Always on the run

Jess Harris and daughter Skye Marie Anne Harris.
Jess Harris and daughter Skye Marie Anne Harris.

Yesterday the Herald lifted the lid on the problem of teenage runaways in South Canterbury. Today Megan Miller speaks to a young woman who ran away many times.

Jess Harris lived in 33 homes in less than four years and disappeared from every one of them.

The Timaru woman, now 18, went into the care of Child, Youth and Family when she was 12 years old, after concerns were raised about her mother's then-partner. She began running away at about age 14.

GEOFF MCCROSTIE: "The average person wouldn't have any idea that this goes on."
GEOFF MCCROSTIE: "The average person wouldn't have any idea that this goes on."

Ninety-nine per cent of the time, Jess said, she ran away to go back home.

"I'd show up and mum would have to call CYFs and take me back," she said.

Her mother, Susie Parkes, said she'd normally allow Jess to stay one night before returning her to her placement home the next day.

Simon Coventry
Simon Coventry

"She knew that I'd have to," Ms Parkes said. "It's heartbreaking, knowing that you've got to take her back."

At least one child goes missing in South Canterbury nearly every week, Timaru community services police say. In most cases, like Jess's, they are teenage runaways who vanish from caregiver homes for a night, a week, or even weeks at a time.

Frequently, the children go to visit family. But it is a crime for anyone, including family members, to harbour a runaway child who is under CYF care.

"The kids do want to be at home, but it's been decided home's not really a good place for them," Timaru police Sergeant Geoff McCrostie said. "They don't want to be with caregivers."

Jess speaks frankly about her difficult past. About the time she ran away from a caregiver's home in Christchurch and wandered the city all night with an older boy.

Or the time she and another girl ran away and were picked up by two men who got her drunk on homebrew. The police later found her, naked, at Jackson Point.

"I woke up in the cells with the worst hangover ever," she said.

It's another element of the complex issue of chronic runaways, Mr McCrostie said - teenagers behaving like teenagers.

"They disappear, they go missing, because they want to be with some mates where they think there's going to be a bit of fun," he said. "They have too much time on their hands . . . so they're looking for a bit of excitement in other ways."

When she was about 15 years old, Jess said she went through a period of drinking "seven days a week".

"We'd go out, get drunk, just be idiots," she said. "We'd just do what we wanted to do, really."

Peers play a huge role in influencing other teens' actions, and that can include running away and other risky behaviours, said Simon Coventry, CYF's Mid and South Canterbury youth justice manager. But the reasons teens become chronic runaways are very complex, and often have deep roots.

"They might make a mistake or get into minor trouble, and it's not the end of the world, but they don't realise that," he said. "Sometimes it's their history of how they manage stuff in life. They carry on running."

Those teens tend to be very street-smart, Mr McCrostie said. But the methods they use to travel and acquire necessities like food and shelter can be very dangerous, sometimes illegal.

They hitchhike, alone. Many have been caught stealing. They abuse drugs and alcohol. They engage in risky sexual activity. Some, particularly girls, go home with strange men, or outright prostitute themselves. Some have been raped.

"It's really scary what might happen to these kids," Mr Coventry said. "They're out and about, and not in the best places."

As of December 31, 131 young children and teens were in CYF care placements in South Canterbury. That figure includes Ashburton placements.

Of those, only a fraction could be considered habitual runaways, Mr Coventry said. But those children presented some of the greatest challenges for CYF staff, police and caregivers.

"Across the regions it's very hard to find placements for very difficult kids," he said. "They burn out caregivers. Then those caregivers get shy on taking other teenagers. So you get that vicious cycle.

"There are some very difficult kids out there that we deal with, and there's a whole host of problems those kids have."

Jess said that, in her case, the acting out didn't stop at running away.

She recalled instances when she was violent toward other children. She remembered setting fires, once to a truck at one of her home placements, and another time to a caregiver's house.

"I thought if other caregivers heard that I did that, they wouldn't want me," she said. "Then they'd have no choice but to bring me back home."

Eventually she was sent to live in a secure facility - a "Care and Protection lockup", as she called it.

CYF tries to help children within their own home environments whenever possible, Mr Coventry said. Especially with teens, that's often the best approach.

"Bringing them into care doesn't actually achieve much unless their home is really unsafe," he said. "You need to try to work with what's there, because those kids will go back there.

"That's their family. Even if it's not the best place to be, that's where they want to be."

Jess left CYF care at age 17 and returned to her mother's house, where she lives with her baby daughter, Skye.

She's now thinking of going back to finish school with the help of Timaru Girls' High School's teen parent unit. She said she's lost a lot of the anger that she felt just a few years ago.

"I've been through hell and back," she said. "But I've got my wee girl to think about now, and she's changed my life right around. I'm proud of that."

The Timaru Herald