Our runaway youngsters
A 13-year-old girl, missing for a week, was last Monday reunited with her family. But this can be seen as a happy ending in only a very narrow sense. The incident represents a larger concern about the worrisome state, not only of this teenager, but of many adolescents who find themselves in similar circumstances.
Her return home, after having been sighted by an Express reader, must therefore provide impetus for a thorough enquiry into why she left her home, where she spent the time, and in what circumstances. Even if she had not been kidnapped, or illegally enticed from home, questions remain to be answered by whomever harboured a runaway youngster.
In May, the Police Service noted that there had been an increase in runaway children, as compared to previous years. By April, there were already 137 such reports, as compared to a total of 241 cases in 2012 and 306 cases in 2011. Most of the runaways were between 13 and 15 years old, and 80 per cent of them were female.
The unfortunate reflex among both police and citizens alike is to dismiss these children as bad seeds. Until the furore caused in 2005 by murdered 16-year-old Radha Pixie Lakhan, whose disappearance had been initially dismissed as just another case of a runaway, police officers tended to treat such incidents lackadaisically. And, in fact, most missing people do eventually turn up unharmed, with the girls then being classified as promiscuous by many adults.
What officials and other adults tend to ignore is the fact that running away from home would hardly be the preferred choice of most young teenagers. Yet every year in Trinidad and Tobago, hundreds of children decide to do just that. And the question that should be asked is: what are the circumstances which lead to such a choice? The 13-year-old girl is reported to be staying with an aunt who is giving her counselling. But is this aunt a trained counsellor? Does she have a close relationship with the girl? If not, the child’s problem may be exacerbated rather than solved.
Obviously, these runaway children are not happy in their homes. Additionally, the age and sex of most of the runaways is significant. At 13 to 15 years of age, girls are more likely to be sexually abused, and this is frequently a reason for running away. In such circumstances, returning them to the same environment, with an additional “bad girl” stigma, would only cause further psychological damage.
It should therefore be standard practice to follow up such incidents with proper investigations by social workers and other officials. And the central goal, always, must be to help these children.