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Stowaway’s journey puts runaway problem in spotlight

    Millions of juveniles run away from home every year. Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 carried one such runaway from San Jose, Calif., to Maui last week.

SAN JOSE, Calif. » The flight of 15-year-old Yahya Abdi from San Jose to Maui in a jetliner’s wheel well has captivated minds worldwide, in part because of its rarity: He is one of just 25 people known to have survived such a feat.

But through a different lens, he’s just one of 2.8 million.

That’s one estimate for the number of juveniles who will run away from home in the United States this year, according to the National Runaway Safeline, a Chicago- based nonprofit that connects runaway youth to services and, when possible, gets them on a bus back home.

"The means of his travel are unique, but running away is not," said executive director Maureen Blaha, referring to Yahya. "This case really helps shine a light on the runaway crisis in this country."

Addressing the problem is fraught with challenges, not least of which is getting a handle on its size: the National Runaway Safeline’s annual estimate of runaways under age 18 ranges widely — between 1.6 million and 2.8 million. And according to one study, most of them will travel across state lines.

There is no handy way of tallying runaways because they’re generally difficult to track. Running away is not a crime, but what the legal system calls a "status offense," akin to truancy or breaking curfew. Usually when a child runs away and the family files a missing-persons report, police or social service agencies don’t respond unless there are existing abuse allegations or suspicious circumstances.

The federal government has pushed counties to count homeless youth, and while there is some overlap with the runaway population, the two groups are far from synonymous.

"Part of the problem in terms of scope is that not all parents where an older child runs away reports it," said Stanley Lee, program manager for the Social Services Agency in Northern California’s Santa Clara County. "There’s an inconsistency of reporting, if it’s frequent."

That’s what happened with Yahya, whose parents didn’t report him missing before he turned up in Maui.

» Between 1.6 million and 2.8 million youths under 18 are estimated to run away from home yearly in the United States.
» 90 percent of runaways cross state lines.
» 47 percent of runaways cite family dynamics as their motivation.

Sources: National Runaway Safeline call data, third-party research

In Santa Clara County, where Yahya lives, the nonprofit Bill Wilson Center houses, provides services for or performs outreach to at least 2,500 runaways and homeless youth each year, but even that is believed to be only a modest portion of the number of runaways living in the area.

CEO Sparky Harlan said she was astounded by Yahya’s tale of survival, but in his story she saw a teen whose life resembles the teens she sees coming through the Wilson Center’s doors every week.

"I feel for that kid. I want him in here," Harlan said. "If he comes here, he can see a lot of kids just like him. Sometimes what they need is knowing they’re not the only ones going through this, and feel connected."

Blaha said Yahya’s case is fairly typical in that it appears to stem from discord with his family and home life. A relative told the San Jose Mercury News that the Santa Clara teen felt alienated from his father and stepfamily, with whom he immigrated to the United States four years ago. Yahya also struggled with the revelation that his mother, whom he thought had died in a rocket attack in Mogadishu, Somalia, was actually alive and trying to reconnect.

So between late April 19 and early April 20, the boy walked the 3 miles from his home to Mineta San Jose International Airport, hopped a perimeter fence and climbed into the left rear wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 at the start of the A terminal. The plane touched down in Maui 5 hours later and he popped out onto the tarmac, apparently unfazed by the lack of oxygen and the freezing temperatures.

Blaha said NRS research has found that just over 90 percent of juveniles who run away in the U.S. cross state lines. Some even get within striking distance of Yahya’s 2,350-mile trip: Blaha said one teen her organization helped made a 2,000-mile journey from Riverside, Calif., to Chicago.

"Adolescents are going to struggle," Blaha said. "We have to create a culture where we say, ‘We’re going to talk about it, and we’re going to work on it together.’"

But the reason organizations like hers and the Bill Wilson Center exist is because that kind of communication isn’t always practical, or possible. Harlan encourages parents and teens to turn to these resources so that if even conflict might lead to a child leaving home, it will be to somewhere safe.

Robert Salonga, San Jose Mercury News

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