by David Sisler

Christine slipped out of her house before the sun came up. She took less than $150, two cans of soda, six cans of tuna fish, a jar of peanut butter, her diary, some clothes, a pocket knife and a photo of her eight-year-old sister. She carried her treasures in the book bag which just a few days before had held her school books. She spent half her money for a bus ride out of town.

When her money ran out Christine turned to prostitution. Most kids on the streets do. But she was dirty and her clothes were dirty and no man was interested in her. She washed in the rest room of a fast food restaurant, cut the legs off of her only other pair of blue jeans and went back on the street.

That evening a man picked her up, took her to a motel room, and took off his pants. When she started crying, the man dressed and left, dropping a few dollars onto the nightstand. Four days later she turned her first trick, earning $60. The next night she scored twice.

"It's better than living at home," she said.

Christine is 14.

Every year more than a million teenagers run away, not because they want to, but because they have to -- the streets are safer than home. They were kicked, slapped, or thrown around. Their heads were banged on a wall or floor. They were denied food, clothes or access to medical attention. They were threatened with weapons and assaulted with weapons, intentionally burned, punched, tied up, and held under water. And don't forget the sexual assaults -- the kids won't.

813,057 victims of sustained maltreatment were reported in 1994 (the last year for which figures are available) to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. 112,227 were less than one year old. 208,183 were between two and five. Fully two-thirds of the victims were not yet ten years old. 53.3 percent were females. 55.5 percent were white, 26.6 percent were black.

Typically young people endure the abuse between four and six years before they runaway. If they make it out of the home alive.

Angela MacEwan was sentenced to life without parole for murdering Sidney, her disabled, two and a half year old daughter. Prosecutors said MacEwan poured an overdose of cold medicine through a feeding tube in her baby's stomach in order to "get back" at her unfaithful boyfriend.

Awilda Lopez forced her daughter, Elisa, to eat her own feces and used her head to mop the floor. Elisa was violated with a toothbrush and a hairbrush. Two months before her seventh birthday the little girl lay in a small, white casket. Awilda smashed Elisa to death, battering her head against a cement wall.

Tara is the pseudonym which appears on court documents. Eight years old, she was discovered fondling herself. To discipline her, Elman and Anna Gradiz, the girl's foster parents doused her with buckets of scalding water and smeared chili pepper into the her genitals. Tara will recover. Physically.

Nancy Kanter, Tara's legal advocate said, "There were red flags up all over the place. How come nobody saw them?"

Over the six years of her life, authorities in Brooklyn had been notified about Elisa's torture eight times.

Isolated incidents? Hardly.

A father plead not guilt to strangling his daughter -- on her third birthday.

Another father was arrested on suspicion of beating his four-month-old daughter to death.

A mother abandoned her ten-month-old son on a freeway.

A mother and grandmother plead guilty in the starvation death of a ten-month-old boy.

The survivors, in increasing numbers, are running away from home, not because they want to but because they have to -- even the streets are safer than what they are escaping. They cling to one another for comfort and acceptance.

Living on the streets, runaways are the most vulnerable to the scourges which kill America's teens: alcoholism, drugs, AIDS, homicide. They survive by stealing, panhandling and selling themselves. Abused by their fathers at home, they find new sugar daddies on the streets who will pay them for what they were once forced to give for free. They are dirty, offensive and to many people, a nuisance.

"You've got to look beyond the drugs and the prostitution and see that these are just kids, kids who should be taking driver's ed right now or worrying about which corsage to wear," says Steve LePore, executive director of My Friend's Place in L.A., a shelter for runaways.

"I had such beautiful long blond hair," a girl says -- she is 13 going on 30. Now her hair is cut short and tinged with purple dye. She wears a white T shirt on which she has written a message to the tourists she panhandles: "I'd rather hear ‘no' than nothing at all."

Look in their eyes. These are children who just want to come home. And to know that once they are back, the hurting will stop. Is that too much to ask?


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 4/27/96

Copyright 1996 by David Sisler

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