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FAMILY LIFE

Runaway Speaks From Experience: Road Is Really a Dead-End

August 05, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Last week, we heard from a troubled teen-ager asking for advice. This week, another teen-ager with troubles of her own has advice to offer.

Jennifer is 18 and on her own. She is trying to make a life for herself, working as an au pair for a Costa Mesa couple with an infant son. She is proud to be a high school graduate and hopes someday to go to college.

But from the time she was 14 until she became a legal adult, Jennifer ran away 36 times. The first time was from her mother's home in San Juan Capistrano; all the other times she ran from group or foster homes in which she had been placed.

Along the way, she was repeatedly raped, sometimes by strangers, sometimes by men she trusted.

"I slept in abandoned houses and parks," she says. "My fellow runners and I would dig holes in the beach and cover ourselves to keep warm through the night. I got into pot, cocaine, heavy drinking."

With hindsight, she says, "I don't think it's a wise thing to run away. Once you run, it becomes a pattern. Even when you're not threatened in any way, you get bored of normal-paced life and run for the exciting track. It's pure danger out there. It's scary too.

"A lot of kids think there's a lot of glamour in it, but there's nothing."

Instead of running away, Jennifer recommends asking for help from an adult who can be trusted: "If your home situation is bad, go to someone who can help. You're not helping yourself by running. It took me almost four years to figure that out. I don't want that for anyone else."

Jennifer and her mother were already having problems getting along when she was sent away to boarding school in Arizona at age 13.

Her mother and stepfather had split up the year before, and the household was in disarray. Boarding school was a respite for her, but her mother brought her home the next year and enrolled her in public school. By then, Jennifer's grandmother was also living with the family.

"I got into an argument with my grandmother," she says, "and she told me to leave and never come back. So I packed a duffel bag of clothing and decided to take a bus to Arizona."

She found enough money lying around the house for her bus ticket and more. "My family had plenty of money," she says. "That was never the problem."

The bus took her to Phoenix; her old school was 17 miles farther. She set out walking along a desert highway. She had not thought much about what she would do when she got to the school, but it was a place she felt safe, and she had friends there.

As she walked, a van with three young men in it pulled up alongside her. They offered her a ride. No thanks, she told them.

"They wouldn't leave me alone," she says. "So I tried to run across the desert, but they came after me. I couldn't get away; there was no place to go. They caught me and raped me."

The men left Jennifer there by the road, and when they were gone she got up and kept walking. She was afraid to report the crime because she was a runaway.

After five days of hanging around the campus of her former school, Jennifer was caught by school officials, who turned her over to local police.

"I was detained at a juvenile center until they could locate my mother," she says. "She had moved to Laguna Hills when they finally located her. When they found her, the authorities shipped me to a group home near Phoenix so that I could take a flight home to reunite with my mother.

"A day later, I was greeted by two officers when I arrived at John Wayne; they escorted me to this place called Orangewood (Children's Home), where my mother was to pick me up a couple of hours later. She never came.

"So I became part of 'the system' and was bounced from group home to group home."

Orangewood is "a beautiful place," Jennifer says, "but it's not someplace you'd want to live."

At one point, Jennifer says, she was placed with her former stepfather as a foster child. He rented an apartment for her, "and one night he came over to visit. He got drunk, and he raped me. After that, I just withdrew from the world for about two weeks. Then my social worker came and got me again and took me back to Orangewood."

At another foster home, Jennifer says, "the foster mother was getting drugs for us. We'd go out to a coke party and she'd say, 'Oh, bring some back,' like it was a loaf of bread or something."

Except for that first time, Jennifer says, she never ran away alone. Sometimes a dozen or more kids would run away together.

Each time, when things got too tough, Jennifer would find her way back to Orangewood. "It helped knowing I always had that to fall back on," she says.

But after her multiple departures and returns, Jennifer did not receive an overwhelming welcome from the social workers and counselors there. "If you run away all the time, they get tired of you," she says. "And that just makes you feel even more rejected. You don't even want to be there. You don't want to exist."

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