On a recent evening, an unexpected knock on my study window in the back of the house brought me face to face with the problem of runaway teenagers.
A young girl in her early teens, clad in not-too-clean clothes, begged to be let in. Instead, I met her in front of the house.
Waiting for police to arrive, we talked in the driveway. She had run away from a nearby group home for troubled teens, she told me. She said she had run away at least 30 times in the past three years. Somehow, every place she was sent annoyed her to the point she thought her only option was to run away.
Her mother died a year ago, she told me. She wanted to live with her father, who had lived with his girlfriend near Dayton but had moved recently. She said she did not know how to contact him. But he had not been attentive to her, she told me, and had no use for her.
She was more confused than rebellious. Alternating between delusion and reality, she thought of living in some impenetrable forest where people would not be able to find her to impose their laws and their dos and don'ts on her.
I asked how she would live in a forest. "I would become part of the creatures and make friends with them," she replied. "I would fashion hunting tools and forage in the forest for food."
A delusional state of mind ignores the perils of venturing into the real world, where predators lurk around every bend and a helpless, confused child is easy prey.
I did not ask whether she had encountered the cruelty, brutality, and loss of innocence that so many of our troubled teens face and endure. Whether such encounters had left any deep and ugly scars in her psyche, I could not tell. It was obvious from her demeanor, though, that she was troubled.
We all are aware of the problem of runaway teens. We read about them in the newspaper, or hear on radio or television when the life of a young runaway is snuffed out. More often, we see their pictures staring at us from milk cartons or from the back of 18-wheelers.
Sometimes we are lulled by a story of a runaway, troubled child who is found and reunited with those who really care. But on the whole, the numbers are staggering and sobering.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, estimates that 800,000 youths are reported missing annually in the United States. Some organizations put the numbers as high as 2.8 million missing youths a year.
An estimated 40 percent of these youths are not runaways but castoffs; parents or custodians throw them out for various reasons. In our country, one out of every seven teens ends up running away.
There is a long list of reasons: bullying at school or in the neighborhood, substance abuse, pregnancy, sexual and physical abuse at home, mental illness, an overwhelming need to seek attention, sexual orientation, a desire to follow a friend who has run away.
Another ugly statistic is that one-third of such youths attempt suicide. Most are victims of sexual and physical abuse.
Not surprisingly, four out of 10 such kids come from families trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, public assistance, and domestic abuse.
As a society, we have not been able to address effectively the problem of runaway youths. Public funds are available and organizations try to help.
But if success is measured by bringing these kids back into the mainstream as citizens, we have failed. A few success stories here and there are heartwarming, but they cannot camouflage our inability to solve this problem.
The police arrived after 45 minutes (ever heard of a suicide hot line that put a distressed caller on hold?) and took the girl back to the group home.
What more could I have done? What more could we as a society do?
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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