Child Exploitation Growing Problem, Senate Panel Told
Washington--David ran away from home for the first time when he was 12 years old. He left because his mother discovered that he smoked cigarettes and he was afraid his father would "come down pretty hard" on him for smoking. He traveled 20 miles and returned the next day.
The next time David ran away, he ventured farther and stayed away longer. Eventually, after leaving home several more times, he ended up a "hustler," or young male prostitute, in California--a repeat juvenile offender, dependent on drugs and dealing in drugs. He was 15.
As one of the estimated one million children who run away from home each year, David told his story this month to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice during a hearing to determine the extent of the child-exploitation problem. The events that preceded and followed his flight are by no means unique, subcommittee members were told.
They are, suggested Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, part "a problem of tremendous significance:" the exploitation and sexual abuse of children and adolescents who, for a variety of reasons, run away or "disappear" from their homes.
The plight of runaways, who in ever-increasing numbers end up as child prostitutes or involved in child pornography, may receive more attention from Congress in the next several years, as legislators look for ways that families, school officials and churches can work together to alleviate the problem, according to Senator Specter.
One bill that would help officials cope with child exploitation and runaways was introduced this fall by Senator Paula Hawkins, Republican of Florida. The legislation would mandate the creation of a national clearinghouse for missing children.
Number of Runaways Rises
The statistics presented at the hearing paint a grim picture. "Our national runaway count continues to grow, with estimates now reaching well over one million children each year," said John Rabun, manager of the Exploited Child Unit in Jefferson County, Ky., one of the few such units in the nation.
"National estimates are that over 50,000 children each year disappear from their homes, not counting habitual runaways and parental abductions, he said. "A majority of those children never return, and many are murdered."
Like David, many of the children who leave home are running away from abusive parents. "My dad's an alcoholic," David told the subcommittee. "They'd get in an argument. He might pick me up and throw me a few feet. I was scared he'd hurt me. I3tried to stay away from him."
The Jefferson County Task Force on Child Prostitution and Pornography has identified other characteristics common to many "exploited children," according to Mr. Rabun. They may, he said, "be expected to be of normal intelligence, 11- to 16-years-of-age, from a blue-collar background, with a high degree of racial prejudice in the family."
Victims of Child Abuse
Eighty percent of them, he continued, are from a single-parent family; 90 percent are runaways; only 18 percent say that they have a close family. Up to 90 percent, according to surveys, were victims of child abuse; up to 50 percent were victims of sexual abuse by parents.
"Very few children leave warm, loving, supportive families," said Father Bruce Ritter, director of New York City's Covenant House, where, since 1977, 20,000 runaways have sought shelter. He estimated that only 20 percent of the runaways who come to Covenant House are from families who want the children to return home. Most, he said, are "throwaway" children.
The problem, said Father Ritter, is not amenable to easy solutions. ''The reasons we have problems like this are very complex," he told the subcommittee. "You could throw enormous amounts of money into it, and nothing would change. Our kids are not the problem. Our adults are the problem."
All of the witnesses stressed that good communication--between parents, children, teachers and clergy--is one way to ward off situations like David's.
"A lot of people don't understand, but some do," David told Senator Specter. "If you want help bad enough, it's there." Father Ritter pointed out that for many children, running away is the last desperate move after years of bitterness.
"Kids who run away and stay away come from homes that are disintegrating," he said. "When you reach the flash point, it's often difficult to recover the relationship."
When problems begin to arise between parents and children, he said, ''I strongly recommend the immediate involvement of a trusted third party, not necessarily a psychologist." Counselors, friends of the family or clergy are all good resources, he said.
For a child who finds himself or herself in a difficult family situation, Father Ritter suggested, "Don't stop talking. Go to an adult friend. Go to a counselor. Usually help can be found, but we've made it very difficult for kids to find it."
David also had advice for children: "Stay at home and stay a boy for as long as you can. Don't grow up too quick and don't try to. And try listening once in awhile," he said. "Parents are usually right."