Originally created 11/05/02

Teens often seek refuge by staying with friends



The fighting and yelling had become too much for 14-year-old Donna.

It seemed like she couldn't do anything right in her parents' eyes.

Frustrated and sick of the bickering, Donna reached a breaking point. "I fight like every week with my parents," she said. "My parents got into an argument, and I was in the middle of it like always. I told them I wasn't going to put up with it anymore."

But this time it was different. This time she'd had enough.

"The argument was about me and my step-mom and my sister being lazy and him (her father) not being lazy," she said. "It was pretty serious."

Instead of yelling back or giving her parents the silent treatment, Donna decided to do something more drastic - she left home and went to stay with a friend.

Teens such as Donna have earned the title of "couch kids" from police and child-welfare workers. The name comes from the place where these teens typically sleep when they're gone - the couch. But they are still runaways, according to Ron Sylvester, an investigator with the Richmond County Sheriff's Department.

But child welfare workers and police don't always get involved.

According to Judy Richards with the Columbia County Department of Family and Children Services, agencies like her's only get involved when there are allegations of abuse or neglect.

"Every case is different. We don't really keep statistics on those kinds of things, and I'm sure that there are plenty (of cases) that go unreported. Families do take care of themselves sometimes," she said.

"Typically, I think when people think of runaways, they think of someone who leaves home and goes elsewhere," Investigator Sylvester added.

But there are some differences between runaways and couch kids.

Runaways leave home and never look back. Couch kids generally don't go far, and they intend to return home in their own good time, as Donna did.

"I went home with a friend the next day and stayed there for a week," she said. "Let's just say I never had the guts to yell back or leave before, so I'm assuming it was pretty serious. My step-mom knew I was leaving (but) my dad didn't know until he came home from work and I was gone."

According to Investigator Sylvester, teens such as Donna make up the majority of the local problem with runaways.

"The ones we deal with most are the ones who think to themselves, 'I can go to this person's house and do what I want to do, where if I stay at home I have to follow the rules,"' he said. "Most stay away for a weekend, but some, like kids in foster care who have family in the area, can be gone for months."

Some parents report their absconding children to police. But there's not much anyone can do about it.

Typical punishments have failed, and parents who attempt to physically bring their teens back into the fold may find themselves charged with assault or accused of abuse by child welfare agencies.

When things go wrong for them at home, when discipline seems too onerous, chores too burdensome, schoolwork too boring, couch kids can escape by simply leaving home and living in the home of a friend or family member.

Police can charge couch kids if the parents make the call, Investigator Sylvester said.

"If they are under age 17 and leave and their parents report it, they can be charged as an unruly runaway juvenile," he said.

Some couch kids leave home for good reasons. They are physically, sexually or mentally abused by parents, step-parents, foster parents or even siblings. Some are mentally ill and simply unable to cope at home or school. And some are simply petulant. In cases of abuse or neglect, DFACS will conduct an investigation, Ms. Richards said.

For most, like Donna, returning home is about reaching an agreement with their parents.

Donna said that her relationship with her parents, who asked that neither they nor Donna be identified for this story, has gotten better since she returned.

"They said it makes them feel bad because they say it gives them a bad name because they upset me so much I had to leave," she said. "Things have gotten better, thank God. They don't yell at me anymore."

But the Augusta teen says it might not be the last time she leaves home.

"I'm sure if they get me upset enough, that yes, I would leave again," she said. "The girl I was staying with told her parents ... they said I was welcome anytime I needed to be away from home. I'm not really friends with that girl anymore, though."

Wire reports were used in this article.

Reach Jennifer Hilliard at (706) 823-3223 or jennifer.hilliard@augustachronicle.com.