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'Couch kid' teens leave their homes and parents to hang out with friends and relatives, sleeping on the sofa

Juvenile Court Journal / One of a series

Sunday, June 09, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On one of those warm, sunny afternoons in May when students gaze longingly out school windows, ninth-grader Amanda Miller played in the grass with a pit bull puppy she'd rescued from its rejecting mother and tried to decide whether to go home to her own mother. She'd been gone for a week and a half this time, a relatively short foray compared with the two to six week flights from home she'd made in the past.

Amanda Miller, 15, , sits in a Beechview yard playing with a pit bull puppy, a runt that she agreed to nurture. Amanda, who has been away without leave from home for a week and a half, is considering going back on this warm afternoon in May. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

The way Amanda saw it, she was as forsaken as her puppy. "We argue about everything," Amanda said of her mother. "She doesn't like me, and I don't like her." So, two years ago, at the age of 13, Amanda joined the "couch kid" underground.

Couch kids walk out of their parents' homes and hang out in those of friends, relatives and acquaintances. The name, used commonly by police and child welfare workers, comes from the place where these teens typically sleep when they're gone -- the couch.

They stay until they wear out their welcome. Then they either move on or return home.

"You go from couch to couch to couch," said Kathleen Rollins, a director at Three Rivers Youth, which operates shelters for such footloose youngsters. "They stay around two weeks until the friend's parent says it is time to go. Then they move to someone else's couch. Not all parents even ask why the kid is there."

Couch kids are different from runaways, who leave home for Los Angeles or Miami and never look back. Couch kids are walkaways. They don't go far, and they intend to return home in their own good time. Some, like Amanda, retain a cell phone umbilical cord to call home when they like, and to reject calls from home that they don't like, with the help of caller ID.

Some, but not all parents, report their absconding children to police. The Pittsburgh Police receive 2,000 missing person reports a year, and estimate that all but a couple hundred of those are children. They don't know how many are repeat reports on the same child. Amanda, for example, would be the subject of a dozen reports over the past two years. And that wasn't every time she left.

These are adolescents, some as young as 12, who have discovered they possess an awesome power. When things go wrong, when discipline seems too onerous, chores too burdensome, schoolwork too boring, they can escape by simply leaving home and living in the couch kid network.

And, frankly, there's not much anyone can do about it.

Typical punishments have failed, and parents who attempt to physically bring their teens back into the fold may find themselves criminally charged with assault or accused of abuse by child welfare agencies.

As Amanda contemplates her options, her mother, Catherine Mitchell, sits in the front yard of her Crafton Heights home, cuddling her dog Michael, who is the same age as Amanda, and wondering where her daughter will spend the night. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Police can't charge couch kids because leaving home is not a crime. They can, and do, turn over captured couch kids to the Allegheny County Office of Children Youth and Families, which may place youngsters in foster or group homes but doesn't have the authority to lock them in because they haven't committed crimes. That means the teens may, and many times do, simply walk way from their new CYF-arranged homes. At any given time 30 will be gone. Some return after a weekend spree. Others are missing for years.

A mother's fear

Amanda has left home so many times that her mother, Catherine Mitchell, can't remember the circumstances of the first time she fled. But every time Amanda's gone, Mitchell suffers.

"When she is away from home, I do nothing but fear she is dead or raped or something. She has me a wreck," said Mitchell, 37, a janitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools who has two other daughters, one older, one younger. The older one lives with another relative, but neither share Amanda's penchant for abandoning home.

At first, Mitchell searched for her daughter herself, calling and visiting every friend and relative. She didn't think her child qualified as a missing person.

But Pittsburgh police Sgt. Janet Morrissey, who supervises the missing persons unit, says couch kids are missing persons, and she encourages parents to call immediately. They don't have to wait 24 hours.

"We want to intervene before it is too late," Morrissey explained. If a parent delays calling until after the sixth or seventh time a child has left, attempts at intervention are less successful, Morrissey says. A 12- or 14-year-old might be turned around, but an older youth who has managed to live comfortably as a couch kid repeatedly will be less likely to listen to attempts at persuasion by the police, counselors or a judge.

Morrissey says quick action also is important because couch kids are in danger. "People take advantage of them because they are naive. Young girls are talked into going someplace and staying with a male overnight. People tend to be not so concerned about it when it is a teen male. But young males can be victims, too."

What the police typically do is petition a juvenile court judge to declare the couch kid to be dependent, which means the court takes custody. Then, if the child walks out again, the judge will issue an attachment, which is like a warrant. If the child returns home, the parent can call the police, who'll take him straight to CYF.

A judge may then place the child in a group home out of the county, where he's less likely to walk away into unfamiliar surroundings. And the judge may order CYF to provide counseling for the parent and child so that at some point they may be reunited without the youngster leaving again.

Some of these youths leave home for good reason. They are physically, sexually or mentally abused by parents, step-parents, foster parents or even siblings. Some are mentally ill and simply unable to cope at home or school. And some are simply petulant.

"Most teen-agers think they know everything," Morrissey said. "So when the detective brings them in, they may run again. The detective may try to talk to them, but since they know everything, they do not have to listen to that."

Mitchell says she tries to get Amanda to listen, thus their bitter arguments. Still, she loves her daughter dearly. If she didn't care whether Amanda went to school or behaved appropriately, she wouldn't bother quarreling with her. She tried taking Amanda to counselors, but stopped when her daughter simply ridiculed them. "I don't know where to turn, what to do," she said. "Nothing really works. She is my child. I should straighten her out, not the system. But I don't know what to do."

The court steps in

Eventually Mitchell did go to the police. They decided to seek dependency last fall. She finally got a hearing before Common Pleas Judge Bob Colville Jr. in juvenile court in May.

 
 
Juvenile Court Journal

Previous reports in the series

   
 

Colville had only one other couch kid among his 13 cases that day. But two days earlier, on May 6, Cheryl Allen, the supervising judge for juvenile court, had five among her 16 cases. That is a fairly typical number.

The five included a 17-year-old who'd walked out of a group home. Allen issued an attachment order for him, which means that if the police happen across him, either for committing a crime or for truancy, then Allen's court order will direct them to deliver him to CYF. The agency may then place him back in a group home from which he can simply walk away again.

The police and sheriff's deputies do not routinely send out search parties seeking teens for whom there are attachments, though they will look if they have a good idea where the child is. In one case, however, Eugene F. Scanlon Jr., supervising judge of the Family Division, specifically asked the sheriff's office to search for a 17-year-old Wilkinsburg girl because her mother, in tears, had told him that the girl had been missing for more than a year. That was a month ago, and deputies still haven't brought her in. How do they track a nomad who wanders from couch to couch?

Also on Judge Allen's court list that day in May was a 16-year-old from Wilkinsburg who had walked away from a group home, then walked back in a week later. Allen warned the girl she couldn't treat the home like a hotel, checking in and out on a whim.

For many teens, that warning means nothing. For this one, it was significant because Allen had something to hold over the girl's head -- visits with her infant son who is in foster care.

"I want to place your son with you," Allen told her. "But I am not going to do that if you keep running. ... If you want to keep your child, then you need to settle down."

The girl just shook her head at the judge as she walked out of the courtroom. The next, a 14-year-old, glared at Allen and banged her hand on the attorney's table as the judge took a step to ensure the girl wouldn't run from home and use drugs and alcohol to the point of unconsciousness again.

Because the girl also had been criminally charged with shoplifting, Allen was able to hold her at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. Normally a child charged with a crime as minor as shoplifting would not be confined in what is essentially a juvenile jail, but Allen made it clear that this was the only way she felt she could prevent the girl from walking away again while the system was trying to help her.

Allen's two other couch kids that day were 13- and 16-year-old girls who would just leave home when they felt like it, and return fairly quickly, within a day or so, but refuse to tell parents where they'd been.

In Amanda's case, she even balked at telling Judge Colville where she had been when he demanded the answer with all of his black-robed authority in court.

"Where do you run to?" he demanded.

"Friends' houses," Amanda replied.

"Which ones?" the judge pressed.

"I went to a lot of places."

"Where?" the judge repeated.

"I can't remember," Amanda said.

"Have you ever been to a shelter? Do you want to go? I want to know where you have been going," the judge said.

"To my friends'," Amanda repeated.

Exasperated, Colville finally warned her, "Let's make this simple: You can't run so far we can't find you. ... You run again, you leave your mother's home one night or fail to go to school, and I will put you in shelter in Erie County." It would be a 30-day stay, he told her.

Amanda left with her mother that Wednesday. They went home, and Amanda got up for school Thursday. She guesses it was her 30th day in class that year, considering the days she skipped while living at home and the days she skipped while using her school-issued bus pass to travel from one friend's couch to the next.

That evening, she left home again.

As summer comes calling

Over the next several weeks, she said she stayed with friends, including her boyfriend "Butter," who gives her money, and with relatives, who also keep her in cash and pay her cell phone bills.

The relatives say they don't think it's safe for her to be out in the world without money or a phone. They worry about where her next meal will come from. Her mother fears what the child must fork over in return for it.

A couple of times in the past month, Amanda returned to her home in Crafton Heights, where a red, white and blue wooden angel announces, "Welcome" at the front door. "She gets all apologetic and 'I love you,' when she wants to come home," her mother explained.

But then she just leaves again. Late in May, her CYF caseworker finally realized she wasn't in school and got Colville to issue an attachment for her.

The caseworker then told Mitchell that if Amanda returned home, she must call the police to pick her up and deliver her to CYF. Mitchell didn't need the prodding because she hoped CYF could fix the problems.

"I am not asking for magic. I am just asking for a little help," she said. "I want her to go to school and come home and sleep in her own bed."

On that day late in May when Amanda was playing with the puppy in the grass, she knew her mother would call the police if she went home because they'd just talked on Amanda's cell phone. Amanda wanted to go home, but she knew if she did, Colville would send her away for 30 days. In addition, her mother had told her she couldn't bring the puppy into a household that already had three dogs.

So, she put the puppy in its tiny carrier, got her purse and left with a young man. Before they drove away, she explained, "I am not going to spend my whole summer in a group home. Are you crazy?"

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