Allison Ashe, Renee Unterman: House Needs to Pass Runaway Bill Now

Allison Ashe, Executive Director of Covenant House Georgia, and state Sen. Renee Unterman tell us what’s wrong with the current law on runaways and why the House needs to pass an updated version, H.B. 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, now.Allison Ashe, Executive Director of Covenant House Georgia, and state Sen. Renee Unterman

Four months after her 15th birthday Natalie ran away from home, fleeing the sexual advances of her mother’s new boyfriend.  A few days later, local law enforcement picked her up and returned her to her mother. The Division of Family and Children’s Services came to investigate. Upon finding no actual physical abuse, the mother and daughter were left to sort out a very complicated situation alone. Natalie ran again, and this time, fearing another visit from the state, her mother did not call for help.

That was almost four years ago.

Since then, Natalie’s story has taken many dark turns. For the first several months she was able to find refuge with the parents of friends, but when her welcome ran out she found herself on the streets of Atlanta. She spent time hiding in parks, under bridges, in gym locker rooms after closing time, and anywhere she felt she would not be noticed.

Unable to find shelter or food, Natalie was thankful when a seemingly friendly young man approached her and offered her a place to stay. He was a good caretaker and boyfriend at first, but then he asked her to help pay her way by providing sexual favors to his friends, thus beginning the sexual exploitation and abuse that will likely haunt her for the rest of her life. Just a few days after her 18th birthday, Natalie found her way to Covenant House Georgia, where she was given shelter, food, counseling, protection and the hope that she could leave the darkness of her past behind.

Children like Natalie often see the worst side of our best efforts to help them. They grow up with parents unable or unwilling to meet their needs or quick to raise a hand in anger. They see a child protection system that failed to reach them in the moments when they needed it the most. And when they give up on waiting for those around them for help, they leave home in search of something better only to find that even those organizations that would like to protect them are unable to as a result of state law.

With nowhere to go but the streets and without food or shelter, these children become easy targets for sexual exploitation and recruitment into the commercial sex industry.

A report by the National Runaway Switchboard shows that approximately half of runaways in the United States leave home because of family abuse and conflict. Once on the streets, however, they often find little relief from abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, within 48 hours of running away, youth are likely to be approached to participate in prostitution or another form of commercial exploitation. Nearly a third of children who flee home or are kicked out of their homes each year, eventually engage in sex in exchange for food, drugs or a place to stay, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Studies have conclusively linked running away to commercial sexual exploitation.

Georgia is certainly not immune to these problems.  Each year the state’s courts handle approximately 2,600 cases involving runaways. While the abuse that leads them to run away is similar to what runaways experience around the country, it is possible they are even more likely to encounter exploitation here in Georgia because state law is preventing shelters from serving them.

Under our current law, it is a misdemeanor to assist children who have run away because it may contribute to their continued status as a runaway and interfere with parental custody. While the law does not specifically mention shelters and was likely intended to serve as an instrument to protect children from predators, it is written so broadly that it can be used against the very organizations that seek to protect runaways. As a result, shelters face a tough choice: Risk criminal prosecution for protecting runaways or turn away children at their door knowing they often become victims on the street.

While these laws focus on runaway youth, the tragedy extends beyond those children who decide they must leave home. Children who are kicked out of their homes by their parents are turned away as well because shelters cannot reliably distinguish between a child who has run away and a child who has been thrown out. Regardless of the reasons that place a child on the street, they are just as likely to become the victims of sexual exploitation when shelters are prevented from opening their doors to them before their 18th birthday.

To help address this problem, state Rep. Tom Weldon has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that will help get runaways off the streets and into safe, temporary shelter.

The Runaway Youth Safety Act allows shelters to provide emergency services to runaway youth without fear of criminal liability. The Act provides a limited exemption from criminal liability for registered or licensed service providers that contact a child’s legal guardian within 72 hours of the child’s acceptance of services or make a child abuse report pursuant to the mandatory reporter statute.

If the child’s parent cannot be reached or if the child will not disclose his or her parent’s name, DFCS must be contacted within 72 hours. Since Georgia does not have a statewide reporting system for runaway and missing children, the Act also provides one of the only mechanisms for heartsick parents to locate their children.

The State Report Card on Child Homelessness tells us Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in child homelessness.

We can do better. Natalie needed better. The Georgia General Assembly needs to pass HB 185 and open the doors to shelters for the safety of our children.