Differences and predictors of family reunification among subgroups of runaway youths using shelter services.
Key words: families; runaway youths; typology; throwaway youths; youth services
Runaway youths remain one of the most needy and understudied adolescent populations (Kipke, Montgomery, Simon, & Iverson, 1997; Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Ackley, 1997). Estimates suggest that the number of these youths is increasing and, that between 575,000 and 1 million youths in the United States run away or are forced to leave their parental homes each year (Finkelhor, Hotaling, & Sedlak, 1990; Greene, Ringwalt, Kelly, Iachan, & Cohen, 1995; Herin & Rudy, 1991). Research has shown that these youths often have a variety of problems, such as school failure, substance abuse, criminality, and unprotected sexual activity (Greene, Ringwalt, & Iachan, 1997). These troubled adolescents come from diverse, multiproblem living situations and give many reasons for running away or leaving their homes (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Yoder, 1999). They frequently report high levels of family conflict, including parental abuse, criminality, and substance abuse (Kipke, Palmer, LaFrance, & O'Connor, 1997; Stiffman, 1989; Whitbeck et al., 1997). In addition, these families have histories of unstable housing situations and often are characterized as emotionally unavailable and lacking effective parenting skills (Bass, 1992; Whitbeck et al., 1999).
Because runaway adolescents typically lack the skills and education necessary to obtain and maintain gainful employment, they often are forced into prostitution, drug dealing, and other criminal behavior to survive (Greene et al., 1997). Life on the street also can have "deadly consequences" because these adolescents are at significantly increased risk of serious health problems such as malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, and premature death resulting from suicide, murder, and drug overdose (Powers, Eckenrode, & Jaklitsch, 1990).
To disentangle the heterogeneity of this population, researchers have divided runaway youths into three categories (Bass, 1992; Ringwalt, Green, & Robertson, 1998; Zide & Cherry, 1992). A recent study confirmed the distinctiveness of these subgroups and encouraged future research focusing on developing services and interventions specific to these unique groups of youths (Zide & Cherry):
* runaway-homeless youths--stay away from home at least overnight without the permission or knowledge of their parents or guardians
* throwaway youths--leave home because their parents have encouraged them to leave or have locked them out of the house
* independent youths--feel that they have no home to return to because of irreconcilable conflicts with their families, have lost contact with their families, or have families that are homeless (Bass; Kurtz, Jarvis, & Kurtz, 1991).
Community-based youth shelters are the primary method of intervention designed to meet the complex needs of adolescents who leave home before possessing skills to live autonomously. These shelters provide a variety of crisis and custodial services and have a stated mission to reunify youths with their families or to teach them the skills to live independently and reduce the likelihood of involvement in high-risk behaviors (Johnson, Farquhar, & Sussman, 1996; Shane, 1989).
Once discharged from youth shelters, more than one-half (53 percent) of the runaway youths return to their parent's home (Bass, 1992). Although youths report difficulties in their homes, recent studies have shown that those who reunify with their families have more positive outcomes than those finding housing in other locations leaving the shelter. In an exploratory study of homeless or runaway youths in a large Midwestern city, researchers found that youths who returned to their parental homes after a shelter stay reported more positive outcomes in school, employment, self-esteem, criminal behavior, and family relationships than adolescents discharged to other locations (Thompson, Pollio, & Bitner, 2000). Similarly, other research has demonstrated that youths who failed to reunify with their families had longer shelter stays, increased hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors; reported more family problems; and had a more pessimistic view of the future than those who returned to their families (Teare, Furst, Peterson, & Authier, 1992; Teare et al., 1994).
In 1997 an Amendment to Title III of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (P.L. 103-382) was passed mandating a national reporting system for youth services agencies. In response, the Runaway/Homeless Youth Management Information System (RHYMIS) was created. This comprehensive, computerized information system was developed to help Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantees nationwide collect and maintain program data on runaway and homeless youths. RHYMIS was designed to provide comprehensive information concerning youth demographics, personal characteristics and problems, and family information.
Methodological limitations of research with this population include small sample sizes, recruitment from single nonrepresentative shelters or street locations, and no control or comparison groups. In an effort to address some of these issues, an analysis of the RHYMIS data for 1997 was conducted. Building on earlier research that suggested that adolescents who return home have more successful short-term outcomes than youths who leave the shelter for other living situations, this analysis pursued two research questions: (1) What are the differences among subgroups of runaways (runaway-homeless, throwaway, and independent) who obtain shelter services? (2) What youth demographics, personal characteristics, and family factors predict youths' return home? Recognizing the multiple reasons for runaway behavior and the youths' history of problem behaviors, identification of characteristics associated with youths' reunification with family may be useful in designing and improving services that target the unique needs of some of the United States' most disadvantaged and underserved adolescents.
Data and Sample
RHYMIS data from fiscal year 1997 were used in this study. Program staff of federally funded youth shelters nationwide collect demographic data (for example, age, ethnicity, gender, and living situation), information concerning personal characteristics (for example, employment and school status, juvenile justice issues, and drug and alcohol use), and family-household problems (for example, parent's employment and abuse or neglect issues). Demographic information typically is gathered during the intake interview with the youth, and more sensitive information is collected during the youth's stay, at the time of discharge, or from family members.
From the original 84,846 records compiled from participating agencies across the United States during 1997, duplicate records were eliminated (n = 18,861,22 percent). Only cases that were designated by the agencies as runaway-homeless, throwaway, or independent were included; all other categories (living at home, in institutional facility, or elsewhere at admission) were excluded (n = 44,209, 52 percent). Cases also were deleted if data were missing on the dependent variable (discharge location) and key independent variables, such as youth demographics and personal and family characteristics. The most notable missing data were variables measuring youths' alcohol and drug use; approximately 5 percent (n = 3,986) of the remaining cases had missing data on these variables. This process of data reduction produced a final subsample of 17,790 cases.
To test for the representativeness of this subsample compared with the larger, original sample, t test and chi-square analyses were conducted. When demographics (age, gender, and ethnicity) of the final sample were compared with the original sample, significant differences were found on gender and ethnicity. The runaway subsample included a higher proportion of females [[chi square] (2, N = 61,980) = 105.56, p [is less than or equal to] .001] and ethnic minority youths [[chi square] 2(9, N = 62,674) = 144.39, p [is less than or equal to] .001] than the original sample. However, the percentages found in this subsample are similar to previous studies based solely on runaway youths (for example, Bass, 1992; Kurtz et al., 1991). The youths not designated as runaway-homeless, throwaway, or independent represent a service-using group that does not necessarily fit definitions of runaway youths. Instead, they represent obvious differences between service-using and nonservice-using high-risk youth populations.
Analyses were conducted by dividing the sample into three subgroups (runaway-homeless, throwaway, or independent) and analyzing each group separately. Because analyses focused on determining the specific characteristics that might predict whether the youths returned home, a dichotomous dependent variable (home = 1, elsewhere = 0) was used.
The independent predictor variables included youth demographics, personal characteristics, and family characteristics. The factors chosen for analyses from the RHYMIS dataset were based on findings from previous research indicating that youths' demographics, educational characteristics, criminal behavior, substance abuse, and parental conflict are related to runaway behavior (Greene et al., 1995; Bass, 1992; Kurtz et al., 1991; Ringwalt et al., 1998). In addition, parental characteristics, such as substance abuse, physical abuse, and neglect of the youth also have been associated with runaway youths' problems (Kipke, Montgomery et al., 1997; Stiffman, 1989; Whitbeck et al., 1997). The variables chosen from the RHYMIS dataset reflected these relevant factors.
Independent variables from the RHYMIS are coded as dichotomous or categorical, except age and number of times ran away. Youth demographics included years of age, ethnicity (1 = white, 2 = black, 3 = Native American or Alaskan Native, 4 = Asian or Pacific Islander, 5 = Hispanic), school status (1 = attend regularly, 2 = graduate/GED, 3 = attend irregularly, 4 = dropped out), employment status (yes/ no), poor grades (yes/no), primary living situation in past six months (1 = with parents, 2 = with another adult/foster care, 3 = institutional facilities, group home, transitional care, independent living program, 4 = independent, 5 = psychiatric facility, 6 = correctional facility, 7 = other), number of times ran away, and legal guardian (1 = parent, 2 = other adult relative or friend or foster parent, 3 = child welfare/juvenile justice or Department of Social Services or Department of Juvenile Services). Each set was dummy-coded with the first variable listed as the "reference" category.
Personal characteristics were described as whether (coded yes/no) the adolescent had problems in specific areas, including problems in the household (problems between parents, youth wanting to live with other parent), problems with the criminal or juvenile justice system (on probation, victim of crime, problems with prostitution, charged with misdemeanor, problems with immigration issues), problems with housing (forced to leave previous residence), and problems with drugs (ever used stimulants, depressants, more than two drugs on one occasion, or ever sold drugs).
Family characteristics were identified as variables that measured behaviors or problems with the youth's father or mother figure (coded yes/no). These variables included parents' employment, youth problems with foster home, and physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect by parental figures.
Methods of Analysis
To examine significant differences among these groups of youths, chi-square and ANOVA tests were calculated among the subgroups of youths (runaway-homeless, throwaway, and independent) on their demographic and personal characteristics. To examine the predictive power of each group of variables (youth demographics, personal characteristics, and family factors) on the dependent variable (returning home), maximum likelihood logistic regression analyses were used. Nominal-level predictor variables with more than two categories were transformed into dummy variables and assigned reference categories. Categorical variables yield odds ratios (ORs) that are more easily interpretable and reflect the likelihood of a positive response relative to a defined reference category after controlling for all the other effects included in the model. For this study, the ORs reflected the likelihood of specific independent variables predicting the youths' reunification with their families. Each group of independent variables (demographics, personal characteristics, and family characteristics) was entered into a logistic regression model separately and calculated on each subgroup of youths (runaway-homeless, throwaway, independent). To compensate for the large sample size, a more conservative criteria was used to identify significance (p [is less than or equal to] .01). The independent variables in each group that remained significant were entered into a combined model, and a final logistic regression model was calculated for each subsample predicting youth reunification.
Total Sample Demographics
The final sample included in this study (n = 17,790) represents youths who received services at federally funded youth shelters and had been classified as runaway-homeless (44.9 percent) throwaway (44.5 percent), or independent (10.6 percent). The overall sample averaged 15 ([+ or -] 1.6) years of age, and more than half were female (58 percent). Although a majority of these adolescents were white (57 percent), a large percentage were African American (24 percent) or Latino American (13 percent). Fewer than half had attended school regularly (46 percent), and many had dropped out (15 percent). A small percentage reported being employed either part-time or full-time (9 percent). About one-half (52 percent) of the respondents indicated that they had used illegal drugs or sold drugs (18 percent). The majority of these youths (72 percent) had been living predominately at home during the year before seeking shelter services; however, they reported living with parents (44 percent) or another adult (23 percent) before entering the shelter. The youths had run away an average of three ([+ or -] 6.2) times (range = 1-99). In terms of abuse by their parents, 18 percent reported being physically abused by their fathers and 15 percent by their mothers. A small percentage reported being sexually abused by fathers (5 percent) and mothers (1 percent).
Differences among Groups
Analyses indicated that these three groups of youths were significantly different across demographic and other important characteristics (Table 1). Runaway-homeless youths were predominately female (67 percent), white (64 percent), and had been living primarily with parents (82 percent). These youths had run away more often (M = 3.6 [+ or -] 5.8) than throwaway (M = 2.8 [+ or -] 6.6) or independent youth (M = 2.1 [+ or -] 5.4) and more frequently identified their parent as legal guardian (84 percent). A higher percentage of runaway-homeless youths had used drugs (64 percent) and had been physically abused by their fathers (19 percent) than the other groups.
TABLE 1--Sample Characteristics of Runaway--Homeless, Throwaway, and Independent Youths Runaway-Homeless Throwaway (N = 7,985) (N = 7,909) Characteristic % n % n Age (M, SD) 15.4 1.5 15.5 1.7 Gender Male 32.9 2,626 52.1 4,120 Female 67.1 5,359 47.9 3,789 Ethnicity White 63.6 5,028 50.9 4,022 Black 18.0 1,440 30.4 2,405 Native American 3.3 261 3.4 270 Asian/Pacific Islander 3.1 245 2.7 214 Hispanic 12.0 957 12.6 998 School status Attended regularly 43.6 3,484 52.8 3,783 Graduated/GED 21.7 1,728 15.4 1,099 Attended irregularly 12.3 984 16.0 1,142 Dropped out 12.3 980 15.9 1,135 Primary living situation Parent's home 81.8 6,531 62.3 4,900 Other adult 8.4 671 13.8 1,089 Institution 2.8 226 5.5 435 Independent 1.5 116 2.4 190 Psychiatric facility 0.9 74 2.6 205 Correctional facility 3.7 298 11.7 917 Other 0.5 45 1.7 130 Number of times ran away (M, SD) 3.6 5.84 2.8 6.64 Employed (full/part time) 8.2 656 8.6 677 Legal guardian Parent 83.6 6,507 60.5 4,626 Other adult 9.1 709 9.5 725 DSS/DJS 7.3 570 30.1 2,299 Used drugs 64.3 5,137 60.5 4,784 Sold drugs 15.6 1,247 20.9 1,653 Physically abused by father 18.8 1,475 17.7 1,368 Sexually abused by father 4.0 314 5.4 416 Independent (N = 1,896) t test/ Characteristic % n [chi square] df Age (M, SD) 15.5 1.6 98.8 1(****) Gender 600.0 2(****) Male 42.6 807 Female 57.4 1,089 Ethnicity 3974.2 8(****) White 58.8 1,114 Black 22.9 434 Native American 3.5 67 Asian/Pacific Islander 1.1 21 Hispanic 13.7 260 School status 283.5 8(****) Attended regularly 54.9 936 Graduated/GED 18.8 319 Attended irregularly 13.3 227 Dropped out 13.0 222 Primary living situation 894.1 12(****) Parent's home 75.6 1,429 Other adult 12.4 234 Institution 3.3 63 Independent 1.7 33 Psychiatric facility 1.7 33 Correctional facility 3.9 74 Other 1.2 23 Number of times ran away (M, SD) 2.1 5.38 132.3 1(****) Employed (full/part time) 10.8 195 8.7 2(**) Legal guardian 1666.0 4(****) Parent 8.1 1,504 Other adult 13.1 241 DSS/DJS 5.1 93 Used drugs 56.1 1,121 32.7 2(****) Sold drugs 16.1 304 80.7 2(***) Physically abused by father 16.2 302 7.9 2(**) Sexually abused by father 4.8 90 16.5 2(****) NOTE: DSS = Department of Social Services; DJS = Department of Juvenile Services. (**) p < .01. (***) p < .001. (****) p < .0001.
Youths identified as throwaway were more equally divided between males and females (52 percent and 48 percent, respectively), but a higher percentage were African American (30 percent) than the other groups. They also were more likely than the other groups of youths to have been living with another adult (15 percent) or in a correctional facility (23 percent) during the months before admission to a youth shelter. These adolescents identified their legal guardian as child welfare or juvenile justice (30 percent), reported selling illicit drugs (21 percent), and having been sexually abused by their fathers (5 percent) more often than the other subgroups of youths.
Finally, among youths identified as independent, the majority were white (59 percent), female (57 percent), and living with their parents or another adult during the months before admission (88 percent). These youths had run away fewer times (M = 2.1, SD [+ or -] 5.4), were more often employed (11 percent), and had lower of rates of drug use (56 percent) than youths in the other groups.
The final logistic regression models for the three subsamples to predict family reunification are specified in Table 2.
TABLE 2--Predictors of Returning Home among Runaway-Homeless, Throwaway, and Independent Youths Using Shelter Services Runaway-Homeless (N = 7,985) Odds Predictor Variable B (SE) Ratio Demographics Age -.07 (.02)(***) 0.93 Ethnicity (White) African American -.20 (.08)(**) 0.82 Native American NS Asian/Pacific Islander NS Hispanic NS Legal guardian (Parent) Other adult -.67 (.10)(***) 0.51 DSS/DJS -2.12 (.18)(***) 0.12 School status (Attending regularly) Graduated NS Irregular attendance -.32 (.07)(***) 0.71 Expelled/dropped out -.50 (.09)(***) 0.60 Poor grades NS Primary living situation (Parent's home) Other adult -.79 (.10)(***) 0.45 Institution -1.59 (.23)(***) 0.20 Independent -.65 (.26)(**) 0.52 Psychiatric facility -1.47 (.38)(***) 0.22 Correctional facility -1.12 (.22)(***) 0.32 Other -1.55 (.46)(***) 0.21 Completed services 1.71 (.06)(***) 5.51 Personal characteristics Problems due to youth desire to live with other parent NS On probation -.34 (.13)(**) 0.71 Victim of crime -.39 (.11)(***) 0.67 Prostitution -1.08 (.34)(**) 0.34 Immigration problems NS Charged with misdemeanor NS Forced to leave residence NS Sold drugs NS Used stimulants NS Used depressants NS Used two drugs or more NS Family characteristics Mother employed -.17 (.03)(***) 0.84 Problems with foster home -.91 (.27)(***) 0.40 Emotional abuse by mother -.27 (.07)(***) 0.76 Neglect by mother NS Physical abuse by father -.30 (.08)(***) 0.74 Sexual abuse by father NS Model chi-square (degrees of freedom) 2025.51(***) (28) Throwaway (N = 7,909) Odds Predictor Variable B (SE) Ratio Demographics Age -.05 (.02)(**) 0.95 Ethnicity (White) African American -.19 (.07)(**) 0.82 Native American NS Asian/Pacific Islander -.49 (.17)(**) 0.61 Hispanic NS Legal guardian (Parent) Other adult -.65 (.10)(***) 0.52 DSS/DJS -1.94 (.09)(***) 0.14 School status (Attending regularly) Graduated NS Irregular attendance NS Expelled/dropped out -.30 (.10)(**) 0.74 Poor grades -.27 (.07)(***) 0.76 Primary living situation (Parent's home) Other adult -.54 (.09)(***) 0.58 Institution -.85 (.18)(***) 0.43 Independent -.92 (.24)(***) 0.40 Psychiatric facility NS Correctional facility -.87 (.14)(***) 0.42 Other NS Completed services .98 (.07)(***) 2.67 Personal characteristics Problems due to youth desire to live with other parent -.36 (.14)(**) 0.69 On probation -.36 (.09)(***) 0.70 Victim of crime NS Prostitution NS Immigration problems -2.52 (.39)(***) 0.08 Charged with misdemeanor -.19 (.07)(**) 0.82 Forced to leave residence -.17 (.06)(**) 0.84 Sold drugs NS Used stimulants -2.34 (.53)(***) 0.10 Used depressants -1.53 (.57)(**) 0.22 Used two drugs or more -1.03 (.39)(**) 0.36 Family characteristics Mother employed -.15 (.03)(***) 0.86 Problems with foster home -.57 (.17)(**) 0.57 Emotional abuse by mother NS Neglect by mother -.42 (.07)(***) 0.66 Physical abuse by father NS Sexual abuse by father -.59 (.15)(***) 0.55 Model chi-square (degrees of freedom) 2113.21(***) (36) Independent (N = 1,896) Odds Predictor Variable B (SE) Ratio Demographics Age NS Ethnicity (White) African American NS Native American -.86 (.31)(**) 0.42 Asian/Pacific Islander NS Hispanic NS Legal guardian (Parent) Other adult NS DSS/DJS -2.60 (.49)(***) 0.07 School status (Attending regularly) Graduated -2.62 (.78)(**) 0.07 Irregular attendance NS Expelled/dropped out NS Poor grades NS Primary living situation (Parent's home) Other adult -.71 (.18)(***) 0.49 Institution -1.36 (.39)(***) 0.26 Independent -1.52 (.56)(**) 0.22 Psychiatric facility NS Correctional facility -2.00 (.47)(***) 0.13 Other NS Completed services 1.30 (.13)(***) 3.66 Personal characteristics Problems due to youth desire to live with other parent NS On probation NS Victim of crime NS Prostitution NS Immigration problems NS Charged with misdemeanor NS Forced to leave residence NS Sold drugs -0.68 (.16)(***) 0.5 Used stimulants NS Used depressants NS Used two drugs or more NS Family characteristics Mother employed NS Problems with foster home NS Emotional abuse by mother NS Neglect by mother NS Physical abuse by father NS Sexual abuse by father NS Model chi-square (degrees of freedom) 442.59(***) (21) NOTES: Variables in parentheses are the reference predictors. Only significant associations (p < .01) are reported. NS = not significant. DSS = Department of Social Services; DJS = Department of Juvenile Services. (**) p < .01. (***) p < .001.
Runaway-Homeless Youths. In terms of the demographic variables, a youth's age predicted returning home. As each year of age increased, the likelihood of the youth returning home decreased by nearly 10 percent (OR = .93). In addition, African American youths were less likely to return home than their white counterparts (OR = .82), and adolescent's who identified their legal guardian as another adult (OR = .51) or child welfare or juvenile justice (OR = .12) were less likely to return home than youths whose guardian was their parent. Youths who attended school sporadically (OR = .71) or had been expelled (OR = .60) were less likely to return home than those who attended regularly. Youths who reported their primary living situation as other than with parents were significantly less likely to return home than those primarily living with parents. Finally, youths who completed shelter services were more than five times more likely to return home than those who did not complete services (OR = 5.51).
Among youths' personal characteristics, being on probation (OR = .13), being a victim of crime (OR = .11), or having prostitution problems (OR = .34) decreased the youths' likelihood of returning home. Various family characteristics also predicted reunification; youths were less likely to return home if their mothers worked (OR = .84), if they had problems with foster care (OR = .40), if they had been emotionally abused by their mother (OR = .76), or if they had been physically abused by their fathers (OR = .74).
Throwaway Youths. Analyses of these youths' demographic variables indicated that older adolescents were less likely to return home than younger adolescents (OR = .95). African American (OR = .82) or Asian/Pacific Islander (OR = .61) throwaway youths were less likely to return home than their white counterparts. Adolescents whose guardian was an adult other than their parent (OR = .52) or child welfare or juvenile justice (OR = .14) were less likely to return home compared with youths whose parents were their legal guardians. Youths who had been expelled from school (OR = .74) were less likely to return home than those who attended school regularly; those with poor grades in school were less likely to return home (OR = .76) than those without poor grades. Adolescents who reported living primarily in a location other than their parents' homes were significantly less likely to return home than those who had been living with parents. Youths who completed services were nearly three times more likely to reunify with their families than those who did not complete services (OR = 2.67). Youths' personal characteristics revealed that throwaway youths having problems with wanting to live with their other parent were significantly less likely to return home (OR = .69) than their counterparts. Those on probation (OR = .70), having problems with immigration (OR = .08), charged with a misdemeanor (OR = .82), or forced to leave a previous residence (OR = .84) were significantly less likely to return home. Finally, throwaway youths using stimulants were less likely to return home (OR = .10) compared with youth who did not use these drugs. Similarly, youths who used depressants (OR = .22) or more than two drugs (OR = .36) also were less likely to return home than their counterparts.
Various family characteristics also predicted throwaway youth's reunification. Adolescents who reported that their mothers worked (OR = .86), identified problems with foster parents (OR =. 57), had been neglected by their mothers (OR = .66), or were sexually abused by their father (OR =.55) were less likely to return home than other throwaway counterparts.
Independent Youths. The final logistic regression model indicated that youths living independently are quite different across demographic characteristics from runaway-homeless or throwaway youths. Native American youths living independently (OR = .42) were less likely to return home than white youths. Youths who identified child welfare or juvenile justice as their guardian (OR = .07) or had graduated from school (OR = .07) were significantly less likely to return home compared with their counterparts. Adolescents who reported living primarily in another location than with their parents were significantly less likely to return home than those who had been living with parents. Independent youths who completed services were almost four times more likely to return home than those who did not complete services (OR = 3.7). The only significant personal or family characteristic that predicted youth's reunification was selling drugs; youths who reported selling drugs (OR = .50) were significantly less likely to return home than youths who did not sell drugs.
This study of the national RHYMIS database provides an opportunity to expand understanding of the unique differences across three subgroups of runaway adolescents (runaway-homeless, throwaway, independent) and to identify predictors of family reunification among these subgroups. The individual and family differences among these subgroups suggest that they may have disparate needs and that services may be most effective if these unique characteristics are addressed.
Applying a developmental perspective could facilitate interpretation of the findings of this study. Such a conceptualization builds on the work of Whitbeck and colleagues (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999; Whitbeck et al., 1999) and extends the current literature on runaway youths by providing a framework for understanding family reunification. A major developmental challenge that occurs during adolescence is the task of establishing a sense of autonomy without compromising family connections (Allen, Aber, & Leadbeater, 1990). When adolescents are ineffective in negotiating this key task, as well as other developmental processes, runaway and other high-risk behaviors may occur (Whitbeck & Hoyt).
Youths in this study who were categorized as runaway-homeless had been predominately living with parents, had more runaway episodes, and used drugs more than the other groups. This group of adolescents appeared to be acting out but was still in close contact with parents. Throwaway youths, on the other hand, included a larger percentage of youths who had been living in correctional facilities or with an adult other than their parents, identified their guardian as a child welfare or juvenile justice organization, and had dropped out or been expelled from school. These youths had more juvenile delinquency problems (selling and using drugs) and less contact with parents. Finally, independent youths did not appear remarkably different from runaway-homeless youths, except that fewer lived with parents and more were employed. It appears that these three groups of youths have different developmental histories and family relationships that may affect runaway and other high-risk behaviors.
Predictors associated with family reunification among the three subgroups add support for considering key developmental tasks when designing interventions that can affect the experiences of these troubled youths. Intervention efforts must be based on adequate assessments so that they can be tailored to the specific needs of these groups of youths (Adam & Adams, 1987; Ringwalt et al., 1998). From this perspective the aim of intervention efforts for runaway youths should focus on facilitating developmental processes, such as promoting autonomous needs of youths while strengthening their connections with parents.
These findings suggest that a variety of intervention efforts are needed to address the differences among the three subgroups. Runaway-homeless youths appear more likely to reunify with their families if they avoid behavior related to criminality and have parents who are not emotionally or physically abusive. These youths experience conflicting parent-child relationships but are more likely to remain connected with their families and engage in less severe problem behaviors. Therefore, they would gain the most benefit from the current focus of community-based youth shelters that facilitate family reunification--that is, emergency shelter services and individual and family counseling (Johnson et al., 1996; Shane, 1989).
On the other hand, throwaway youths appear more likely to return home if they have fewer problems associated with school, the criminal justice system, drug use, and housing. It is not surprising that criminal behavior and drug use were especially predictive of reunification for these adolescents, because earlier research has found that these youths have more juvenile delinquency problems and more contact with the juvenile justice system than other groups (Zide & Cherry, 1992). As a group these adolescents have especially conflictual and strained family relationships, marked by forced eviction from home (Cherry, 1993; Ringwalt et al., 1998). In addition, they engage in more serious problematic behaviors such as juvenile delinquency than the other two groups. Throwaway adolescents require more comprehensive and intensive services over a protracted period. Such an approach would encourage youths' autonomy and other competence needs. In addition, assisting in reunification efforts would repair and strengthen family relationships. Efforts should focus on educating parents regarding ways to attend to the developmental needs of their children. Families also could benefit from learning new management skills such as effective parental monitoring and discipline (Safyer, Thompson, Maccio, Zittel, & Forehand, 2000).
Finally, independent youths had few personal and family factors that predicted their reunification; only selling drugs decreased their likelihood of returning home. For this group of adolescents, the most optimal context for promoting autonomous and other developmental needs may not be provided by parents. These youths believe that is irrelevant. This may be why few familial factors predicted reunification among this group of youths; thus, facilitating positive attachments outside the family may be needed. Developing interventions that incorporate individuals and organizations in the community might be more rewarding for these adolescents (Allen et al., 1990; Safyer et al., 2000). Intervention efforts could include alternative safe housing with nonfamilial adults who offer a broad spectrum of services, such as job skills training, education, and employment opportunities that promote healthy independence.
Surprisingly, some ethnic groups appear to be at greater risk of not unifying with their families. For example, African American and Asian/Pacific Islander throwaway youths and Native American youths living independently are less likely to return home than white youths. Crisis shelters should take into account the ethnic and racial backgrounds of youths when various services are delivered. Ethnic minority youths may require unique services that include culturally sensitive program content to facilitate greater understanding of ethnic minority families, to improve reunification outcomes.
In addition to differences among these subgroups of runaway adolescents concerning family reunification, there are similarities. Not surprisingly, adolescents predominately living with their parents were more likely to return home than youths living elsewhere. This finding suggests that youths with greater exposure to their families are more likely to return home, even if there has been conflict or difficulty in the past. Because intervention efforts provided by shelter services encourage reunification, youths who live with parents before seeking shelter services seem most influenced by these efforts.
One of the most salient factors that predicted youths returning home across all three subgroups of youths was completion of services. This reflects the focus of shelters' mission to reunify families and suggests service effectiveness. Presently, few systematic evaluative studies measure the efficacy of such intervention efforts or assess factors that lead some youths to take advantage of shelter programs while others do not. Such information would assist in tailoring community services that respond to the differential needs of these high-risk youths.
These findings are important in supplementing research efforts of this population and providing practitioners with knowledge that informs future development of effective services for this diverse group of youths. This study, however, has several significant limitations that must be considered. First, because this is a cross-sectional study, it only examines issues of runaway youths at one point in time. The correlation analyses suggest that various individual and family problems are related to reunification. However, time ordering is not taken into account, and a causal sequence cannot be determined. To address this limitation, use of multivariate models would enhance the ability to control alternate hypotheses and increase the credibility of causal inferences drawn from these data.
RHYMIS data represent a large, national sample of high-risk youths that enter services at federally funded youth crisis shelters. As the analysis to compare the final subsample with the original sample suggested, runaway youths are not the only group using these crisis shelters. In addition, the sample does not include youths living on the street. These divergent groups of adolescents are likely to have different reunification expectations from runaway youths seeking shelter services. Future research must examine youths living on the street and youths that do not strictly meet runaway criteria but use shelter services to understand the issues of reunification for high-risk, service-using adolescents.
Another major limitation in the interpretation of these findings involves the method of data collection. RHYMIS data are collected by individual agencies nationwide without standardized questions or discrete definitions. For example, categorizing the youths as runaway-homeless, throwaway, or independent is at the discretion of the intake worker, without use of specific operational definitions for each category. In addition, agencies rarely report complete data on each youth admitted to their facility; missing data is more prevalent with some variables (for example, substance use). Therefore, the accuracy and consistency within and across agencies raises concerns about the reliability and validity of these data.
This study lends support to the notion that runaway youths are a heterogeneous group and require services that consider their unique needs and characteristics. Future research needs to examine the barriers to adolescents' use of youth shelter services. It may be that these adolescents avoid shelters for fear that their families will be notified or that the rules and restrictions of shelters are as restrictive and inflexible as the homes from which they ran. Shelters also need to increase their outreach efforts to improve awareness of the availability of shelter beds and services and dispel inaccurate perceptions concerning shelters. Systematic epidemiological studies based on more representative samples, however, are still needed to obtain reliable estimates of the composition of adolescents who are living on the street or in other dangerous living situations and are not making use of shelter services. In addition, longitudinal studies are needed to assess the long-term effect of youths returning to parental homes.
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Note: The RHYMIS data used in this article were made available by the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and have been used with permission. Neither the collector of the ordinal data, Computer Services Corporation, Inc., the funder, the archive, Cornell University, or its agents or employees bear any responsibility for the analyses or interpretations presented here. Please send all correspondence to Sanna J. Thompson, PhD, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 685 Baldy Hall, Box 601050, Buffalo, NY14260; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original manuscript received June 26, 2000
Final revision received December 19, 2000
Accepted December 28, 2000
Sanna J. Thompson, PhD, is assistant professor, and Andrew W. Safyer, PhD, is associate professor, School of Social Work, State University of New York at Buffalo, 685 Baldy Hall, Box 601050, Buffalo, NY 14260; e-mail: sthompsn@ buffalo.edu. David E. Pollio, PhD, is associate professor, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, St. Louis.
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|Author:||Thompson, Sanna J.; Safyer, Andrew W.; Pollio, David E.|
|Publication:||Social Work Research|
|Article Type:||Statistical Data Included|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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