Crisis spurs rise in teenage runaways

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 June, 1998, 12:00am

The number of teenage runaways is soaring as the financial crisis forces parents to spend more time at work, a charity group says.

More mainland children, who have entered Hong Kong legally, are also living on the streets, said Youth Outreach, a charity that works with runaways.

It estimates up to 30,000 children under the age of 16 run away from home each year, more than eight times the number reflected by police statistics.

Youth Outreach executive director, Peter Newbery, said his social workers, who patrol streets each night, had witnessed a rise in runaways unable to cope with home pressures.

'When there is an economic downturn most people do not reduce their lifestyles, they just work harder to keep where they are. There is no time left to spend with their kids,' Mr Newbery said.

'Family units are falling to pieces; they're in a desperate state. They are not bad people, they're just bad parents.

'We have to pick up the pieces, to get to the kids before the triads do.' Police figures show about 3,500 children under 16 are reported runaways each year, but Mr Newbery says the real figure is much higher.

'All those figures tell us is there are 3,500 sets of parents who are very concerned about their children. That is not the same as saying how many kids are on the streets.' He said more mainland children, unable to cope with their new lives in Hong Kong, were turning to the streets.

'They can't keep up in school, on the streets they get beaten up because they can't speak Cantonese. Many just can't cope with the change. We're picking up an increasing number out on the streets, which is very sad.' Mr Newbery said while the downturn had contributed to the crisis, a lack of family values and parental guidance was mainly to blame.

Research has shown the average father spends six minutes a day with his children and that between 70 and 80 per cent of parents had no idea where their children went after school.

'Our target group are marginal young people. We don't take in drug addicts or kids with a criminal record. They may have decamped to life on the streets but they are not yet imbedded in this delinquent, triad subculture,' he said.

Youth Outreach, which runs residential centres in Chai Wan and Sha Tin, claims an 85 per cent success rate based on young people returning to school, living at home and staying out of trouble.