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It was noted in part II of this series that girls who run away from home are often doing so because of sexual abuse at home. As reported in the New York Times an estimated 1.6 million juveniles run away from or are thrown out of their homes each year; over half are girls. The government does not conduct a comprehensive survey, but the number of contacts with runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make provides one means of measuring the number of runaways. Those contacts rose to 761,000 in 2008, up from 550,000 in 2002. Most youths who run away remain within ten miles from home (usually staying with friends nearby), and about 60 percent return home within three days.

Although girls and boys are about equally as likely to run away (according to self-report studies) it is girls who are most likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. A recent study of runaways in Texas found that in a sample of more than 40,000 referrals, including 6,473 runaways. Of those who were runaways, 65% were girls. Of these girls, 14% had experienced emotional abuse or neglect, 18% had experienced physical abuse and 14% had experienced sexual abuse.

Runaways often feel unwanted, abused, neglected, and rejected by their parents. Many believe their parents have unrealistic expectations of them, are overly strict, and use excessive punishment. Many runaways have experienced poor relationships outside of the home, often ostracized by both teachers and peers. Most have experienced abuse and for girls sexual abuse. They have also experienced failure at school, and many have had to repeat grades. In-school problems and habitual truancy are also common. Not surprisingly, most have very negative feelings toward school in general.

It is clear that many young women are on the streets in flight from sexual victimization at home. Once there, they often resort to crime in order to survive, but they do not have much attachment to their delinquent activities. Angry about being labeled delinquent, most still engage in illegal acts. Not surprisingly, girls tend to exhibit more negative physical self-concepts than males. Sexual abuse, then, appears to be the most common element in the lives of girls who run away. A study of Canadian runaways by Janus and his colleagues found that girls are far more likely than boys to cite physical and sexual abuse as the main reason for running away. Specifically, the first time they ran away, almost half of the girls (49 percent) but only one third of the boys cited physical abuse as the reason, whereas the girls were six times more likely than the boys to cite sexual abuse as the reason for running away (24 percent vs. 4 percent). These differences were more pronounced the last time they ran away: 42 percent of the girls cited physical abuse compared to 26 percent of the boys, whereas about one fifth of the girls but only 1 percent of the boys cited sexual abuse (Janus et al., 1995).

For sexually abused girls, the abuse begins somewhat early in their lives, and when they reach puberty and early adolescence they begin to question the behavior. They come to the realization that it is not normal” (as they have been told by their father or stepfather) and hence fall prone to guilt and shame, which eventuates in attempts to escape. Most runaways have fled homes where abuse was an everyday event; several studies have noted that a preponderance of girls referred to juvenile court have been sexually and/​or physically. Yet their lives on the streets are almost always even more abusive in nature because they often become trapped in the sordid trafficking of children for sexual gratification. The highest profits are realized from prostitution with adolescent girls, many of whom are runaways or throwaways.” For many of these girls prostitution was a way out of an intolerable home life and even an option over placement foster homes or state juvenile facilities. Pimps often place young girls in brothels, truck stops, sex rings, and child pornography rings, and sometimes in what is known as a circuit,” a string or series of working sites scattered across a dozen or more states” where they work the streets” or work in brothels or out call” services. For some but not necessarily all girl runaways, then, prostitution becomes a way to survive in the absence of few other earning skills.

It has been estimated that more than 250,000 American youth are at risk of becoming victims of sexual trafficking. Although the average age of girls entering into the world of prostitution is between 12 and 14, children older than 12 are prime targets for sexual trafficking. Another recent report estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 children — primarily girls between the ages of 12 and 14 — are victims of the sex trade right here in the United States.”

In the fourth and final part of this series next Tuesday, I will focus on one of the most common offenses committed by girls (and boys too), namely shoplifting.