Jennifer Edwards disappeared from her grandmother’s home for several days during the last week of February. The West Side teen returned home March 1. It wasn’t the first time the 16-year-old ran away from home. Edwards, who lives with her grandmother Bonnie Seeles and other relatives on the 900 block of Central Avenue, ran away from home as early as last September and was gone for more than a week.
A frantic Seeles, the girl’s guardian, called the Austin Weekly News at the time and again two weeks ago about her missing granddaughter, referred to by some in the family as ‘Lil Bonnie.’
“Jennifer is a homebody,” her grandmother said. “She goes to church, school and home.”
Teens are running away from home in high numbers.
More than 1.6 million youth had episodes of runaway or throwaway, where children are abandoned or kicked out of their homes, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Youths between ages 15-17 years old make up two-thirds of youth runaways.
Of the total number of episodes, 37 percent went missing from a caretaker. In terms of male and female runaways, the numbers are virtually identical, with 841,300 male runaways and only 300 more reported female cases. Whites, though, make up 57 percent of all runaways while 17 percent are black. The largest number of missing children in the United States are runaways, according to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
As to why teens runaway, the reasons are countless – physical abuse, depression, and rebellion are only a few reasons.
Seeles isn’t quite sure why her granddaughter keeps running away. She said her granddaughter, who attends Michelle Clark High School in Austin, has Attention Deficit Disorder and is on medication but takes it sporadically. Seeles found a full bottle of her medication after her granddaughter’s disappearance in September.
“When she’s not taking her medication, her mind goes everywhere,” Seeles said.
She wasn’t in school or at a friend’s home when she first disappeared, Seeles said. Seeles discovered this time that Jennifer, who just turned 16 this month, was seeing a man 10 years older than her. Seeles said her granddaughter wasn’t talking about what was wrong then and isn’t talking now. But Seeles thinks the influence of older men on young girls is a big reason why they leave home.
“I think a lot of these girls are getting caught up with these older guys and that’s making them runaway from home and school,” she said. “They’re being exploited. [The men say] ‘oh, she looked like she was 18.’ Some of these girls, if you look at them, you can tell that they’re not 18.”
Seeles said she called police about the older man, who is 26, but they told her they couldn’t do anything because, “nothing happened.”
But in Illinois, engaging in sexual intercourse with an underage person is against the law in specific instances.
An individual can be charged with Criminal Sexual Assault, a Class 1 felony, for having “sexual penetration” with a person at least 13 years of age but under 18, if the offender is 17 years or older and “in a position of trust.”
But such incidences are rarely processed criminally unless associated with an act of violence.
Still, statistics tend to show that runaways are running from rather than to someone or something. And some cite problems in the home as a reason for leaving.
According to the National Runaway Switchboard based in Chicago, which handles an average of 115,000 calls a year from youth runaways and adults looking for their whereabouts, 36 percent of callers identified “family dynamics” as a problem associated with runaways in 2004. The majority of calls, 77 percent, are from female runaways or concerned adults. Forty eight percent of the calls were from the runaways themselves.
In Illinois, the organization took more than 19,000 calls in 2004, a majority, 8,048, from the 773 area code.
Seeles said her granddaughter doesn’t talk about what’s troubling her. But she hopes talking about her family situation can be of some help to other parents and their kids. Seeles also hopes that her granddaughter will open up.
“We’ll see if we can get to the bottom of this,” said Seeles. “She’s well loved and everyone tries to help. I just don’t understand.”
For additional resources on youth and runaways contact: The National Runaway Switchboard at 773/880-9860 or www.nrscrisisline.org; The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at www.missingkids.com; or The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org