Runaways: How The Sixties Counterculture Shaped Today's Practices And Policies

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During the 1960s and 1970s, runaways became a source of national concern in America. Countercultural activists provided support to runaway youth, and private agencies began developing innovative, sometimes controversial programs to serve them. In this multilayered history, Karen M. Staller examines the programs and policies that took shape during this period and the ways in which the ideas of the alternative-services movement continue to guide our responses to at-risk youth.

Staller begins with the 1960s, when the mainstream media began to characterize the act of running away less as an opportunity for exciting adventure (as experienced by Huckleberry Finn) and more as a temptation with dangerous consequences. She then turns to the books, poems, broadsides, and songs produced by Beat writers and countercultural meccas like Haight Ashbury and New York City's East Village, which embraced runaways as kindred social revolutionaries. Adopting the ideology of the Beats, groups like the San Francisco-based Diggers established informal services utilized by runaway adolescents, including crash pads and helplines. Many of their ideas took root, and alternative providers began to bridge the gap between counterculture and mainstream institutions.

Staller concludes with an analysis of how the legislative desire to decriminalize running away, coupled with the judicial system's growing discomfort with policing the moral and civic education of youths, led to an increase in the number of troubled children appearing on the streets. It also prompted the enactment of federal runaway youth legislation, including the Runaway Youth Act of 1974, which endorsed the alternative-service community's model.

By looking at the history of runaways, Staller illuminates how the mainstream media and countercultural ideologies shaped the identity and perception of this social problem and how developments in service and social policy continue to evolve today.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Child and Family Social Work - Emilie Smeaton

Runaways offers an informative description of the history of service development and media construction of runaway youth in America.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231124102
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 6/27/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Staller, PhD, JD is Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on runaway and homeless youth and other at-risk adolescents. Her scholarly interests include the relationship between social problem construction and social policy, interdisciplinary legal-social work practice, and the history of social welfare institutions. She has practiced public interest law with low-income senior citizens and at-risk adolescents in New York City and was educated at Cornell Law School and Columbia University School of Social Work.

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt


How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped Today's Practices and Policies
By Karen M. Staller

Columbia University Press

Copyright © 2006 Karen M. Staller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-12410-4

Chapter One

Testing Freedom

On the Road to a Runaway Problem

You can't run away forever, but there's nothing wrong with getting a good head start ... -Meatloaf, Bat Out of Hell

Constructing a Social Problem: Runaways as Premature Autonomy Seekers

In 1977 the circumstances of Veronica Brunson's life and death came to public attention, in part, through a front-page story in the New York Times. The headline was an attention-grabber: "Veronica's Short, Sad Life-Prostitution at 11, Death at 12." The facts seemed particularly horrendous. Among other things, this pint-sized, preteen waif had missed 121 out of 180 days of school, had been arrested a dozen times on prostitution-related charges in less than a year, and had run away from home so many times that her mother stopped reporting her missing to the police until compelled to do so by outside authorities. Six public and private agencies (including the juvenile court and social services providers) were "partly aware" of her troubles. Brunson fell (or was pushed) to herdemise from the tenth-floor window of a sleazy Times Square hotel frequented by prostitutes. She lingered for four days, unconscious and unclaimed by family, in a hospitable bed before dying. The New York Times reported Brunson's case as illustrating the "problems and dangers confronting thousands of runaway girls and boys who turn to prostitution to survive alone on the streets of New York."

In stark contrast, nearly two decades earlier, readers of the same daily newspaper may have been amused by the front-page story of the antics of a 13-year-old boy named Dean Siering. Dean left his Long Island home early one morning in 1960 and made his way (by bike, train, and taxi) to the airport. There he told a United Air Lines representative a tall tale that involved a mother who had dropped him off at the curb and driven away, and a maiden aunt, "Miss Amelia Ralph," who was purportedly eagerly awaiting his arrival at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He indicated that he was in a big hurry because he needed to get back to Chicago in time to attend school. When asked to produce a ticket, he said he had accidentally lost it, and cried for dramatic effect. None of this was true. Nonetheless, he had created a compelling story. After all, he had cast himself in the role of responsible schoolboy, and his fabrication included being supervised, more or less, by family members at either end of the trip. Dean's story managed to shift the burden of rectifying his problem onto an unwary airline agent. In a distant and much more innocent era, ticketless, unsupervised 13-year-old Dean Siering was permitted to board the plane alone and fly off to Chicago.

In Dean's mind Chicago was just a way station. His real plan was to continue on to California because, as he later told reporters, "it's a nice state." He had second thoughts after reaching Chicago. As airline officials frantically paged Miss Amelia Ralph, to no avail, Dean slipped out and boarded a train (as a stowaway) and headed back to New York State. He got as far as Buffalo before tiring of life on the run and essentially turned himself in. For safekeeping, two detectives temporarily deposited Dean in Erie County Detention until his mother could retrieve him; nonetheless, he confidently asserted to reporters that he "did not expect to be punished" for his behavior.

To the casual reader the cases of Dean and Veronica may appear unrelated because they differ so dramatically in basic facts and final outcomes, yet they do have three crucial characteristics in common. First, both children took matters into their own hands and left home without asking permission from their caretakers. Second, during their absence from home both made a series of decisions about their lives without the help or guidance of adults. Third, they did so at an age (below 13) when autonomous decision-making of this variety is generally frowned upon. In short, they asserted independence (to a greater or lesser degree) at an age that most of us would characterize as premature.

Of course their behavior also differed in several critical respects. Dean traveled a great distance; Veronica stayed close to home (at least geographically). Dean was gone a couple of days, Veronica for a long period of time. Dean appears to have been running toward an attraction of interest (California) while Veronica may have been avoiding school and family. As far as we know, Dean ran away once; Veronica left home so many times she was essentially homeless. Dean needed no help with basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) while Veronica turned to prostitution for "survival." Veronica's lifestyle was firmly entrenched with a "street" subculture; Dean's was not. Dean's story ended safely, Veronica's did not. Although both Dean and Veronica share the fact that they asserted premature independence, the strength of that assertion might be measured in various ways including distance traveled, time away, number of runaway episodes, reasons for leaving home, survival strategies employed while away, and level of family concern.

Runaway youth such as Dean and Veronica have both entertained and perplexed us for as long as children have laid claim to freedom without asking permission. For people in the business of labeling, characterizing, describing, helping, disciplining, and controlling such children-including parents, service providers, and policymakers-Dean's and Veronica's cases illustrate a basic nomenclature-related dilemma. Among other things, their situations involve deciding whether their behavior is similar enough to be called the same thing or, alternatively, so different that they warrant two distinct descriptive labels. If the latter is the case, another set of problems arises; where do we draw the line between the two such that we can distinguish one from the other, and based on what criteria (time, distance, parental rejection)?

In 1977 the New York Times referred to Veronica's case as typical, or illustrative, of "thousands of runaway boys and girls." In doing so, the journalist applied the label "runaway" to an entire population of youth who possessed characteristics shared with Veronica, foremost among them that they had turned to "prostitution" for "survival." In today's parlance, service providers, researchers, and legislators would more likely refer to Veronica as a "street youth," a "throwaway youth," or call her "homeless." On the other hand, today the label "runaway" would likely be used to describe Dean's flamboyant but short-lived, episode. Interestingly, in 1960 during two days of reports on Dean, the New York Times never characterized his behavior as running away nor labeled him a "runaway." At the risk of appearing prematurely to place too much evidentiary weight on the presence or absence of a word or two, the use of "runaway" in 1977-and its absence in 1960-reflects some basic social sensibilities typical of the discourse in their respective decades.

Over the last two hundred years or so, social scientists, reformers, jurists, legislators, and the like have experimented with many labels for these kinds of independent children. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, they were called waifs, orphans, half-orphans, temporarily homeless, outcasts, maladjusted, destitute, indigent, wayward, wanderers, street Arabs, incorrigibles, street vendors, newsies, little laborers, morally depraved, fallen, and friendless. In more recent decades, starting in the 1980s and 1990s, we have talked about them as throwaways, castaways, shoveouts, homeless, and street kids. However, in the 1970s, as the rhetorical dust settled in the aftermath of the hippies, yippies, freaks, and flower children of the 1960s, we temporarily endorsed, with renewed vigor, a new old label: runaways.


Excerpted from Runaways by Karen M. Staller Copyright © 2006 by Karen M. Staller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

AcknowledgmentsForeword: A Personal Journey to Some Research Questions1. Testing Freedom: On the Road to a Runaway ProblemPart I: Constructing Runaway Youth2. Media Myth Spinning: From Runaway Adventurers to Street Survivors (1960-1978)3. Spinning Myths from Runaway Lives: A Hip Beat Version of Dropping OutPart II: Psychedelic Social Workers and Alternative Services4. Digger Free: Power in Autonomy, Independence in a Free City Network (1966-1968)5. The Grassroots Rise of Alternative Runaway Services (1967-1974)Part III: Policy and "Runaway" Youth6. Shifting Institutional Structures: From Moral Guidance to Autonomous Denizens (1960-1978)7. Legitimization Through Legislation-The Runaway Youth Act: National Attention to the Runaway Problem (1971-1974)Part IV: Conclusions: Where We've Been, Where We're Going, What We've Learned8. National Extensions-Problem, Services, and Policy (1974-)9. Closing Note: Lessons Learned and Conveyed Appendix 1: Runaway Youth Act (Senate Version, S. 2829: the Bayh/Cook Bill)Appendix 2: Runaway Youth Act (House Version, H. 9298)Appendix 3: The Runaway Youth Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-415)NotesSelected BibliographyIndex

Columbia University Press

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