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Updated 10:00 AM July 10, 2006




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Abducted children, not runaways, have become public priority

People today are likely to pay more attention to child abductions than runaways, leaving outdated and ill-serving public programs to address that persistent issue, a U-M professor says.

"Public panic is more likely stirred by reports of abducted youth or prostituting youth than runaway behavior," says Karen Staller, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. "The problem has not disappeared, but the framing of it has shifted in reaction to its initial conceptualization."

Many of today's policies and practices to protect runaway youth date back more than 40 years. The advocacy group National Network for Youth estimates that 1.6 million to 2.3 million youths run away from home every year. Staller's research starts with data from the early 1960s as the wave of baby boomers turned 13. By 1967, the first of these boomers reached 21.

"There were many youths leaving home and transitioning from childhood to adulthood," Staller says. "Not surprisingly, conversations about leaving home as a matter of life course and leaving home prematurely—as in running away—began to twine in public discourses, including policy arenas and in mainstream press."

Running away was characterized as a private family matter in the early 1960s, Staller says. When it became a public problem later in the decade, communities inundated with runaway youths developed innovative and sometimes controversial programs to serve them. These alternative providers began operating facilities such as Covenant House in New York City, Huckleberry House in San Francisco and Ozone House in Ann Arbor to address the needs of wandering youngsters, initially without the support of law enforcement, child welfare authorities, family court judges and others normally responsible for unsupervised youth.

These agencies served as a bridge between traditional authorities, whose service interventions tended to be imposed by adults, and counterculture crash pads and services where youth accessed resources themselves, she says. Growing concern for youths' constitutionally protected civil rights, coupled with the judicial system's growing discomfort with policing the moral and civic education of youths, led to increasing numbers of troubled children appearing on the streets, Staller says. It also prompted the enactment of federal runaway youth legislation, including the Runaway Youth Act of 1974, which endorsed the alternative-service model.

Amendments to the Runaway Youth Act have led to the voluntary sector being asked to serve as an alternative for increasingly troubled youths, as more traditional public service providers such as schools, mental health facilities and child protective services are excused from responsibility, she says.

Staller looks at the construction of this social problem and the responses that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in her new book, "Runaways: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped Today's Practices and Policies." For more information on Staller, visit

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