In addition to the legal problems inherent within possessing a minority status, many minors face insurmountable obstacles as a result of having run away. Many runaways become homeless, and homeless youths have a disproportionate share of health, emotional, and behavioral problems as compared to the general population. They may also have less access to sufficient resources or other appropriate services to obtain care.11 Many runaway and homeless youth experience mental health problems, including depression, and many have contemplated or committed suicide.12 ``Homelessness in children produces chronic mental health and health problems and deficiencies in educational opportunities and abilities, and seriously undercuts their ability to receive sufficient schooling to function as adults.''13 In addition, HIV, AIDS, and pregnancy are particularly weighty issues to homeless youth. Nationally, the pregnancy rate for 13-15 year-old homeless girls was 14%, while 13-15 year-old non-homeless girls had a pregnancy rate of only 1%.14 Homeless youth also must make complex daily decisions that may irreversibly affect their futures. ``[I]t is assumed that if homeless youths do not know where or when they will receive their next meal or bed, they are unlikely to be concerned about developing AIDS 5 to 10 years in the future.''15 Homelessness among youths is not a problem that may be fixed in the short term only. As youths move into adulthood, the lessons and trials of their past shape their, and our, future. As one expert stated, ``[o]ur society is developing a rapidly increasing subgroup of homeless children who will become comparatively incompetent and ineffective adults.''16
Considering the growing population of homeless youth and their never-ending need for services, minors are fortunate to have organizations like JRI to represent their interests. Although this and last year's LO attempted to identify the population and determine how many homeless or at-risk minors live in Massachusetts, this task is not easy. Tracking this population is made more difficult by the 24-72 hour federally-mandated reporting requirements.17 According to the American Bar Association, it is estimated that approximately two million minors in the United States run away or become homeless annually. Also, each year, roughly 127,000 minors are forced out by their parents who wish to abdicate responsibility for their child's care.18
Why do minors run away? Research indicates that family problems, including psychological problems, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, or a criminal history on the part of the parents are significant contributory factors.19 Also, high levels of violence within families, histories of neglect, sexual, or physical abuse20 are common among runaway and homeless youth.21 Indeed, some studies examining the link between abuse and this population have indicated that as many as 75% of runaways and homeless youth have suffered from some form of abuse.22 Although this population generally runs away to escape violence, unfortunately, homeless and runaway youth often experience further violence, exploitation, and many turn to stealing, drug dealing, and/or prostitution in order to survive on the streets.23
The legal obstacles that runaway and homeless youth face in Massachusetts often prevents them from leading stable and healthy lives. One such obstacle is that Massachusetts lacks a statutory emancipation law. Without this law, these minors are generally unable to acquire basic life needs, including housing and employment, that will provide a foundation for transitioning successfully into adulthood.