WASHINGTON -- A nationwide study of runaway youths has found that more than a third had been in foster care in the year before they took to the streets.
Survey director Deborah Bass said that these findings were the "most disturbing" to emerge from a study of 170 shelters for runaways.
More than one out of five youths who arrive at a shelter in the '90s come directly from a foster or group home, with 38 percent nationally saying that they had been in foster care at some time during the previous year, the study found. The average age of runaways is 15.
And in a new phenomenon compared with past surveys, almost 11 percent of the youths said that they were homeless and living on the streets before coming to shelters.
As in previous studies, the ranks of the runaways include children born of prison inmates and victims of child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.
While their numbers may not necessarily be on the increase, their reasons for running away are more severe than ever before, and fewer are electing to go back home, according to the study by the National Association of Social Workers.
The study, conducted from January to April 1991, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the first of many now being done on runaways. The last major study, conducted by the department about a decade ago, estimated that 1 million youths run away from home each year.
"The study found that these youths are troubled -- they're not running away on a lark. They run away because of physical and sexual abuse at home," said Lucy Sanchez of the social workers' group.
Two-thirds of all runaways who seek shelter have been physically or sexually abused by a parent, according to the survey.
About one in four runaway youths in the survey had experienced violence by other family members. More than one-third of the runaways surveyed had an alcoholic parent. About a quarter came from homes where at least one parent abused drugs.
About 25 percent of the youths were in trouble with the justice system, and 25 percent admitted to being either alcohol abusers or drug abusers themselves.
More than 80 percent of the shelters reported that the problems faced by runaway youths have changed significantly over the last five years. The most frequently cited changes:
* More parental drug and alcohol abuse, and more substance abuse among the youths.
* More homeless families and long-term economic problems.
* More mental health and school-related problems.
"It used to be kids ran away from home because of conflict with parents. But today, runaways are coming from families that are dysfunctional," said a Health and Human Services Department official in Washington.
Only about half of the youths who run away go back home.
A report in the New York state Journal of Medicine in 1989 estimated that "conservatively speaking, there are about 200,000 [street youths] -- a subpopulation of the United States that is not even recognized to exist. They are not even counted among the population of the homeless."