UA institute finds grim statistics at teen shelter

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Nearly half of the girls who showed up at the Covenant House shelter in Anchorage had been sexually abused, according to a study of statistical data by the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Researchers at the Institute of Social and Economic Research examined 10 years of data at Covenant House, which serves 13- to 20-year-olds of both sexes.

Nearly a third of the girls or young women seeking services already had children of their own or were pregnant.

Increasing numbers of clients came from rural Alaska. Whether from rural or urban areas, only a few had a high school diploma.

"This is the bottom. We are looking at about as difficult as life can get," said lead researcher Stephanie Martin.

About 1,000 youths stayed at least one night at the shelter last budget year. Covenant House provides counseling, medical services, family mediation, street outreach and help with education and jobs. It offers longer-term housing for young adults and pregnant girls or new parents.

The study was based on youths who wanted services beyond a place to sleep for the night, an average of 378 per year.

Many who stayed faced multiple difficulties: mental illness, teen pregnancy, no job, no diploma, trouble with the law. More than a third who turned to Covenant House in 2008 came more than once.

"They have nothing. No money. No family. No resources. No job," Martin said.

Some were too old to stay in foster care. Others came from treatment centers, hospitals or jail. One-third of those age 13 to 17 had spent the previous night at their parents' home, and 40 percent had been staying with another relative or adult, the study showed.

Covenant House mediates with families as a first course of action. But, "a majority of the kids that we see, there's trouble at home," said director Deirdre Cronin. "There are some that are coming from great homes and making bad choices. That's a minority."

Ten years ago, almost all came from Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. About seven in 10 still do, but as of 2008, nearly a third came from other areas, including rural Alaska or other states.

Many from rural Alaska originally stayed with relatives but moved on, Martin said. Teens left villages for the same reasons as adults: a quest for work or school or to escape the high cost of living.

Most of the rural teens are Alaska Native. From 1999 to 2008, the number of Native youths at the shelter nearly doubled from 75 to 133. Now, four in 10 of the teens there are Native.

Overall, many of the youths have serious mental illness. Medical records showed that almost 40 percent had been in residential psychiatric treatment.

Not all the findings in the study were bleak. Fewer 13- to 17-year-olds were ending up at the shelter. More 18- to 20-year-olds finished high school or obtained an equivalency degree.

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