The Other Missing Children: Those Fleeing Abusive and Neglectful Homes

Last week I wrote a column about the missing children who have run away from District of Columbia foster homes. Youth Services Insider estimated that foster youth account for about 10 percent of missing children reports and a larger fraction of the current pool of missing children in the District of Columbia.

But we must not forget that the majority of runaway youth are fleeing their own homes, not foster care. Many of these children are fleeing abusive or neglectful homes.

Federal data suggests that nationwide over 20 percent of the youths who run away or are thrown out of their homes reported being physically or sexually abused at home in the prior year or fearing abuse upon returning home. Many of these children have been betrayed by a system that failed to protect them, leaving running away as their only option.

Stacey Patton, whose new book I reviewed in my previous column, has a powerful new piece in the Washington Post entitled: “Want to keep black kids from running away from home? Stop hitting them.

In her column and her riveting memoir, That Mean Old Yesterday, Patton describes her own experience running away from her adoptive mother, who beat her with switches, belts, extension cords and anything else she could lay her hands on, leaving lifelong physical and emotional scars.

Corporal punishment, abuse and neglect are hardly problems confined to the black community. But Patton speaks specifically to black parents who argue that their children will go to jail if they are not “whupped,” an argument she conclusively demolishes in her book. 

While Patton is speaking to black parents and churches, I hope that all professionals who deal with families will heed her message as it applies to children of any color and ethnicity. Patton recommends more parent education on child development so that parents don’t have unrealistic expectations, as well as on non-violent discipline practices.

In addition to churches, pediatricians’ offices are a perfect place for such education. Pediatricians should be asking parents how they discipline their children, then providing them with research-based evidence on the consequences of, and alternatives to, corporal punishment.

But we need to remember that there are times when the abuse has deeper causes than false beliefs about corporal punishment.  I don’t think any additional education would have changed Patton’s adoptive mother’s sadistic disciplinary methods. Her extreme harshness likely stemmed from untreated mental illness to which past trauma was probably a contributor. This is not a kind of mental illness that could be erased by even a year of therapy ordered by a family court judge.

As Patton described in her memoir, she was almost sent home after her attempt to escape. She obtained a last minute reprieve when a psychiatrist finally understood the extent of the physical and mental damage and the climate of fear in which she had been living for most of her life.

The prevailing view in child welfare, over the last decade at least, has been that removal from home by CPS is a traumatic event that is almost never justified. When I went through training as a Child Protective Services caseworker at D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), one of the first things I was told is that I was not there to save children. Yet, being rescued from her violent home saved Stacey Patton.

I disagree with CFSA. Saving our children is what all child-serving professionals should be about. Of course we should save children from sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation. But as Patton tells us, let’s spare some concern for the much larger group of children who are not safe in their own homes.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.

1 Comment

  1. Marie K. Cohen wrote, “Many of these children have been betrayed by a system that failed to protect them, leaving running away as their only option.”

    I am curious to learn if “the system” is responsible for significant numbers of perfectly healthy American newborns who begin life with a perfectly healthy, clean human hard drive mounted above their shoulders…

    …maturing into depressed, angry, frustrated, sometimes violent teens and adults engaging in homicidal and suicidal behaviors that frequently harms or seriously impairs the Quality of Life for their peaceful neighbors and community?

    Is “the system” responisble for a significant population of selfish, immature, irresponsible, emotionally or mentally ill teen and adult American moms failing to recognize that placing ABOVE ALL ELSE the emotional well-being of America’s most precious and cherished assets will most likely result with fairly or wonderfully happy children maturing into reasonably responsible teen and adult citizens respecting themselves as well as their peaceful and/or less fortunate neighbors!

    How many of my American neighbors are familiar with the late popular American urban story-truth-teller Tupac Shakur’s (often misinterpreted) #T_H_U_G_L_I_F_E Child Abuse, Emotional Neglect, Abandonment and Maltreatment *AWARENESS* concept:

    “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fvvks Everyone” ~Tupac Shakur

    “We need more people who care; you know what I’m saying? We need more women, mothers, fathers, we need more of that…” ~Tupac Shakur

    #T_H_U_G_L_I_F_E, >>REMEDY>>> #A_F_R_E_C_A_N

    “America’s Firm Resolve to End Childhood Abuse and Neglect”

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