AUSTRALIAN PICTURE

Runaway teens

For parents, the shock of a teenage runaway is exacerbated by privacy laws that hamper efforts to find them.

When Simon Armstrong was 15, he was chased down the street he lived on by his school principal, vice principal and his class teacher. They had been asked by his strict father and mother to physically retrieve him and return him to the school from which he'd played truant since the age of 12. A few months later, having just turned 16, he left home. He moved in with four other guys, waited tables for a living and eventually disappeared to Britain, where he lost contact with his parents for more than two years.

ôThey were both crushed,” admits Armstrong, now 36 and managing a busy cafe in Seddon in Melbourne's west.

Twenty years on, tales like this are more common, and many are even more disturbing, as children are doing it younger and in far more reckless style. Just last month a Reservoir family contacted police when their 12-year-old daughter, Amy Huynh, took a taxi to Spencer Street Station without telling them, bought a ticket and boarded a train for Sydney. Huynh was safely home four days later, but for many families the heartache lasts much longer, if not forever. The National Missing Person's Unit says that of the 30,000 people reported missing each year, over half are under 18.

The adolescent-parent relationship has always been fraught, but since 1990 when Australia ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of Children (CROC) things have become tougher for parents. State and federal legislation enacted to comply with the convention makes it virtually impossible for parents to trace runaway children.

Authorities are forced to protect the child's privacy if the child does not wish to be found.

Joan Strohfeldt, whose daughter left home at 15, is now president of Parents Lobbying Empowerment Against Systematic Exclusion (Please), a group based in Bundaberg, Queensland. The group aims to “change the imbalance in the present legislation relating to children and families” to give parents greater rights to protect their children from what it calls the “influence of the criminal elements who prey on our young people”.

Strohfeldt cites numerous horror stories in support of the group's campaign. “One mother tracked down and took her drug addicted daughter to hospital, only to be arrested and charged with kidnap and deprivation of liberty. The charges were later dropped, but only after Please intervened on her behalf. “Why should a mother be arrested and charged with such serious offences when she took her daughter to a hospital?” asks Strohfeldt.

When Strohfeldt's daughter left home without warning she initially blamed herself. “She had been very loving towards her family. So the first thing I thought was ‘what have I done?’ It wasn't for many months that I accepted I hadn't done anything wrong.”

Besides seeking changes to privacy legislation to allow parents to track down errant children, Please complains that the Government provides kids with an incentive to run away in the form of Centrelink benefits. “They are able to access fairly big dollars,” says Strohfeldt.

“We still don't understand why parents and friends can't be asked questions by Centrelink. Even if they don't tell us where our children are, they could at least get our side of the story.”

Authorities say that the benefit system is set up for those who need it. And there are a huge number of kids with legitimate reasons for being on the run.

Open Families Australia, an outreach charity that works with homeless youth across Australia, says around 80 per cent of the children it helps are homeless as a result of family breakdown. Chris Jones, senior manager of homebased services for the Salvation Army's Westcare centre in Sunshine says the laws are not without purpose. Children who shelter behind them are often fleeing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. “There's often a lot more going on in the family context than is reported,” she says. “Emotional abuse and neglect is hard to quantify and see. It's often to do with people's frustration at not knowing how to deal with things. It's just as damaging as physical and sexual abuse.”

Sydney-based author and Good Weekend columnist Stephanie Dowrick also left home early, but can look back on her past with the benefit of years of studying psychotherapy. “Nobody leaves a really great situation prematurely. My mother died when I was only eight. My father remarried a year later and I had quite a difficult relationship with him and with my stepmother. There was a lot of tension in the house and I had no way of dealing with that, on top of missing my mother, except by withdrawing emotionally and then physically moving out.”

As a result, she chose to leave home at 16 after completing university entrance to study law while working full-time as a law clerk. “I was really struggling, emotionally and financially, but I couldn't have stayed home either,” she says. “Living in a flat, I took reasonable care of myself, went to work and did the minimum of study. But I felt very unattached, and that's dangerous. You can find yourself taking risks when you don't feel anyone is observing your life lovingly.”

She warns that the causes of extreme unhappiness are not always obvious to outsiders: “A lack of genuine understanding often drives people away. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse all drive adolescents away. So does substance abuse or coldness and self-pity or indifference from the parents.”

“Many adolescents feel seriously hurt as well as misunderstood or frightened. Sometimes those difficult emotions can be worked with. But if the child feels that the parent has no idea who they are, or if they feel their parents are very critical or judgemental, that can be extremely painful or dangerous.” Armstrong found his first real understanding with a school psychologist: “My parents convinced me to attend a special school for truants that involved seeing a psychologist for six months. I'd cry through the whole session each week, but feel so much better.”

Although he began the sessions while still at home, he chose to continue them for a couple of months after moving out. Besides helping him make this transition, he says the counselling also helped him come to terms with his homosexuality.

Dowrick comments: “It's essential for parents to try to be realistic about why the child is going and not just blame them. Professional help can be incredibly useful here. Small changes in attitude can make a substantial difference. If there is no actual abuse, and there is at least some goodwill on all sides, miracles can happen even with just three or four sessions.”

The opportunity for that miracle did not arise for Anthony Wehi but neither did he run away from his parents. His family life unravelled when he was just nine — and he could never return home. “It was all up in the air at home — there wasn't any structure there. It got to the point where my mother and father left each other and I was sort of in between the two of them.” He was eventually put into foster care by the Department of Human Services. After moving around a lot, he settled in a residential unit in Melbourne — a staffed house shared with four other teenagers.

The Kennett Government then “outsourced” these centres to the non-government sector and Wehi was "signed over to the Salvos" who cared for him through their Westcare facility in Sunshine from 14 to 18. “They kept me in school until year 12. And for that I was given my scuba diving ticket. They said ‘if you stay in school we'll pay for a course every year’. I'd like to work later on in life as a police diver. “I'm tyre-fitting for a bit right now, but in a month or so I'll be forklift driving. They also funded me to get my forklift licence and my driving licence.”

The telling part of this story, says Peter Mullholland, senior manager of residential and support services at Westcare, is that Wehi thinks he's been given something special. “For my own kids that's the norm. When you live inside a family home, you usually just say ‘I need 200 bucks to get a licence’ and you get it.”

When asked if his teen years will have a negative impact on his life, Wehi is defiantly upbeat: “Nah. Not at all. I've seen so much and I've got a very good understanding of what can happen. I've seen most of the dangers, pretty much.” He does have one regret though: “There are some people here (at Westcare) I see as a fatherly or motherly figure, but it's still not your real flesh and blood — not like the support you would get from your mother or father.”

Veteran streetworker Les Twentyman says he often hears from distraught parents searching for their missing children. “They think we can wave a magic wand to repair years of mistakes,” he says. “But often kids beg us not to tell their parents where they are.”

Twentyman has spent a quarter of a century pounding Australia's inner-city pavements looking for kids in crisis. It's a tough environment, and not one a teenager would stay in voluntarily. “I've buried 58 kids in the last eight years,” he says.

Yet the group does have its success stories. Twentyman points out that Open Families has got 8000 kids back to school and 300 through university since 1989. And when the child involved consents, reunited familes are still the ideal. “We frequently get parents and kids together in a non-threatening environment — in a restaurant or at a barbecue — and get both sides to list their grievances,” says Twentyman. “But we've only got 26 street workers. We'd need 5000-6000 right around Australia to sort this problem out.”
 

By Rob Burgess
2 April 2004
 

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/04/01/1080544624116.html


home / Previous feature