Some of these kids have been through seven or eight foster homes, and when they come here, they see me again. We try to build relationships. We try to treat everyone as an individual. Sometimes parents drop them off; sometimes police drop them off; sometimes they come in on their own. Then we try to figure everything out," Milner said. "Are they running away because they don't want to do their homework or pick up their rooms - or are there real reasons?"

At 18, kids have the legal right to live on their own. If kids are not mentally able to steer themselves, DFYS can help until age 19. "But state authority ends at 19," Prather said.

"Police know the habitual runaways here like the back of their hands. They feel comfortable taking them to Cornerstone. Cornerstone saves our rumps on Friday evenings. But just running and staying away from parents isn't against the law," Prather said.

Prather is encouraged that many approaches to the runaway conundrum are in place, such as Youth Court, which exerts positive peer influence on first-time juvenile offenders, holding them accountable for their actions.

"A lot of solutions are good because no one is going to fit any one kid," Prather said. "Schools do what they can, but Alaska law says that at 16 kids don't have to go to school."

In the last two years, there has been an increase in runaway girls, especially in the 13- and 14-year-old bracket.

"Maybe they don't like being home because Mom is drunk or Dad has placed them on restriction for the rest of their life. But it is so easy for those disreputable individuals to take advantage."

The Mayor's Task Force on Youth has begun to examine the runaway issue, said task force member Mary Becker, president of the Juneau School Board.

"We just started talking about this. We are concerned. We are collecting information from the 18 agencies represented on the task force and getting each of them to give us suggestions," Becker said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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