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On the Prevalence of Running Away from Home

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Document date: April 01, 2010
Released online: May 12, 2010


Nearly one in five U.S. youths will run away from home before age 18. Almost 30 percent of these youth will do so three or more times, greatly increasing their risk of violence, crime, drugs, prostitution, STDs, and many other problems. Employing new methodology to yield estimates not available elsewhere, this paper follows a nationally representative sample of 12-year olds through their 18th birthday to discover how many youth run away from home, the number of times they ran away, and the age they first run away. Female and black youth are found to run away the most often.

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Running away from home puts youth at risk of violence, crime, drugs, prostitution, HIV and other STDs, and other health problems. Youth who have run away from their home demonstrate high rates of delinquent and problem behaviors, including substance abuse (Johnson, Whitbeck, and Hoyt 2005), truancy (De Man 2000), gang involvement (Yoder, Whitbeck, and Hoyt 2003), criminal activity (Hammer, Finkelhor, and Sedlack 2002), and juvenile arrest (Kaufman and Widom 1999). Runaway youth are not only likely to perpetrate crimes and engage in delinquent behaviors, they are also likely to have been victimized at home (Tyler, Cauce, and Whitbeck 2004; Thompson, Zittel-Palamara, and Maccio 2004; Kurtz and Kurtz 1991) and to experience additional victimization once they leave home.

Estimates of the runaway population are difficult to obtain and the exact number of runaway youth is not really known (Greene, et al. 2003). Several studies have attempted to estimate the number or percentage of youth who have run away from home in the previous year, with estimates ranging widely from 1.6 million to 2.8 million.

Another important measure of runaway behavior is lifetime prevalence, that is, the percentage of youth who ever run away from home. Identifying lifetime prevalence is important for understanding the causes and consequences of running away, yet little is known about lifetime runaway prevalence. The most often cited study by Nye and Edelbrock (1980) estimated that one in eight youth runs away before the age of 18, but that study infers estimates from a cross-sectional survey intended to generate a one-year incidence measure using data collected in 1976.

One confounding problem in understanding the size of the runaway population is that runaway experiences among youth tend to be episodic rather than chronic (Robertson 1991). Since most studies focus on a one-year reference period, little is known about to what extent youth have multiple runaway episodes. Multiple episodes may distort the estimates of lifetime prevalence that are based on a single cross-section survey. Furthermore, studies focused on one year do not capture the age at which youth first ran away, an important factor in understanding the phenomenon.

In this paper, we exploit a useful data set, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 cohort (NLSY97), to develop three measures not generally found in the literature. First, we estimate the percentage of youth who run away from home before the age of 18, that is, "lifetime" prevalence. Second, we estimate the distribution of the number of times youth run away before age 18, and finally, we estimate the age at which these youth first run away.

In the next section, we review the various estimates of runaway incidence. After describing the NLSY97 data set, we present estimates of the percentage of youth who have ever run away, the number of times they've run away, and the age at which they first ran away. We then conclude with a discussion of how these estimates help inform about runaway behavior.

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Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth

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