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Runaway youth in a suburban community : a study of social policies affecting youthful home-leaving Aleguire, David


Running away from home is one of the few options available to many youths experiencing discontent in home and community. Somewhat like a family version of going out on strike, running away is one powerful action available to one of the less powerful family members in the ongoing family politics. The runaway action mobilizes a variety of social control and helping agencies into action, and may serve to bring to light personal and family problems which otherwise may remain obscured from view. Furthermore, running away serves as an implicit challenge to public policies legislating the dependency of minors . It is these youth policies which are examined in the present study. Substituting policy analysis for the more traditional approach to runaway research which focuses on individual and family pathology, the study asks: How is it that running away from home became criminalized when so many runaway youths appear to have legitimate reasons for running? The dissertation focuses on two historical "moments"—the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th century when running away from home became a juvenile crime, and the "counter-culture" era during the late 1960s and early 1970s when running away became partially decriminalized in North America. An ethnographic approach is employed to facilitate analysis of runaway actions throughout the community and to follow policy development over time. The study may be viewed as a contribution to a "political economy of adolescence" through its interest in the roles of modern young people in the labour market, as students and consumers, and as political entities with particular rights and constraints. In order to describe the workings of runaway youth policies in day-today family and agency practice, a two-part "macro-micro" organizational structure is employed. Part I examines the history and development of runaway youth legislation and other youth dependency policies. Age-grading practices, child labour reforms, the introduction of universal, cost-free public schooling, and the invention of the juvenile court are explored as key elements in the criminalization of youthful home-leaving. Runaway houses, crises lines, free food and medical programs for young transients and other innovative runaway services which arose during the counter-culture era are discussed as elements of a new advocacy approach which has led to partial decriminalization of the act of running away. Part II explores the effects of runaway youth policies on the lives and actions of runaways, parents, and agency workers in an upper-middle class Canadian community. Empirical data are provided from a two and one-half year ethnographic field study of runaway patterns in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, which is given the pseudonym "Bayside." Throughout the dissertation, the action of running away from home is viewed as a potentially constructive act and a constructive "statement"— aside from and in addition to whatever individual -and family pathology may be in evidence. One of the constructive implications of the runaway action is its implicit challenge to blind observance of youth dependency policies. The challenge of contemporary runaway youth migrations and of the counterculture runaway service reforms lead naturally to proposals for policy changes which would provide young people more autonomy and more potential productivity than that which is currently available.

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