Over the past two decades, there has been increasing recognition that runaway and homeless youth (RHY) constitute a vulnerable population that faces a multitude of problems while away from home and, often, difficulties of equal magnitude in the homes they have left. Many of these youth are thought to have been victimized by sexual abuse and to have left home as a means of escaping abusive families. Unfortunately, many of the physical and social environments that they then find for themselves increase the likelihood that they will engage in survival sex, substance use, and other risky behaviors. Although these behaviors are now well documented, relatively little is known about the scope and prevalence of sexual abuse among the families of origin of RHY, the extent to which such abuse may exceed that of comparable youth in the general population, and the role that sexual abuse plays in the youth’s decision to leave home.
To learn more about the extent of sexual abuse among the RHY population, recent reauthorization legislation for the Runaway and Homeless Youth programs required the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to conduct a study of a “representative sample of runaways to determine the percent who leave home because of sexual abuse.” The legislation further required the study to include information on “the relationship of the assaulter to the runaway.” To this end, the DHHS contracted with the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) to conduct a study entitled, “Sexual abuse experiences of runaway youth.”
The overall purpose of the study was to begin to delineate the scope of the problem, to stimulate further discussion, and to make recommendations concerning research and policy. To accomplish study goals, we conducted both an extensive literature review and secondary analyses of existing datasets. This report presents the results of each of these initiatives, synthesizes findings, and presents recommendations.