Alarm at teen runaway rate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 July, 1998, 12:00am

A youth social worker blames a communication breakdown between parents and children for the alarming increase in teenage runaways.

Peter Newbery, executive director of Youth Outreach, a charity organisation, said the number of troubled youngsters on the streets was growing.

Police statistics show 3,500 teenagers run away from home every year, but research by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups indicates that the figure could be more than 17,000.

Mr Newbery said the majority were aged between 12 and 14, with some as young as nine.

Most say they are neglected at home and have nobody with whom they can discuss their problems.

'These youngsters are not a bad lot,' Mr Newbery said.

'They just don't get the chance to speak to their parents.' The situation was worsened by the economic crisis which had forced them to work harder. This meant children spent a lot of time without supervision, he said.

Feeling ignored at home, the youngsters headed for the streets, often hanging out at 24-hour convenience stores, Mr Newbery said.

This is where Youth Outreach finds these 'night drifters'.

'Our social workers wait in the backstreets and parks from midnight until dawn,' Mr Newbery said.

'They approach potential runaways, and offer them food and shelter. Most are willing to go with them.' The youngsters are taken to the Youth Outreach centre in Chai Wan, where they receive counselling.

Although they can stay there for up to two months, they are encouraged to return home as soon as possible.

'There are certain rules. First, they need to co-operate and should enjoy living at the centre.

'We try to instil a sense of responsibility in them but we are not saviours. We can't expect every child to turn good,' Mr Newbery added.

He said 85 per cent of teenagers who passed through Youth Outreach returned home and went back to school.

The centre keeps in touch with them for eight months.

'If they behave well, we consider it to be a success,' Mr Newbery said.

Youth Outreach started in the late '80s with limited resources.

'The Land Development Department offered us an abandoned block,' he said.

'We started with a boys' home, but found we needed one for girls, too. At last I got a flat for the girls from the Hospital Authority.' Youth Outreach hopes to raise $1 million through a charity cycling event in Sha Tin in October.

'Youngsters from Taiwan, Macau and Xinhui will also take part,' Mr Newbery said.